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Miserly efforts won’t combat pollution

Sunday January 30 2011

The government has spent most of the HK$29 billion estimated to have been used on combating air pollution since 1999. Given the gravity of the problem and the damage to the health of the people, that is far from being a huge figure, representing at most 1.2 per cent of total government spending over those 11 years. Contrast that, too, with the HK$60-billion-plus to be spent on an economically indefensible high-speed railway to the border. But analysis of the recently published numbers shows how the bureaucracy tries to fool the public into believing that massive efforts are being made when, in fact, officials are at best indolent.

By far the largest item given as spending is not an outlay at all. It is the HK$16 billion in revenue foregone by tax concessions for vehicles using low-sulphur diesel fuel. Various lesser tax concessions add to this spending myth. Tax incentives only indirectly address the problem. Any significant attack on emissions would keep all petrol and diesel taxes high and subject high-sulphur fuels to very high taxes – even if that means making more effort to crack down on cross-border smuggling. Best of all would be simply to ban the worst-offending fuels and engines. If even poor, chaotic Dhaka and New Delhi can enforce such bans, why not Hong Kong?

The only substantial actual cash outlay in the estimate is the approximately HK$10 billion for power station scrubbers and other anti-pollution devices needed for the companies to keep burning coal. But, do not expect either the government or the power companies to ask the public whether they would pay a little more for cleaner air.

A government with any sense of public health at heart would be using a few billion from its bloated, low-yielding cash reserves to replace all the bus and ferry fleets with the latest clean machines. It would have taken actual tough action against the hundreds of diesel trucks and non-franchised buses which daily flout the high permissible limits. A government with real leaders would long ago have made it compulsory for ships to use low-sulphur fuels in local waters – not a problem for major shipping companies which face such controls in other ports.

A government that wanted to address real problems rather than issue statements and print meaningless ‘green’ appeals would long ago have encouraged private car owners to switch to LPG, not just stop at taxis and minibuses.

A government that was not in the pocket of developer and construction interests would not be building new four-lane highways – the Central-Wan Chai bypass – to create even more pollution in the middle of the city. A government accountable to the public would not provide cars, drivers and parking spaces to large numbers of officials and would long ago have reduced pollution and improved traffic flow by raising central tunnel tolls and creating more bus lanes.

To think that it has been 36 years since Singapore began pricing vehicle entry into its central business district, and 26 years since the interests that frighten today’s bureaucrats forced Hong Kong’s colonial government to drop an electronic road pricing scheme. A city that was once at the forefront of urban development is now lagging behind the whole developed world.

A government run by real businessmen, not former textile-quota rentiers or weak-willed bureaucrats, would recognise the huge economic as well as health costs that result from its capture by a few vested interests. Nor does it need Singapore-style authoritarianism. In South Korea, Taiwan and much of Europe, clean-ups were the result of popular demand, placing the interest of the majority above selfish individual or commercial interests.

Remember that anti-Vietnam war jibe addressed to president Lyndon B. Johnson: ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’ Maybe Hong Kong students could adapt the words for chanting at inherited billionaires.

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