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Tougher steps on air quality rolled out – Goals on pollution, ideas to meet them

Cheung Chi-fai, SCMP

The government yesterday rolled out proposals to toughen air quality standards, and measures to achieve this, as Hong Kong seeks to catch up with the developed world.

The administration said the steps, which largely meet World Health Organisation objectives, could extend average life expectancy by a month.

The proposals include using more gas to generate power, phasing out highly polluting vehicles and declaring low-emission zones from which such vehicles would be barred. Car-free zones would be extended.

Members of the public have four months to comment on them and indicate their willingness to pay for cleaner air and how soon they want it.

Released by the Environment Bureau after a two-year study, they do not include a timetable for their implementation, and officials admit a bumpy road lies ahead given the widely divergent views of different groups in society.

Green groups said the proposals were not detailed enough for people to make informed decisions. Transport operators said they would push up their costs and raise fares.

The new objectives, 10 to 64 per cent more stringent than existing ones, will replace outdated air quality standards enacted in 1987 and narrow the gap to the standards of the United States and European Union.

The government said it would not fully endorse the WHO guidelines at this stage because regional pollution was beyond its control, although the most stringent standards in the guidelines will be adopted for four of the seven air pollutants.

It said the measures, if adopted, would save HK$1.2 billion a year in health and energy costs at a cost of HK$600 million a year – although it admitted the cost estimate did not reflect all the costs to the community.

The government is proposing 19 measures to help attain the new targets. Officials said some of these would inevitably require consumers to pay more. Power tariffs would rise by at least 20 per cent and bus fares by 15 per cent. But the measures would save 7,400 life-years – equivalent to an extra month of life for each Hongkonger – in a city where life expectancy is already among the longest, and avoid 4,200 hospital admissions.

An average Hong Kong man has a life expectancy of 79.5 years, and a woman 88.5 years, the second-longest in the world behind Japan.

A recent report by independent think tank Civic Exchange found nearly 1,600 deaths, 64,000 hospital bed-days and HK$2 billion in direct economic losses each year were attributable to air pollution in Hong Kong. Mike Kilburn, environmental programme manager for Civic Exchange, said the 19 measures were too conservative and limited in scope, and called for a broader debate.

Cargo van operator Ben Leung Wai-bun said he would have to close his business if his entire fleet was banned in the busiest districts. “More than half of the industry will be dead by the time we can see clear sky,” he said.

A senior environment official said the problems of air pollution from vehicles, power generation and over the border had to be tackled simultaneously. “All we need now is recognition and endorsement from the public that the whole package is reasonable, feasible and something that has to be done,” he said.

The official said it was premature to say how much the package would cost the public, since more negotiation was needed with major stakeholders such as bus companies and power utilities. Such talks were already happening, he said.

A timetable for delivering cleaner air could not be given because of the uncertainties surrounding the implementation of the measures, this official said. For instance, whether or not more natural gas could be used would hinge upon the supply of gas from the mainland after 2013 and planning for new power generators.

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