Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

January 14th, 2009:

The Ban On Idling Engines

Tim Hamlett’s Hong Kong
A veteran journalist and Baptist University academic, Tim looks at the issues facing the city.

E-mail him at

Updated on Jan 14, 2009 – SCMP

You have to sympathise with the officials grappling with the finer points of the ban on idling engines. Engines running in stationary vehicles are widely regarded as a nuisance and health hazard, a view for which there is ample scientific authority. On the other hand a ban on idling engines is bound to be opposed by sundry transport interests, many of which have demonstrated in recent years the power and the willingness to bring parts of the city to a halt.

Clearly you can’t please all the people all the time. Looking at the list of exemptions – for queuing minibuses, queuing taxis, buses and coaches carrying one or more passengers, people with turbo-charged diesel engines, which apparently need to calm down for three minutes before you switch them off – it would be easy to characterise this as a public education campaign masquerading as legislation.

My experience of minibuses is that the drivers never switch them off, even when they are stopped at a filling station with a hose in the fuel orifice. I have always supposed this to be due to fear that the engine, if allowed to stop, would refuse to come back to life. I suspect drivers so willing to risk roasting themselves and their passengers are unlikely to be much influenced by the prospect of a small fine.

It will be interesting to see what creative use is made of the exemption for a bus, coach etc with one or more passengers on board. Will we see the appearance of professional passengers, who for a small fee will sit in a coach so it meets the legal requirements to allow it to run its air con? Or if that sounds too pricey for the marginal end of the industry, is there a possible market for inflatable passengers, which can be deflated and stowed away if a real passenger needs the seat, and swiftly reinflated with a foot pump at the end of each trip? Perhaps the owners of buses and coaches will turn out to be principled people who would not dream of stooping to such tricks to evade the clear intention of the law. But I am not, as it were, holding my breath.

Anyway, at the risk of adding further to the burdens of the transport officials wrestling with this matter, I have to draw their attention to a problem: my car. It’s one of those nifty Japanese jobs with an electric motor and some added gadgetry – a hybrid. It is classified by the Californian authorities as a vehicle with zero emissions. This is presumably the case when the engine is idling as well as when it is doing something more strenuous, so as far as the intention of the law is concerned, there is no problem. With the letter of the law the situation is more tricky.

Generally speaking, at speeds below 12km/h cars of my kind switch off the petrol engine and run from the big battery concealed in the back seat. When you stop, the engine is already off – and the air con is still on, which is nice. However, this arrangement involves some drain on the battery. So at some point without intervention on the part of the driver, the car will switch on the engine to charge the battery.

This is going to present a problem to the person coyly referred to in government documents as the “enforcing agent”, who I presume will be a police officer. At least he’d better be if he is going to hang around minibus stands interfering with the tranquillity of drivers; those guys have some rough friends. When my car stops I am presumably not required by law to turn off the engine. It is off already. If it starts up, it was not started by me. Is the traffic officer supposed to arrest the on-board computer? But if the computer can be arrested separately, then I can presumably count as a passenger.

Perhaps this is a more imaginary problem than a real one. My car, even with the engine running, is silent enough to be a serious hazard for unwary pedestrians in car parks. I understand you can now buy a noise-making kit for it, which sits under the bonnet and projects spurious engine noises forward to warn people of its approach. So I do not expect the activities of my engine to attract much attention.

Still, no doubt some happy “enforcement agent” will find a fruitful hunting ground among the fleets of private cars lurking in the lower Mid-Levels around 4.30pm, waiting for the summons to take the boss home. This is not a very satisfactory prospect because the contribution to air pollution from static cars is actually quite small. Meanwhile, I suspect, large diesel engines will continue to find that for the sake of their restless turbo-chargers or imaginary passengers, they need to continue to belch out muck in large quantities. You can’t, as we were saying before, please all the people all the time. When this kind of dilemma crops up, somehow it is the people who like clean air who end up with the dirty end of the stick, as it were. Evidence for this generalisation? Stick your head out the window and sniff.

Will Guangdong Meet 2010 Emission Reduction Targets?

Lawmakers sceptical that HK, Guangdong will meet 2010 emission reduction targets

Cheung Chi-fai – SCMP – Updated on Jan 14, 2009

Lawmakers remain worried that Hong Kong and Guangdong will not meet their 2010 targets for emission reductions, despite figures showing they are making progress.

Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department says emissions of three of the four pollutants are on track to meet the targets – reductions from 1997 levels of between 20 and 55 per cent. The odd one out is sulfur dioxide. Emissions in 2007 were 3 per cent above their 1997 level.

“I am very pessimistic about whether we will be able to meet the targets as we have just two to three years left,” said Democrat legislator Lee Wing-tat at a meeting of the Legislative Council’s subcommittee on improving air quality yesterday. Other legislators said officials had not taken air pollution seriously.

Liberal Miriam Lau Kin-yee, who represents the transport sector, said the lawmakers should take the lead in fighting air pollution by minimising car use when commuting to the Legislative Council in Central.

Undersecretary for the Environment Kitty Poon Kit said the government was confident the city could meet the targets once power plants, the largest emitters of sulfur dioxide, finished desulfurisation in the next few months. Dr Poon said the government would consult the public about a review of air quality standards by the middle of the year.

Critics say the city’s 22-year-old air quality objectives do not safeguard public health. The government intends to adopt interim targets set by the World Health Organisation.

Meanwhile, a coalition of road transport operators has called on the government to withdraw its proposal to ban idling vehicle engines, saying it would hurt their business and would not improve air quality.

However, the number of hours in which street-level pollution exceeded danger levels in three of the city’s most crowded areas rose by an average of 14 per cent last year. In Causeway Bay, the increase was more than 40 per cent.

The coalition, comprising at least six taxi groups and transport unions, is circulating a petition and does not rule out stronger protests.

Coalition spokesman Chung Kin-wah said: “There is no room for negotiation.”

Mr Chung said the ban would lead to operating difficulties for commercial vehicles and enforcement problems and endanger drivers and passengers.