Raising the price of petrol sends a message that the fuel is non-renewable. Photo: Martin Chan

Raise the tax on petrol to help clean up Hong Kong's air

Paul Stapleton says with oil prices at a six-year low, the HK government should seize the chance to raise the duty on petrol to encourage conservation

The clear air we have enjoyed over the past couple of months, with a few exceptions, is about to end. The winds will shift from the south to the north, and, with the cooler air, tiny particles of suspended particulate matter will again begin to enter our lungs. Then for the following seven or eight months, although we will get relief from the heat, we will be forced to breathe unhealthy air. This is the seasonal pattern of air quality that Hong Kong has been experiencing for more than a decade.

Our government is well aware of the problem and has taken worthwhile steps to help alleviate the poor-quality air we breathe. A good example is the law requiring ships to switch to low-sulphur fuel, starting this year. However, another high-profile measure, the no-idling engine law, which requires drivers to leave their engines running no longer than three minutes, has mostly disappeared, although its helpfulness in improving air quality was questionable, anyway.

In fact, in one sense, apart from lobbying governments north of our border, there is little the local government can do about the poor-quality air that arrives from the Pearl River Delta and beyond. However, there is one significant local source of pollution that the government has a great opportunity to tackle - traffic.

The no-idling engine law, which requires drivers to leave their engines running no longer than three minutes, has mostly disappeared

On a daily basis, a casual check of air quality shows that roadside pollution is far worse in congested areas. Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok are well known black spots for poor air quality, largely because of the concentration of vehicles burning petrol and diesel.

With oil prices recently hitting a six-year low, it is roughly the same price it was through the 1990s. Adjusted for inflation, the price would be even lower. It presents our government with a gift-wrapped opportunity to raise the tax on petrol by at least a couple of cents a litre in the name of conservation.

Simple logic tells us that when prices are low, consumers are less sensitive to tax rises. And it is well established that one of the best incentives to encourage conservation of any sort is through the consumers' wallet.

While it is true that such a tax increase would be unlikely to discourage owners of expensive vehicles from reducing their discretionary driving, it could have some impact on the majority of drivers and, more importantly, send a message that fuel is a non-renewable resource to be conserved.

Unlike many consumer products, such as bread, whose price has risen multiple times in the past two decades, the price of petrol - even when adjusted for inflation - stands ridiculously low. In the meantime, our lungs suffer at the roadside. The government should seize this opportune moment to help clear the air.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: A drive for cleaner air