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August 27th, 2009:

Toxic mix

Christine Loh – SCMP

Hong Kong will be stuck with a large number of ageing, dirty buses for at least another decade

It is good to see that the focus of debate on the government’s proposed air quality objectives and clean-up measures is fixed firmly on reducing roadside pollution. It’s equally pleasing that the 6,000-odd buses, which contribute about 40 per cent of roadside pollution, are under the microscope.

However, rationalising bus routes, which is now receiving a great deal of attention, is unlikely to deliver the reductions in roadside concentrations of pollutants that we need to make a major impact.

There are two interconnected reasons for this. First, the bus fleet is an integral part of the transport network – it is affordable and comprehensive, and, because of all this, it is convenient. Many people, especially those on lower incomes, depend greatly on buses for their daily commute.

Bus rationalisation efforts between the government and bus operators have reduced the number of buses on some routes, thereby easing traffic congestion that also helps to reduce exhaust emissions from buses. From the public’s perspective, passengers have no problem with rationalisation as long as services remain reasonably convenient.

Second, passengers and their district councillors (for whom this issue is an opportunity to show commitment to their constituents) have a vested interest in retaining bus services at current levels.

The idea that passengers may have to wait a few minutes longer for the next bus, or that some bus stops may have to be eliminated to improve traffic flow, have come unstuck because of the assumption that this will cause greater inconvenience. Politicians in this case need to expend too much political capital that may not be worthwhile.

This is why end-of-pipe solutions – finding answers to a problem at the final stage of its cycle of causes and effects – are more attractive than ones involving management, planning and road pricing. Thus, politicians and government officials prefer taking the “easier route” to focus on reducing pollutants emitted by buses.

The good news here is that Hong Kong’s standards for new buses are broadly compatible with those of other developed cities. The bad news is that a whopping 75 per cent of the fleet is still running on highly polluting Euro II-standard engines, or worse.

And this is where Hong Kong is stuck. According to the Environmental Protection Department, the last of these buses is not due for retirement until 2019, and no mechanism exists to get them off the road any earlier. This means that, rather than upgrade their fleets, the bus companies will continue – perfectly legally, if not altogether responsibly – to run their toxic clunkers for at least another decade. This is clearly unacceptable.

So what should be done to clean up? Singapore is upgrading its equally dirty fleet to the substantially cleaner Euro V standards and will have a much cleaner fleet than Hong Kong, and much sooner.

Slow coach Hong Kong could also consider a range of other, even cleaner, options. London, for example, is trying out hybrid buses, while 20 per cent of Berlin’s buses now run on hydrogen – the cleanest of all fuels.

Buses in both mainland China and the US use natural gas, and electric trolley buses operate in many cities worldwide. In short, there are plenty of options.

So why not in Hong Kong? Much is made of our unique combination of a hot and humid climate, hilly terrain and heavy congestion. Certainly, there are technical issues that need to be resolved. But many of our buses run along flat routes.

The real problem is that there are no mechanisms in the bus franchises, air pollution legislation or current government consultation for revising air quality standards either to provide incentives for trials of new technologies or to force the dirtiest vehicles off the roads.

We know the problem, there are tried and tested solutions, and Hong Kong has the resources to create both the “carrots and sticks” that could quickly and effectively drive change.

But, until the government mandates the retirement of these dirty buses, we will all be sucking down the same toxic cocktail for another 10 years. Moreover, as other cities combine tail-pipe solutions with planning, pricing and management ones, Hong Kong may well be left behind for even longer if we do not act.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chairman of the Clean Air Network and chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange