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November, 2008:

A Last-gasp Idea For Clearing Our Air

ALAN ALANSON, SCMP – Nov 30, 2008

It is quite a relief to come into the office on a Monday morning and breathe a bit of clean air. Spending the weekend in my apartment with the windows closed and the door shut, I kid myself that the air inside is cleaner than the air outside. It is, of course, the same air. And that is why, by the time the weekend is over and my throat is itching and my eyes watering, I am glad to sit in the industrially treated environment of my office.

The fact that the air in Hong Kong is so disgusting seems to have become such a normal part of life that pretty much everyone I know doesn’t even bother to talk about it any more. No one believes Hong Kong’s politicians are capable of, or interested in, doing anything about the poisonous state of something we consume every day. But it is really starting to get me down.

Walking through the streets of Central in the evening and looking at the outline of car headlights through what looks like fog but is in fact pollution is pretty depressing.

So I have a solution: hire my team to privatise it. The air. We’ll sell it to the highest bidder. It wasn’t so long ago that everybody thought government needed to be in charge of electricity, the water supply, buses and trains. Those ideas have long since gone, so how long before we accept that government is perhaps not best equipped to manage the environment, either?

Right now, the idea of a private corporation managing our air supply seems strange – but could they do a worse job than the people who are currently in charge?

When governments mess things up, particularly governments that aren’t really accountable to the people they govern, nothing much happens. Inquiries are launched, press releases are sent out or, now and again, there are protests or a few scathing newspaper articles, but change is slow.

On the other hand, when a corporation screws up, there are almost immediate consequences: share prices crash, people get fired, creditors disappear, and things either get fixed or the corporations cease to exist.

Look, for example, at the tainted-milk scandal. By stark contrast to the governmental response to air pollution, the reaction to the illness caused by tainted milk powder was pretty swift and pretty direct. Now if Mengniu Dairy Group were in charge of our air and it was found to be supplying a tainted product that was causing respiratory illnesses, I imagine we could expect a pretty quick response.

Of course, the downside is that we would actually have to start paying for air, whereas now we are getting it for free, kind of. But, actually, we would only have to pay for the air we consume, and probably for any damage we do in the process. So if all you do is breathe, and you don’t own a car or a coal-fired power plant, you won’t be paying much.

So this is how it will work. The government will sell the right to supply air to Hong Kong to the private corporation that offers the most for it. Laws will need to be put in place to give the winning bidder the ability to collect fees from everyone using or damaging the air, and the new “Air Company” will take over and start sending every person, every electricity company, every minibus owner and every smoker an invoice every month.

That’s how privatisation works. The government sells control of the toll road, the water supply or the electricity supply to a private party, and that party charges us to use what was once a public asset.

The Air Company will have to pay the government a huge sum for the right to take over the air, and they will have to be very careful to protect that investment. For one thing, the Air Company is certainly not going to let their air be destroyed by exhaust and industrial omissions, otherwise they will be left with nothing to sell. The fees, therefore, for destroying the air will probably be a fair bit higher than the fees for just using it.

Initially, everyone will complain that they are paying for the same air they always used to get. But after a little while, when polluters realise they have to pay for the right to poison the air, they will try to reduce their Air Company bills. Car owners will drive a bit less, power companies will actually install cleaner technology, taxi drivers will switch off their idling engines and, miraculously, the air will start to clear. When everyone can breathe again, they will be glad to pay their air bill at the end of every month.

And at the end of all this, the city will once again fill up with banks, law firms and other companies looking for a city in Asia with a decent environment. What’s more, the government will be able to claim that it really has eradicated Hong Kong’s air pollution.

Contact Alan Alanson at

Hong Kong Lags On Bus Emissions

Nov 28, 2008 – SCMP

I refer to the letters by Mary Chan (“Why allow polluting buses?”, November 17) and Charlie Chan (“Government and bus companies trying hard to curb pollution”, November 19). Hong Kong is still behind many major world-class cities in terms of introducing and implementing new pollution-reduction vehicles.

For example, more than 60 per cent of London’s huge bus fleet already meets Euro III emissions while the remainder have met Euro II standards. For Hong Kong, Euro II has not been implemented throughout the SAR. Only 84 per cent of buses will achieve this standard by 2011.

Nonetheless, unlike Ms Chan I still think buses are much more efficient than private cars and taxis in terms of emissions and space. Even if half-full, taxis are much less efficient as they occupy much more space just to transport a few (or sometimes only one) passengers. However, I do agree that overlapping bus routes should be adjusted to reduce stops.

Samuel Chan, Sha Tin

Incentives Don’t Cut Diesel Fumes

Nov 28, 2008 – SCMP

The most lethal thing you can breathe in at road level is particulate matter (PM) 2.5 emitted from the exhausts of old diesel vehicles, which exacerbates the PM2.5 in the air from our power companies.

Diesel emissions also contribute to our urban smog. The government has offered generous terms for the owners to trade up to newer Euro V vehicles.

This offer is akin to asking smokers to stop smoking.

The government needs to be more proactive and force these old diesel trucks and buses off our roads.

It would be interesting to know how many vehicles the bus companies here actually own rather than lease from the banks. Voluntary measures will not work so more stringent methods such as increased licensing costs need to be used.

James Middleton, Yuen Long

We May Not Eat Poison, But We Still Breathe It

Edwin Lau – SCMP – Nov 22, 2008

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, in his policy address, announced that the government is considering adopting the lowest standard of the latest World Health Organisation’s guidelines on air quality. This announcement was made ahead of the completion of the report reviewing air quality objectives.

Does this imply that the government already has its response to the air quality review exercise before the work – by an advisory panel and a paid consultant – is even completed?

The answer is quite apparent. Shouldn’t we then ask the administration why it has delayed for 18 months the adoption of the WHO’s guidelines on air quality and wasted taxpayers’ money?.

It is a shame that our government has not followed all the necessary steps but is instead considering adopting the lowest standard of the WHO guidelines.

These guidelines aim to help governments set appropriate standards in order to protect public health. Indeed, much tighter standards than those chosen as Hong Kong’s current objectives are used by other world-class cities such as London and New York.

When the WHO released the latest guidelines on air quality standards two years ago, our government told the public that it needed more time to consider what technology was required, as well as the financial implications, so it declined to immediately adopt any of those targets.

Meanwhile, experts repeatedly warned the administration that the deteriorating air quality in Hong Kong was costing more than 1,500 lives a year, with thousands more children and elderly suffering from illnesses related to air pollution.

The government recently released results from the Hong Kong-Guangdong regional air monitoring programme that show declining air quality in 13 of the 16 monitoring stations, including three in Hong Kong. This shows that control measures implemented by both governments, including Mr Tsang’s Action Blue Sky Campaign, launched more than two years ago, have been ineffective.

Hope is at hand. The mainland has agreed to provide Hong Kong with a steady supply of liquefied natural gas, a far cleaner fossil fuel than coal, for electricity generation for 20 years. If the government can tighten caps of key emissions for power companies, it should significantly reduce levels of key pollutants like sulfur dioxide, particulates, and oxides of nitrogen and carbon dioxide (a major greenhouse gas). That would leave only roadside pollutants from vehicles to be tackled. No doubt our government knows that the main culprits of this type of pollution are older diesel vehicles, mostly among the city’s franchised buses.

On this matter, the administration must take a strong stance and insist that these harmful vehicles, including high-emission old franchised buses, be retired by 2010. In the interim, low-emission zones should be introduced in crowded areas with heavy traffic, to ban polluting vehicles during peak hours.

I believe most Hongkongers are very disappointed that Mr Tsang did not put public health at the top of his policy agenda, especially considering the speed with which the government amended legislation to boost food inspections for melamine and other poisons.

Tainted food and air pollution are known – and largely avoidable – risks to public health, so surely it is the administration’s responsibility to remove these hazards, as far as possible, from our city.

As a matter of public health policy, the government is right to set strict melamine limits in our food. Following the same principle, it is inconceivable that it should still refuse to abide by internationally recognised air quality objectives to protect the health of its own people.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is director of Friends of the Earth (HK)

Eco-friendly Brick Cuts Pollution, Says Inventor

Ng Yuk-hang – SCMP | Updated on Nov 21, 2008

From now on, there is another excuse to drink beer – provided it is in glass bottles. Glass waste can indirectly help reduce air pollution, according to Poon Chi-sun of Polytechnic University, whose “Eco-Block” won two awards at the 6th International Exhibition of Invention.

The Eco-Block is a brick made from recycled glass and construction waste. Professor Poon and his team say the blocks work by catalysing nitrous oxides, a major greenhouse gas contributor in the atmosphere, into non-hazardous substances. The blocks can reduce the amount of these oxides in the air around them by 20 per cent.

“These bricks can be used to pave pavements in highly polluted areas such as Causeway Bay and Mong Kok,” he said.

The blocks, which cost 20 to 30 per cent more than normal bricks, are already being used at City University, Chinese University and Polytechnic University. Dixon Chan Chun-wan, a former student of Dr Poon, said they started the project about five years ago by picking up glass bottles in the street in Lan Kwai Fong, after noticing that glass was not being recycled in the city.

“Originally, we were unable to convince soft drink companies to give us glass bottles,” he said. “But they are now more willing to recycle.”

The Eco-Block won a gold medal and the special prize at the exhibition in Suzhou last month. Four other inventions captured one gold, two silver and one bronze medal for the university. The gold-medal-winning Fab- ricEye system analyses and grades fabric samples on a five-point scale. Other inventions include a system for forecasting tourism demand and a system that turns 2D technical drawings into 3D images of skyscrapers. The system can mimic every step of the construction process and reduce costs. Jack Chung Kam-hung, technical officer for the project, said: “With this system we can plan the construction schedule more tightly and see if there are design errors – for example, whether two pieces of wall fit together.” He said the system had already been adopted by the city’s top five contractors, including Gammon Construction and China Overseas Holdings, and had been used in planning One Island East, Tseung Kwan O Sports Stadium and the Venetian Hotel in Macau.

Killer On Loose

SCMP | Updated on Nov 21, 2008

I refer to the report (“Public urged to check for respiratory illness”, November 17). The death rate for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease averaged four per day two years ago. The cause is directly linked to pollution.

If a murderer was killing off Hong Kong people at the rate of four a day, would the government be setting up endless studies and committees or would it use all possible resources to find and hopefully stop the murderer? Yet, in the case of pollution, all we get is procrastination – even with regard to informing the public of actual pollution figures based on World Health Organisation standards.

I appeal to the government to stop this “murderer” now.

Bina Nihalani, Mid-Levels

Study: Environmental Protection Not Up To Par In HK

China Daily HK Edition – November 21, 2008

Hong Kong people have seen an overall improvement in the city’s sustainable development, but are mostly dissatisfied with its efforts in environmental protection, a study has found.

The environment, afterall, is generally considered one of the most important aspects – right up there with education.

City University of Hong Kong (CityU) and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce of Hong Kong (CCC) have conducted their sustainable-development study for the fifth year. A total of 2,013 Cantonese-speaking people older than 18 were interviewed between December and January.

The CCC identifies 10 key economic, environmental and social areas as important for the territory’s continual development.

Based on the level of importance and that of satisfaction with performance in each area rated by the respondents, the Hong Kong Sustainable Development Index (HKSDI) is calculated.

The index in 2007 bounced to a new high of 103.6, up from 102.6 in 2006, with baseline of 100 in 2003.

“The gaps between importance and satisfaction in nine of the 10 priorities decreased in 2007, resulting in an overall increase in HKSDI,” said Graeme Lang, convener of CCC’s SDI sub-committee.

This revealed that the community saw an overall improvement in most issues to bring Hong Kong toward sustainable development last year, he added.

While the education system had been the most important item in recent years, environmental protection was tied for first this year with both issues scoring 8.3 out of 10.

Lang explained that the media has been covering more on climate change and global warming over these years, which raises public awareness of environmental conservation.

However, interviewees viewed the progress on environmental protection the worst among all 10 agendas, giving it a barely passing grade of 5.5 out of 10.

Among all environmental issues, 52 percent of the respondents ranked clean air as the top concern, down from 65 percent last year.

“People are losing hope in tackling air pollution,” said Andy Cornish, director of conservation for World Wide Fund For Nature Hong Kong. “The government is also lagging behind public expectations.”

Bus Ban Plea

SCMP | Updated on Nov 20, 2008

In the letter (“Why allow polluting buses?” November 17) Mary Chan rightly asks why buses belching black smoke are allowed.

I would add to the list a ban on buses and all traffic coming up D’Aguilar Street and turning onto Stanley and Wellington streets. These areas should be converted to pedestrian use only with allowances for the occasional delivery vehicle to service the businesses there. But do we really need massive double-decker buses, minibuses and a raft of taxis and private cars cramming these small side streets? The answer is no.

I am sick of walking towards Wellington Street only to have a bus throw choking clouds of black smoke into my face. It is unacceptable.

Randall van der Woning, Tai Po

Government And Bus Companies Trying Hard To Curb Pollution

SCMP | Updated on Nov 19, 2008

I refer to the letter by Mary Chan (“Why allow polluting buses?” November 17). She argues that the government is doing nothing to combat worsening pollution in Central. This is far from the truth.
In fact, the government has required franchised bus companies to take a number of measures to reduce vehicle emissions. These include deployment of environmentally-friendly buses on busy corridors, installation of emission reduction devices, rationalisation of bus routes and stops and the introduction of bus-bus interchange schemes to reduce bus trips. As a result of rationalisation, bus trips in Central were reduced by 18 per cent (2,800 trips) from 1999 to 2006. The total number of franchised buses has decreased from about 6,200 at the end of 2000 to about 5,900 at the end of 2006. These measures have helped reduce roadside emissions, particularly along busy corridors.

Also, bus companies have tried their best to deploy environmentally-friendly vehicles in Hong Kong. By the end of 2006, around 66 per cent of the franchised buses had engines of Euro II or above emission standards. All buses with pre-Euro and Euro I engines (about 34 per cent of the bus fleet) have been retrofitted with catalytic converters or continuous regenerating traps. It is estimated that by the end of 2011 the number of franchised buses with Euro II engines or above will increase to 84 per cent of the total fleet.

Most importantly, local bus companies have made a great effort to protect our environment.

Take KMB, for example. As of June 30, KMB had 4,018 buses, all of which comply with Euro emission standards.

At present, more than 600 KMB buses reach Euro IV-standard emissions. From this year, the even more environmentally-friendly Euro V diesel, with only 0.001 per cent sulphur content, has been progressively introduced in the KMB fleet. This new type of near-zero sulphur diesel can make a further contribution to improving the environment through cleaner emissions.

Undoubtedly there is room for improvement, but our government and bus companies have tried their best to deal with the pollution problems.

Charlie Chan Wing-tai , Sha Tin

Fees For Older Vehicles May Rise

Cheung Chi-fai – SCMP | Updated on Nov 19, 2008

Licence fees for more than 30,000 commercial vehicles may rise under a proposal that aims to encourage the replacement of polluting vehicles older than 15 years, according to the environment watchdog.

The new rule would affect all types of commercial vehicles regardless of their fuel types and emission standards, but Environmental Protection Department officials gave no figures on fee increases they might be considering as enough to deter the continued use of old vehicles.

Officials said in a paper submitted to the legislature yesterday that the proposal was intended to be introduced by 2010, when the HK$3.2 billion subsidy for the replacement of the old diesel commercial vehicle fleet expired.

Launched last year, the scheme has been regarded as a failure as only 23 per cent of pre-Euro and 14 per cent of Euro I vehicles have been replaced with newer Euro IV models, which are up to two times cleaner than the old models.

The term Euro refers to a set of standards defining the acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of new vehicles sold in European Union member states.

The paper said older vehicles tended to have more breakdowns and tailpipe emissions of up to four times higher than a new vehicle.

Officials believed that a vehicle age of 15 years – and all pre-Euro standard vehicles will reach that age by 2010 – was the right threshold to trigger the fee increase.

There are about 30,000 vehicles registered on or before 1995 on the road, including more than 1,720 that are at least 20 years old. They are charged a licensing fee of between HK$1,289 and HK$8,429 each year.

Lai Kim-tak, spokesman for the Medium and Heavy Truck Concern Group, opposed the scheme, which he said would increase truck operators’ financial burden amid a serious business downturn. He said the government should buy old vehicles, similar to the chicken industry buyout.

But Friends of the Earth director Edwin Lau Che-feng said the proposed 15-year threshold was too lenient; the cut-off should be 10 years and made specific to each Euro-model standard.

He called for a double-digit fee rise and said the government could consider using vehicle mileage as one of the parameters to determine the level of the increase.