Greater incentives are now being offered by the government as part of a revised HK$11.7 billion package designed to force 85,000 polluting diesel commercial vehicles off the road by 2020.
The package, which officials said was in the best interests of the public, was generally welcomed by the transport trades. However, it came under fire from clean air advocates unhappy with the Environment Bureau.
"This is in the best public interest as the longer it drags on, the more people will suffer from the pollution. Our primary aim is to ensure that that scheme can secure support from the lawmakers and the trade, and be implemented," said one environment official.
The scheme, along with a proposal to limit operating life of new diesel vehicles at 15 years, will require endorsement from the environmental affairs panel next week, before a funding request is filed. Officials hope it can be rolled out in the first quarter of next year at the earliest.
The new package will cost HK$3 billion more than the original estimate of HK$8.7 billion - though up to HK$10 billion had been earmarked by the Financial Secretary. The compensation will be boosted from 10-33 per cent of new vehicle replacement costs to 27-33 per cent.
Owners will be entitled to the same payment whether or not they buy a new vehicle. They could also use the subsidy to buy a used vehicle. The 19,000 most polluting pre-Euro diesel vehicles, which are at least 18 years old, will be removed as scheduled before 2016. About 64,000 vehicles, of Euro I, II and III emission standards, will have their deadlines extended by one year to 2017, 2018 and 2020.
But green groups were disappointed. "If we follow the carrot and stick principle, it is reasonable for the public to expect that public health will be adequately protected with the HK$11.7 billion taxpayers' money spent," said Melonie Chau Yuet-cheung, from Friends of the Earth.
Kwong Sum-yin, from the Clean Air Network, accused the bureau of "giving up its bottom line".
The government estimates that removing dirty diesel vehicles could reduce roadside particles by 80 per cent, and cut cancer risks by 50 per cent. The World Health Organisation says diesel emissions are carcinogenic.
Wong Kam-sing, Secretary for the Environment, was "cautiously optimistic" that the revised scheme would be accepted.
"We hope the air quality in Hong Kong by 2020 will meet the new and more stringent standards that will be in effect next year," he said.
Yuen Cheung-fung, deputy secretary for rights and interests with the Motor Transport Workers General Union, said they reluctantly accepted the revision because the increased subsidy met their lowest request.
But he still expected about 20,000 vehicle owners aged 56 to 63 to scrap their vehicles, get the subsidy and retire, because they would not be able to afford a new vehicle and would have difficulty finding other jobs.
Chiang Chi-wai, chairman of Lok Ma Chau China-Hong Kong Freight Association, said representatives of a total of nine fleet operators' associations all agreed with the revised package. "Although we asked for a maximum of 40 per cent subsidy, the revision is quite close to our request," he said. "We think the plan can pass the legislature, because it's not a huge increase of subsidy."
Labour-sector legislator Tang Ka-piu worried that sellers of new models might raise prices because of the subsidy, and said owners might also find it difficult to fix their vehicles because many repairers did not know how to work on the newer types.