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Either way we pay


Air pollution has been a grim perennial problem in Hong Kong, posing a risk not only to the health of seven million citizens, but the city’s image as an international financial centre. Filthy air is choking our economic development by scaring away foreign investors.

Hongkongers have for many years blamed the city’s poor air quality on the polluting factories on the other side of the border. Indeed, many of these factories have suspended operation since the economic downturn began last year. But, despite this, our air quality remains atrocious, which has unequivocally proved that the pollution is local. It is mainly caused by emissions from vehicles including pre-Euro I diesel models and from our two power stations that burn cheap coal. Both are believed to be responsible for contributing 30 per cent and 15 per cent of air pollutants, respectively.

The environment minister, Edward Yau Tang-wah, recently unveiled 19 measures to achieve new air-quality objectives as part of a two-year review to overhaul the 1987 objectives. The government hopes that these measures, expected to cost about HK$600 million a year, will bring benefits of HK$1.2 billion a year as a result of the improvement in public health and savings in energy costs. But the public will need to cough up higher power tariffs and bus fares in return.

These measures include an increased use of natural gas in the energy mix, the early retirement of heavily polluting vehicles such as double-decker buses, and rationalising existing bus routes. Mr Yau stressed that an overall improvement in air quality would bring immediate benefits. As this is a collective responsibility, every citizen should be prepared to accept a 20 per cent rise in electricity tariffs and a 15 per cent increase in bus fares.

On the other hand, if we chose to do nothing, the economic costs in terms of public health and economic impacts would be massive.

The government is in actual fact advocating a “consumer-pays” principle to fund the clean-up, which I believe is reasonably acceptable. It is indisputably our civic responsibility to protect our environment and make Hong Kong a better home, but a fair share of this should be shouldered by the administration.

It is time the government reviewed its public transport policy, of which a top priority should be to reduce the number of polluting vehicles. Besides making sure that we have cleaner power plants, cleaner fuels and cleaner vehicles, we also need improved traffic management. One effective way would be to force franchised bus companies to downsize their fleets to lower total emissions.

Street-level pollution, which is worryingly high, comes almost wholly from the vehicles on our roads. Therefore, traffic flows need to be managed more efficiently, and the number of vehicles must be reduced dramatically.

We have four franchised bus companies, providing overlapping bus services that are not only wasteful but ultimately clog our roads while churning out toxic fumes that damage our health. But there is little incentive for franchisees to reduce their fleets, which bring in lucrative revenues by doubling as mobile billboards.

To further compound the problem, most district councillors often object to rationalisation of bus routes to avoid upsetting their constituents. If only they could be more objective and see that fewer buses would ease traffic congestion and, as a result, shorten commute times. Besides, our city is too small to warrant four franchised bus companies. The government should consider pushing for a merger to consolidate their services. This would give Hong Kong a more efficient and sustainable public transport system; while at the same time improve overall air quality without having to shift the financial burden to the general public.

We can no longer disregard the magnitude of Hong Kong’s air pollution and every one of us should be prepared to make sacrifices to minimise our environmental footprint. A Native American proverb sums it up pertinently: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.

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