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Still up in the air

South China Morning Post

Jan 17, 2011

Go back and read what former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa said in October 1999. I did. It’s easily available. Just search on the internet for his 1999 policy speech to the Legislative Council. It’ll either astonish or infuriate you. It did both to me. Tung wasn’t a particularly inspiring leader. But, if all the promises he made 11 years ago in that speech had been realised, we wouldn’t be looking across the harbour today and seeing smog instead of our famous skyline.

I’ll just quote some of the things he said about our filthy air. “Pollution has not only tarnished Hong Kong’s image as an international city, but also greatly affected our health. It is high time we faced up to the problem.” There’s more. He said our filthy air was 50 per cent worse than New York’s, getting worse, and already making people sick. He listed targets such as getting rid of polluting vehicles that would make Hong Kong’s air comparable to that of New York and London by 2005.

Tung made that policy speech more than 11 years ago. Is the air we breathe as clean as that found in New York and London? We all know the answer to that. The question is why. Why has a promise made in 1999, to be delivered in 2005, still not been kept in 2011? Why have government objectives laid down 11 years ago to phase out polluting vehicles, ban idling engines and switch to an electrical trolley bus system still not been realised?

We can’t blame it all on Tung, because he is no longer the chief executive. His unpopularity forced him to resign in 2005, coincidentally the year we were promised clean air. But we can blame some of it on him. He had more than five years to keep that promise, but didn’t. Who else should we point fingers at?

It’s been six years since Tung quit, but air pollution has steadily worsened, not improved. Our air is now far worse than it was when Tung made his promise 11 years ago to clean it up. If that isn’t a failure of government, past and present, then I don’t know what is. We’re still stuck with air quality objectives that date back to 1987 even though the government has spent millions of your tax dollars in public consultations on new targets. There are still thousands of polluting vehicles, including buses, on our roads. And our power companies are still allowed to burn coal for the bulk of our energy needs.

There’s this phony argument that much of our filthy air comes from the thousands of mainland factories in the Pearl River Delta. The government likes to cover up its inaction by hiding behind that argument. Every time the air pollution issue is raised, officials point the finger at the mainland. Sure, mainland factories are responsible for some of our air pollution. But polluting vehicles are the main cause of the filthy roadside air you breathe every day. Dealing with that is totally within our control.

Tung’s old speech both astonished and angered me. Our government recognised the threat over a decade ago. Yet it wasted that decade. Tung at least told the truth about our filthy air – it is seriously affecting the public’s health. Neither Tung’s successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, nor the environment secretary, Edward Yau Tang-wah, has linked air pollution with public health. They treat the two as separate issues.

We have traffic lights to protect drivers and pedestrians. We ban guns so people don’t kill each other. We even ban fire-crackers for safety reasons. So why does the government allow the air we breathe to kill elderly people, give children asthma, and make the rest of us sick? There is no great mystery about how to clean up the air. Other developed societies have done it. Why haven’t we?

Why? The people don’t care enough. They would rather breathe filthy air than pay a bit more for cleaner buses and energy. The bus and power companies don’t care. They would rather have higher profits than pay for cleaner buses and energy themselves to protect public health. The legislators don’t care. They would rather buy votes by serving the narrow interests of their constituents than the overall health of society. And if the people don’t care, the government doesn’t care. It is safer to do nothing than gather the guts to show strong leadership. So happy breathing, everyone.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster.

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