Two green-minded people have stepped into important positions in the new administration, tasked with taking charge of environmental matters. Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing and undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai have both worked on green issues, in the private sector and in non-governmental organisations respectively, before joining the government.
Both want to pick up what was left undone or idle by the former administration to improve Hong Kong's environment. This gives hope to the public that the two will be more aggressive than their predecessors in pushing for change. Let's hope they lead us, through innovative policies and plans, to cut waste at source; reduce and reuse food waste; change our fuel mix for electricity generation to one that is cleaner; and cut carbon emissions from local and overseas vessels.
Encouragingly, for starters the government is now considering phasing out commercial diesel vehicles once they reach the age of 15, to tackle our health-threatening roadside pollution.
Both Wong and Loh appear to have vision and are eager to engage with stakeholders from various sectors. But they have a tough challenge: they will find it far easier to persuade the public to buy into some new policies than to garner the necessary support for these policies from the other bureaus, including the ones that look after transport, buildings, planning and the like.
Take roadside pollution, for example.
Chief Executive Leung Chung-ying told the Legislative Council on Wednesday that the government is concerned about the health impact of harmful emissions from vehicles and ships. He will need to break through the bureaucracy's silo mentality to facilitate the collaboration necessary to solve this problem.
Roadside air pollution comes mainly from old and poorly maintained vehicles, especially commercial diesel vehicles, including franchised buses. At a recent function, Wong outlined the profile of Hong Kong's commercial diesel vehicles. Many were shocked to learn that 15 per cent of commercial diesel vehicles on our roads do not meet even the most primitive of European emissions standards; 11 per cent meet only the Euro I standards; and 20 per cent meet Euro II standards. That is almost half of the total diesel fleet in Hong Kong. The benchmark today for imported vehicles is Euro V.
The government has launched several subsidy schemes since 2007 to encourage owners of commercial diesel vehicles to scrap their old vehicles - of pre-Euro, Euro I and Euro II standards - in exchange for new ones with the most stringent emissions standards.
But because these were voluntary schemes, the take-up rate was low. It could be said that the government ended up saving a lot of money, but unfortunately it is spending it all on treating patients with respiratory illnesses.
Does the government understand the benefits of a simple reallocation of funds? If it were to spend its money on reducing harmful emissions, it would not need to spend millions of dollars on health care related to air pollution.
Old vehicles emit very high levels of pollutants. Diesel vehicles of Euro I standard, for example, emit four times the nitrogen oxide levels and over 14 times the levels of particulate matter of Euro V vehicles.
In July, Friends of the Earth (HK) measured the fine particles inside Hong Kong buses in various districts and found that the average hourly concentration reached 53.11 micrograms per cubic metre. That is more than twice the level of the 25 micrograms per cubic metre set by the World Health Organisation.
These PM2.5 particles - or particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter - are very harmful, as they can easily enter our lungs and even the bloodstream. The previous administration included PM2.5 in our proposed new air quality objectives, but set the level at the lowest WHO interim target of 75 micrograms per cubic metre. Medical experts have questioned our government about such a lax standard, which can in no way seriously protect public health. Yet, this was ignored by the Donald Tsang Yam-kuen administration, which also delayed making the revised air quality objectives the new legal standard until at least 2014.
Governments the world over should strive to safeguard public health. I believe our new chief executive and the two officials now heading the Environment Bureau have a strong desire to clean up Hong Kong's filthy air, to create a healthier environment for all citizens and wash away the city's infamous reputation for polluted air, something that is reported frequently by the international media.
To demonstrate its commitment, the government needs to set stringent standards for Hong Kong that are closer to the WHO guidelines; set a time frame to phase out all polluting vehicles with emissions standards of Euro II and below; mandate vehicle labelling, coupled with low-emission zones in highly populated areas; and rationalise bus routes.
Hong Kong must not delay in achieving high standards of air quality. Already, over 3,000 avoidable deaths each year are attributed to our bad air, according to the Hedley Environmental Index which tracks pollution's harm to our health.
Life is precious. By acting now, the government will win the support of green groups and many individuals.
Edwin Lau Che-feng is director general, affairs, at Friends of the Earth (HK). www.foe.org.hk