The road to cleaner vehicles in Hong Kong and in mainland China

Freda Fung says the mainland and HK have a unique chance to curb pollution by adopting stricter EU and US vehicle emission standards

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 April, 2014, 4:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 April, 2014, 10:05am

People in Hong Kong who care about air quality should celebrate: on March 1, the government launched an ex gratia payment scheme that provides incentives to phase out some 82,000 old and polluting diesel commercial vehicles. And the end of March marked the completion of a government-funded programme for replacing the catalytic converters and sensors of petrol and LPG taxis and light buses. More than 70 per cent of these vehicles have the new and effective emission control devices installed. The government deserves praise for achieving these important milestones on our path to clean air.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, combating air pollution has risen to the top of the government's agenda. A few weeks ago, Premier Li Keqiang declared "war on pollution", with curbing smog a key focus. Various cities and provinces, including Shenzhen and Guangdong, have announced plans to substantially improve air quality and many propose to scrap old and dirty diesel vehicles to reduce emissions. Beijing has set a goal to remove more than 14 million "yellow sticker" old, polluting vehicles from the roads by 2017. There are 20 times more pre-Euro polluting petrol cars and pre-Euro-III diesel trucks and buses on the mainland's roads than the total number of vehicles registered in Hong Kong.

It makes perfect sense to remove old and high-emission vehicles. Pre-Euro-III trucks being phased out in Hong Kong emit 30 per cent of the total nitrogen oxide and 80 per cent of the particulate from vehicle emissions. And "yellow sticker" vehicles contribute 78 per cent of the nitrogen oxide and more than half of all particulate emissions from vehicles on the mainland.

Both governments should make the most of these vehicle retirement programmes by mandating that all new vehicles, particularly diesel trucks and buses, should meet the more stringent EU and US emission standards.

In Europe and America, particulate and nitrogen oxide emission limits for heavy diesel vehicles are 50 per cent and 80 per cent lower respectively than Hong Kong's current standards. Because of the stricter limits and rigorous testing requirements, all new trucks and buses sold in the EU and US are fitted with highly efficient emission-control equipment, including diesel particulate filters that can substantially reduce the most dangerous element of diesel exhaust gases, PM2.5 emissions.

These vehicles function well using low-sulphur diesel, which is available in Hong Kong and will be supplied across the mainland by the end of 2015. EU and US standards also require emission-control equipment to perform well under all reasonable driving conditions and for an extended period of time (10 years, or 700,000 kilometres, for the heaviest vehicle class).

Millions of old diesel vehicles will be taken off Hong Kong and mainland China's roads over the next few years. This is a unique opportunity to move to a significantly cleaner fleet. Adopting the stricter and more effective EU and US emission standards as soon as possible can help both places reach their air quality goals earlier, while also better protecting people's health. It is time for the governments to act.

Freda Fung, a consultant with Civic Exchange, is director of Fung Research Limited