In a fog

Audrey Eu

There is a Chinese saying that 'the cleverest housewife can't cook a meal without rice'. But our financial secretary has plenty of rice. With a forecast surplus of HK$71.3 billion and expected fiscal reserves of close to HK$600 billion (equivalent to 23 months of government expenditure), he has more than enough money to improve our air quality. What has he done in this budget to help us breathe cleaner air?

He proposes to spend HK$4.7 billion, giving a subsidy of HK$1,800 to each residential electricity account. This runs counter to the government's policy to encourage energy savings and carbon reduction.

I made the same point three years ago when John Tsang Chun-wah first gave the electricity subsidy in his 2008 budget. I suggested that the subsidy should be structured in a way to encourage energy saving.

For example, it could be given only to account holders with low consumption rates. Or it could be given out quarterly, only to those who can demonstrate reduced consumption rates when compared with the previous quarter. But he ignored the suggestion and made the same mistake this year.

Under the heading 'Easing Traffic Congestion', the financial secretary proposes to increase first registration tax for private cars by 15 per cent.

Again, this runs counter to the government's policy to encourage the owners of old commercial vehicles to switch to using cleaner new vehicles, through, for example, the one-off grant of 12 to 18 per cent of the cost of a new vehicle. The increase in first registration tax will reduce or cancel out the incentive in the government's own scheme.

A greener way is to set up congestion charges or increase the licence fees for dirty vehicles, working in tandem with those who are willing to scrap their old commercial vehicles.

Alternatively, the government can allow the 16-seater green minibuses to upgrade to the newer models with 20 seats. There are about 100 of these new models among the 3,000 green minibuses on the road, but the extra four seats on each bus have to be turned into luggage racks because current regulation limits minibuses to 16 seats only.

Lifting the cap would immediately push owners to give up their old minibuses in favour of cleaner new ones, even without extra subsidies from the government.

We have been warned of the danger of polluted air by health experts. Earlier this year, researchers from the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong published their findings that show visibility is strongly negatively correlated with air pollution, especially particulates and nitrogen dioxide.

Every kilometre of reduction in visibility meant 70 additional deaths per year, with a total of 1,200 deaths last year. In 2010, too, there were 223 days of good air quality. That compares with the 256 such days in 2009, meaning we lost 33 good air quality days last year.

But 'good' is relative. All this is based on our outdated air quality objectives, which have remained unchanged since 1987, and are much less stringent than World Health Organisation guidelines.

The government has carried out public consultations to update the air quality objectives, but action is long overdue and the government cannot even be induced to give a timeframe as to when the standards would be revised.

As in previous years, the financial secretary spent a lot of paragraphs in the budget on electric cars. In fact, the previous budget promised 200 electric cars. The target has not been met. Only 100 electric cars are now on the roads. The progress is painfully slow.

Why doesn't the government tackle the main source of our roadside pollution? The Civic Party advocated a HK$6 billion clean air fund to retire old commercial vehicles and to speed up the replacement of buses of pre-Euro, Euro I and Euro II emissions standards.

There are over 4,000 of these buses plying the streets and, based on their life span of 18 years, it will take us until 2019 to retire them all.

The government merely refers to trials and tests for retrofitting devices and no more than six hybrid buses. The scale and the pace are disappointing.

The financial secretary's job is not to dish out dividends when the company makes a profit but to use them wisely. He could have spent some of the dividends this year to greatly improve the quality of our air.

We all need air, rich or poor; all the time, day or night. Money is better spent on such an essential commodity. Waiting is hazardous to health.

Audrey Eu Yuet-mee is a legislator and founding leader of the Civic Party