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December 20th, 2007:

Clean Up Hong Kong Air Pollution

The right route


SCMP Dec 20, 2007

To clean up air pollution, should we be doing more of the same – that is, taking an incremental approach – or making a change in direction? Going down the same path but doing more is fine if the course is right. After all, we cannot do everything in one fell swoop. But if the steering is off, then a directional adjustment is needed.

According to results of a survey released on Monday, the majority of 81,000 Hong Kong respondents would be willing to pay more for transport in return for cleaner air. This should surprise no one; poor air quality has bothered Hongkongers for many years.

The issue is: which things does the government want people to pay more for? Let’s take roadside air pollution as a point of discussion. It is not only appallingly high, but has become almost a normal condition. If the public paid more for public transport, would that improve roadside air quality?

Would higher transport costs go towards subsidies to build more rail lines? Or to encourage operators of buses and light buses to replace old vehicles earlier with less-polluting models? How would commercial trucks be dealt with, since they spew out the highest amount of polluting emissions?

Taxis and many light buses have already converted to LPG; new vehicles must have Euro-IV-standard engines; and only ultra-low-sulfur diesel is available. But those measures have not been nearly enough to clean up roadside air pollution. Thus, doing more of the same – pushing new vehicles to have Euro-V-standard engines, and using even cleaner fuels when they become available – will not make much difference if Hong Kong’s old vehicles are not replaced.

How can we make owners replace their vehicles? The government has already announced a public subsidy scheme – the “carrot”. But there’s no “stick” unless owners are given a deadline, in the near future, for replacing the most polluting vehicles.

London faced a similar challenge. Its solution is to turn the whole of Greater London into a low-emission zone and is starting a phased-in scheme from next February, pushing commercial vehicle operators to upgrade their vehicles. It uses its existing electronic road pricing system to track vehicles going into the city; those with old, polluting engines must pay a penalty every time they cross the city boundary. So, if you are running a trucking business and you have to go to London frequently, the penalty becomes an expensive operating cost; you had better buy a new lorry. The authorities also offer a replacement subsidy scheme, so the stick and carrot work together.

Launching the electronic road pricing system was a change of direction for London, and would be for Hong Kong as well. But our government has not yet been able to adopt it, although the scheme was first raised in the 1980s.

Many of Hong Kong’s roads are narrow, with high vehicle density, creating our infamous “street canyon” effect that traps vehicular pollution. That in turn contributes to the extremely poor roadside air quality. With so many people affected on a daily basis, it is shocking that much more has not been done already to protect public health. Just think of how many people live and work right next to, or near, heavily used roads – and how many schools, hospitals, clinics and elderly homes are affected. It’s a pity we don’t have a surgeon general to champion public health; there are plenty of voices arguing for commercial interests.

The government’s recent interest in building more rail lines makes sense. But it must also make clear that it will reduce road building and use demand-side mechanisms like road pricing to deal with congestion. It should use town planning to ease the street canyon effect and tighten air quality objectives, in addition to taking old, polluting engines off the road.

Unless there is a clear policy to change direction, incremental measures, including banning idling engines, will not make enough of a difference.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange