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December 21st, 2007:

Smoke And Mirrors On Pollution

Stephen Brown – Friday, December 21, 2007 – The Standard

It must have come as a bit of a surprise to the administration during the week when the Council for Sustainable Development announced it had carried out a public opinion survey on air pollution.

The survey of 81,000 people assessed their views on air quality. The findings showed a high degree of concern, indicating this may have been one of the few public opinion surveys on a sensitive topic in Hong Kong’s history that has not had its results conveniently doctored before publication.

Even more surprising than the frank findings of the survey was the fact that this organization, populated as it is by administration appointees, managed to come up with some firm policy proposals after completing the poll, recommendations that did not necessarily fit neatly into the political agenda of its masters.

The council highlighted the inconvenient truth that people here are fed up to the back teeth with the air pollution that we have to live with.

Forty-two percent of the respondents wanted road pricing introduced, while 77 percent wanted higher transport fees if that meant that our air quality could be improved.

But, with our political system fundamentally flawed, as the functional constituency system ensures that public policy takes no real account of anything other than the narrow vested interests of the incumbents of these rotten boroughs, it still remains to be seen whether Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam- kuen can raise his policy game to meet heightened public expectations.

The future of electronic road pricing, in particular, looks as uncertain here as ever, despite the evidently beneficial impact that it has had on London and its long-standing role as a plank of transport policy in Singapore.

This old policy kernel has been around for years and why it cannot be implemented here has never been adequately explained. But it seems that those – particularly our lordly civil servants – who like to be driven around while reading in the back seat of limousines find any restriction on their rights a dreadful inconvenience.

The other aspect of the survey that was interesting was the fact the “man in the street” appeared to be keen to initiate the polluter-pays principle when it comes to ameliorating our air quality.

However, introducing the polluter- pays principle means that businesses will have to pick up the tab for polluting, at least in the first instance, and only after incurring these costs would companies be able to attempt to recoup the losses by raising prices.

Of course, because of the onus on business paying, the logical implementation of the polluter-pays principle is, in reality, a step too far for the appointed members of the council.

So, rather than pay heed to his own survey results, we had the vice chairman of the council, Edgar Cheng Wai-kin, calling for huge amounts of public money to facilitate the “clean-up.”

The call is in effect no more than a call for the poorest in our society to bail out those that have made money by polluting our environment.

This idea flies directly in the face of the polluter-pays principle, and indicates that the environmental solution will turn into a grab for the huge government subsidies that seem to be on the way, which will also undoubtedly be accompanied by special-interest pleading to raise fares.

For a man who promised to get things done, Tsang has not scored many victories when it comes to public policy.

Apart from announcing the odd railway, his initiatives are becalmed, while in some areas, such as in the case of his ill-advised cross-border financial initiatives, his policies have been rebuffed and are in disarray.

The public support for stringent environmental measures gives Tsang the perfect opportunity to move ahead with radical reforms in this area. However, it looks as if we are being set up yet again for huge dollops of public money to be handed out to those that need it the least.

With few policy “wins” to his name, Tsang may do well to think his options over carefully before he announces how to respond to the mounting public annoyance with air quality.