Higher licence cost proposed for owners who don't use grant to replace old vehicles The Environmental Protection Department is considering raising licence fees for old and polluting commercial vehicles whose owners refuse a one-off replacement grant now being offered for an extended period until 2010. The idea was floated yesterday after it was revealed that the owners of only 5,700 pre-Euro and 2,250 Euro I commercial diesel vehicles had signed up for grants by the end of last month, constituting only 12 per cent of the 59,000 on the roads. The HK$3.2 billion replacement scheme, designed to improve air quality, was introduced in April last year and targets pre-Euro vehicles registered before 1995 and Euro I vehicles after that. The old vehicles are up to 30 times more polluting than cleaner, newer ones. It had been hoped that if the polluting vehicles were taken off the roads and replaced by cleaner models, the diesel vehicle fleet's pollution load could be cut by up to 62 per cent. But 30,000 pre-Euro and 17,000 Euro I vehicles remain on the roads, accounting for 40 per cent of the city's total diesel vehicle fleet. And the earmarked funding still has a balance of HK$2.9 billion. Under the original scheme, pre-Euro vehicles with gross weight of less than four tonnes had to apply for the grant before the end of this month. But due to the poor take-up rate, the department has decided to extend the deadline until the end of March 2010 - the same deadline set for Euro I vehicles and heavier pre-Euro vehicles. To accelerate the replacement process, the department said it would consider imposing a higher licence fee for old vehicles after the extended deadline. But the details would be canvassed with legislators and the transport trade. 'Increasing the licence fee for old vehicles can be a way to internalise external costs arising from the operation of these vehicles, which is in line with the polluter pays principle,' the department said in a brief submitted to legislators. The department explained that the poor response could possibly be due to high fuel prices, while many operators had doubts about the technical suitability of the Euro IV model, which was now the statutory standard for new vehicles. It said it had rejected the idea of mandatory retirement of older vehicles because it might force operators out of business. The department also said offering a one-off grant to scrap older vehicles without replacement could not be justified. Friends of the Earth director Edwin Lau Che-feng said the original scheme had long been deemed a failure because the government had failed to provide the necessary sticks - such as setting out a timetable for phasing out polluting vehicles. 'Now they talk about the licence fee. But this is all empty talk,' he said. 'Can they come out with something solid and give a real deadline to the operators? Too much time has been wasted. The revised measures will just simply delay the problem while citizens will be forced to be exposed to dirty emissions from these vehicles for a longer time.' Lai Ming-hung, a spokesman for the Taxi and Public Light Bus Concern Group, welcomed the deadline extension but said it was unfair for the trade to pay higher licence fees for older vehicles if there were insufficient choices of cleaner vehicles on the market.