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February 17th, 2010:

Time for tougher action on polluting trucks


17 Feb, 2010

Authorities should be tackling roadside air pollution as a matter of urgency. They claim that this is the case: the Environmental Bureau and Environmental Protection Department said in their last annual progress report that high public expectations meant this was a top priority. An ineffective scheme to get old, polluting vehicles off the streets tells a different story. If there was any interest in making the air we breathe less dangerous, adopted measures would be forceful, not feeble.

The two-year-old scheme ends in April, having made only a small dent in the number of diesel trucks, vans and buses made before 1995, to pre-Euro and Euro I emissions standards. Such vehicles are the main reason for the poor air quality along our streets. They burn fuel far less efficiently than newer models. The subsidy aimed at phasing them out was supposed to have retired most, but there are still 39,500 on the roads – about four-fifths of the original total. Such a low take-up rate shouldn’t be a surprise. The grant averages HK$43,000, a fraction of the cost of a new truck. Owners are only taking up the offer when their vehicles are no longer roadworthy. The government has sensibly decided to end the scheme.

The tiny particulates (PM2.5) in diesel fumes are the reason air quality monitoring stations along our busiest streets record excessively high readings. Young and old people and those with heart and lung problems are especially vulnerable. They will continue to be at risk while vehicles with engines that can’t use low-polluting diesel are on roads. Measures to improve circumstances have to be assertive.

Our government has a poor track record in this regard when it comes to the environment. Pressure from business groups mean its schemes are invariably voluntary or, in cases like idling vehicle engines, left in the too hard basket. Jobs and profits are important, but Hong Kong also needs to address the serious threat to public health from roadside emissions. Without stronger measures we will pay a heavy price in lives lost and debilitating illness.

City officials in other developed parts of the world have the right attitude. Older vehicles are banned from financial and shopping districts and owners are given hefty fines if rules are ignored. In addition to subsidies, attractive interest rates are offered on new cars and trucks. Vehicles over a certain age require higher licence and registration fees – a move lawmakers here, after hearing the pleas of lobbyists, rejected last year.

The government is capable of concerted action. This was amply proven with the successful first phase of the plastic bag levy and will surely also be the case when it is widened. It has introduced the highest European standard for diesel, Euro V, and the second-best for vehicle emissions, Euro IV. Financial incentives are offered for environmentally friendly cars. Action has been less forthcoming towards commercial transport. While almost all taxis have switched to liquid petroleum gas, only 60 per cent of minibuses use the low-polluting fuel. About 35 per cent of the commercial fleet is still using diesel of the lowest, most polluting, standards. Authorities claim to want them off the road as soon as possible, yet efforts are clearly not aimed at this target.

Years may yet pass before all old diesel vehicles are out of service. Greater incentives, higher fees, no-go zones and fines have to be implemented to get them off our streets. Idling engines have to be banned. Efforts must be legally binding, not voluntary.