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Pledge to act is hot air without a target

South China Morning Post

Audrey Eu criticises the government’s delay to set limits for pollution control

Jan 31, 2012

The long-awaited update of Hong Kong’s air quality objectives was finally announced by Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah this month, but it was only a post-dated cheque, to take effect in 2014, and still a far cry from the air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organisation.

Yau also warned that this will mean increases in bus fares and electricity bills of between 15 and 20 per cent. But is that so?

The current objectives were set in 1987, almost a quarter of a century ago. After the WHO updated its guidelines in 2006, the government commissioned a study and carried out a public consultation. All were in favour of early implementation of updated objectives, plus a regular review. This process was completed in 2009. But no announcement was forthcoming.

When pressed, Yau said the government was taking steps to implement 19 measures that would improve air quality. This is subterfuge. Can you imagine a doctor telling a patient with hypertension to try taking 19 measures – such as quit smoking and drinking – to reduce his blood pressure but not tell him that the systolic pressure for healthy individuals should not go above 120? Improving air quality is one thing, being honest about the healthy standard is another.

While Yau was quick to warn of an increased costs for cleaner air, he did not talk about the costs of pollution. The University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health publishes a real-time index that clocks the medical costs and sick days that are attributed to the effects of pollution. Every year, 3,200 people die prematurely due to pollution. The poor environment also dampens incentive for overseas investment. These costs are ignored by the government and not accounted for.

The main culprit is roadside pollution, especially emissions from the thousands of old buses plying our streets that do not meet current European emissions standards. According to the government’s agreement with the bus companies, each bus can run for 18 years and we have to wait until 2020 before all of them exhaust their agreed life span.

As pedestrians, we cover our noses when crossing the street, and we cannot afford to wait any longer. Investments in cleaner air benefit everyone, and there is no reason bus passengers should shoulder the costs alone. Our government can easily afford to reimburse the bus companies for their losses if they retire these old buses early and replace them with cleaner ones.

Power companies have also raised their charges. But, in this case, we know that the culprit is the schemes of control signed with the government that guarantees the power companies a 9.99per cent profit based on fixed assets. Environmental concern was not the main reason for the unreasonable tariff increases proposed.

Yau claims the new air quality objectives can’t take effect until 2014 because it takes time to go through the legislative process.In fact, under section 7 of the Air Pollution Control Ordinance, the secretary just has to gazette the new objectives without going through a legislative process.

At the moment, the new Legislative Council complex has an indoor air quality problem and this is measured daily and compared to the standard set by a Finnish organisation. Likewise, we should not need legislation to set the standard for healthy air in Hong Kong. It is the duty of the secretary under the ordinance first to set the standard by gazette, and then to implement measures to meet that standard gradually.

But this government does the reverse. Instead of announcing the right standards for all sectors to meet, it waits until all sectors are willing to meet those standards. It will wait for the bus companies to be able to afford cleaner buses, and for the Airport Authority to “endeavour” to meet the new benchmarks in its environment impact assessment for the third runway, and for the power companies to have more natural gas supply from the mainland, before informing us how poor our air quality actually is.

Audrey Eu Yuet-mee is a legislator and founding leader of the Civic Party

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