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Hazy logic

South China Morning Post

Christine Loh says officials misunderstand the true costs of polluted air by taking the route of ‘develop first, clean up later’

The government was caught napping with regard to Hong Kong’s air quality and then caught fudging the issue. That’s not a pretty picture; our air quality remains a serious daily threat to public health. It’s not that officials don’t want to improve air quality – of course they do – but they still can’t figure out how they can build highways, bridges, runways and incinerators without causing more air pollution. Their priority is to build infrastructure; they believe this is what matters more – you can always clean up later. They don’t see that they can do both.

Earlier this month, Beijing released tighter air quality objectives for the mainland. Hong Kong officials didn’t seem to know this was going to happen. It put pressure on them to come to a decision on Hong Kong’s own objectives after two years of dithering.

They had already been caught out once before: last May, the Ombudsman accepted a complaint from Friends of the Earth that the government was taking far too long to make a decision on revising Hong Kong’s objectives.

Now, officials are hedging. The government has announced it will begin work on an amendment to the Air Pollution Control Ordinance, to be tabled for discussion in the next legislative year – when the current government will, in fact, have stepped down. The delay was said to be necessary because of the time it takes “for completing the legislative process and other necessary preparatory work”.

The law doesn’t actually require a legislative amendment. The environment minister can amend the air quality objectives after consultation with the Advisory Council on the Environment. Since the council meets monthly, he could get this done well before the current administration steps down.

But the government is not going to do that. It wants to make sure there’s a “transitional period” of 36 months before the new air quality objectives take effect. This should give officials enough time to get approval for certain projects, such as a third runway, before the more stringent standards apply.

It would be seen as a disaster for the government if a third runway were not built, whereas putting off the implementation of revised air quality objectives is just a delay. To Hong Kong’s officials, this is being practical. The fact that the new objectives are necessary when considering projects is not acknowledged. The third runway and other new projects will indeed lead to additional air pollution.

Thus, the early implementation of the new objectives is impractical from the government’s perspective. This logic is, of course, diametrically opposite to the aim of having air quality objectives in the first place. Our officials’ objective has shifted from health protection to infrastructure protection.

It is this attitude that got them into trouble in the first place. They have left the cleaning up so late that catching up will require many urgent measures, such as banning old polluting vehicles, pedestrianising urban areas, regulating ships’ emissions, switching energy sources, and more. If the next administration retains the same mindset, it too will keep on fudging rather than pushing for aggressive pollution reduction.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think tank Civic

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