"I have been a lorry driver for my entire life and exposed to all sorts of fumes coming out of the exhaust. See how healthy I still am; I have no cancer or other health complaints. Show me the proof of how diesel exhaust fumes are causing cancer! Why are we being targeted?"
This is the view shared by many professional drivers, and exactly the sentiment of those representing various transport associations and transport workers' unions, who turned up at a recent bills committee meeting on the Air Pollution Control (Amendment) Bill 2013. The meeting was called primarily to collect views about the new air quality objectives, which are expected to take effect from January 1. The transport trade has been taking every opportunity to reiterate their concerns over the scheme to replace diesel commercial vehicles, and the prospect of losing their jobs because of it.
People may sympathise with the owner-drivers, who worry that they may not be able to afford a new, cleaner vehicle, even with a government subsidy. This means they could be out of business once their vehicles have to be deregistered.
Yet, from a broader perspective, few may agree with the trade because it is scientific fact that exposure to air pollutants pose a serious risk to human health. It affects everyone. Healthy adults may be less susceptible to the effects of air pollution, but children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with existing heart and respiratory illnesses are extremely vulnerable.
In other words, as much as one must pay attention to the transport trade's worry about the threat to livelihood, members of the trade also cannot dismiss the science and the social costs of air pollution to which they contribute as polluters on the one hand, and pay for as collective members of society on the other.
So let's not frame these disagreements as clean air versus jobs. There is no winner here, as everyone will suffer in the end because of bad air, health-wise and in economic terms. We should look at it as a win-win opportunity. If air pollution is reduced, society will benefit as clean air will reduce the health bill, increase productivity, improve Hong Kong's long-term competitiveness, and create new jobs.
So often in the past, the government has backed down in the face of opposition pressure. Policymakers want a consensus and if they do not get it, they would rather go back to the drawing board. There have been so many missed opportunities over the years, and they have proved very costly. Hong Kong has been paying a huge price for not acting swiftly enough to cut air pollution. We must not continue to make this mistake.
We need the government to stand firmly by its plans. Hong Kong must deliver clean air to everyone for health reasons. In that process, we may need to plan our city or run our business differently. As a result, some people may be affected, but it is being done for the greater good of society. It is up to the government to decide how the affected parties will be compensated, but it must be done at a reasonable level and in a transparent manner.
We must clean up our air now. The delay is killing us.
Simon Ng is head of transport and sustainability research at Civic Exchange