Transport and logistics

Why Hong Kong should think twice about more electric vehicle recharging facilities

Paul Stapleton says e-vehicles are hardly environmentally friendly, given their large carbon footprint, and it would be better to expand our MTR network than build more free recharging stations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 October, 2017, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 October, 2017, 7:02pm

Two seemingly unrelated news stories have exposed a curious contradiction in the interest in and promotion of electric vehicles. The first was about Hong Kong’s rise to sixth place in the latest global competitiveness index. Notably, the city came first in the physical infrastructure subcategory, largely due to its world-class public transport network.

The second story came from Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing, who revealed that the number of recharging facilities for electric vehicles has not kept pace with the growth in electric vehicles, prompting her to investigate.

The statistics say it all. In the past six years or so, the number of private electric vehicles has soared from fewer than 100 to over 10,000. However, over roughly the same period, recharging facilities have less than doubled, to about 1,500.

The Ombudsman’s conclusion is that Hong Kong needs more recharging facilities to keep up with demand. On the surface, such a conclusion appears fair enough. Electric vehicles do not contribute to roadside pollution, and therefore deserve government’s support.

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Digging a little deeper, however, vexing questions emerge. The first is how clean these vehicles really are. Since well over half of them in Hong Kong are luxury vehicles, let’s use this type as the standard measure.

At an average weight of a couple of tonnes, these cars are largely made of aluminium and steel, materials which consume huge amounts of energy during production. This process is also notorious for fouling the air.

Somehow, however, the carbon released during the manufacturing of an electric vehicle seldom gets mentioned when discussions of these “green cars” hit the news. One estimate has the carbon footprint of each luxury electric vehicle at between 20 and 30 tonnes by the time it receives its final coat of paint. In the meantime, the World Bank estimates that the average Hong Kong resident has an annual footprint of just over six tonnes.

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Thus, the average electric vehicle owner in Hong Kong uses up four to five years’ worth of their notional carbon footprint before they even shake hands with the dealer and drive their car off the lot. And of course, most of the power used by local electric cars arrives at the recharging stations after being generated by the burning of fossil fuels, largely to blame for climate change.

With this backdrop, consider another environmental concern, namely the enormous amount of electronic waste we produce. These stories lament the wastefulness of flippantly discarding our mobile phones, which are made of glass and steel, after a couple of years. While most of us who do so may feel a pang of guilt, when comparing the weight of our phones with a two-tonne car, electric or otherwise, the contrast is striking. It would take about 10,000 phones to equal an electric car.

This brings us back to our No 1 ranking in physical infrastructure. The government can take credit for our wonderful transport system that over 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s carless residents rely on to get swiftly around the city at a reasonable cost and minimal carbon footprint. Yet it retains the fiction that so-called “zero-emission” electric vehicles are so green that they should be supplied free power, mostly from dirty coal.

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Rather than encouraging more recharging stations, the Ombudsman should recommend that existing ones be equipped with pay pads so that the owners of these luxury vehicles have to pay to power them. Second, she should recommend that the funding earmarked for future recharging facilities be diverted towards expanding the reach of our wonderful MTR, populated by the 90 per cent of Hongkongers, who are the true eco-warriors.

Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong