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Plans for cleaner air are welcome, if overdue


If there is one thing on which there has long been consensus it is that we would like to breathe cleaner air – for our health’s sake. The public consultation announced yesterday on an upgrade of the city’s air-quality objectives should therefore convey a sense of urgency. Instead it lacks a timetable and is hedged with political caveats on proposed clean-air measures, such as whether people are prepared to meet the cost or adjust to inconvenience.

Of course, some will object to paying more for electricity or bus rides, or doing without under-patronised off-peak bus services, or replacing polluting commercial vehicles. No one wants to be presented with the bill, least of all the less well off. But the time has long since passed when such difficulties justify not doing more to reduce air pollution. If the consultation does not tackle them, the government must, even if this means devising a socially equitable sharing of the burden and subsidising costs.

For all that, the consultation is welcome, if overdue. It is nearly three years since the World Health Organisation issued revised global air-quality guidelines to minimise risk to health and life expectancy, with softer interim targets to enable governments to take into account local economic and political factors. It was two years before the government committed to adopting new targets in stages for our city’s air-quality objectives. The consultation paper, based on a review by a consultant, is the result.

Meanwhile, the government has made incremental progress in tackling emissions from power generation, transport and industry, and co-operating with the mainland to mitigate pollution. But the resulting improvement in air quality at rooftop level has raised false hopes. As this newspaper reported earlier this month, analysis of roadside pollution levels in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok during the first half of this year showed that it was above the “very high” 100 mark for the equivalent of 44 days – six times worse than in 2005.

The government has adopted less demanding interim targets than the WHO guidelines for the key pollutants sulphur dioxide, ozone and fine air particles – the ones that were tightened the most. But this takes account of the contribution of pollution from the mainland. And for the first time Hong Kong is to have a standard for fine air particles – the most dominant and most hazardous to health – which the United States and Europe have had for a long time.

It is disappointing, however, that the pace of implementation of new emission control measures has been left to the public consultation. The lack of a timetable for stronger air-quality objectives does not reflect the urgency of the WHO report on the growing death toll from pollution and its impact on the quality of life.

That said, the consultation does propose a wide range of measures to cap and control emissions, backed up by initiatives such as car-free and low-emission traffic zones, bus route rationalisation and mandatory building energy codes. If and when they are all implemented, the anticipated social and economic benefits include a drop of more than 4,000 a year in hospital admissions attributable to air pollution, enhanced life expectancy and economic benefits in public health, and energy savings of more than HK$1.2 billion – double the economic cost of introducing them.

The consultation paper asks respondents: are you willing to bear the cost of emission control measures, such as higher power bills and bus fares? For the sake of our health, the community has no choice but to say yes.

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