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January, 2011:

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.

Still up in the air

South China Morning Post

Jan 17, 2011

Go back and read what former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa said in October 1999. I did. It’s easily available. Just search on the internet for his 1999 policy speech to the Legislative Council. It’ll either astonish or infuriate you. It did both to me. Tung wasn’t a particularly inspiring leader. But, if all the promises he made 11 years ago in that speech had been realised, we wouldn’t be looking across the harbour today and seeing smog instead of our famous skyline.

I’ll just quote some of the things he said about our filthy air. “Pollution has not only tarnished Hong Kong’s image as an international city, but also greatly affected our health. It is high time we faced up to the problem.” There’s more. He said our filthy air was 50 per cent worse than New York’s, getting worse, and already making people sick. He listed targets such as getting rid of polluting vehicles that would make Hong Kong’s air comparable to that of New York and London by 2005.

Tung made that policy speech more than 11 years ago. Is the air we breathe as clean as that found in New York and London? We all know the answer to that. The question is why. Why has a promise made in 1999, to be delivered in 2005, still not been kept in 2011? Why have government objectives laid down 11 years ago to phase out polluting vehicles, ban idling engines and switch to an electrical trolley bus system still not been realised?

We can’t blame it all on Tung, because he is no longer the chief executive. His unpopularity forced him to resign in 2005, coincidentally the year we were promised clean air. But we can blame some of it on him. He had more than five years to keep that promise, but didn’t. Who else should we point fingers at?

It’s been six years since Tung quit, but air pollution has steadily worsened, not improved. Our air is now far worse than it was when Tung made his promise 11 years ago to clean it up. If that isn’t a failure of government, past and present, then I don’t know what is. We’re still stuck with air quality objectives that date back to 1987 even though the government has spent millions of your tax dollars in public consultations on new targets. There are still thousands of polluting vehicles, including buses, on our roads. And our power companies are still allowed to burn coal for the bulk of our energy needs.

There’s this phony argument that much of our filthy air comes from the thousands of mainland factories in the Pearl River Delta. The government likes to cover up its inaction by hiding behind that argument. Every time the air pollution issue is raised, officials point the finger at the mainland. Sure, mainland factories are responsible for some of our air pollution. But polluting vehicles are the main cause of the filthy roadside air you breathe every day. Dealing with that is totally within our control.

Tung’s old speech both astonished and angered me. Our government recognised the threat over a decade ago. Yet it wasted that decade. Tung at least told the truth about our filthy air – it is seriously affecting the public’s health. Neither Tung’s successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, nor the environment secretary, Edward Yau Tang-wah, has linked air pollution with public health. They treat the two as separate issues.

We have traffic lights to protect drivers and pedestrians. We ban guns so people don’t kill each other. We even ban fire-crackers for safety reasons. So why does the government allow the air we breathe to kill elderly people, give children asthma, and make the rest of us sick? There is no great mystery about how to clean up the air. Other developed societies have done it. Why haven’t we?

Why? The people don’t care enough. They would rather breathe filthy air than pay a bit more for cleaner buses and energy. The bus and power companies don’t care. They would rather have higher profits than pay for cleaner buses and energy themselves to protect public health. The legislators don’t care. They would rather buy votes by serving the narrow interests of their constituents than the overall health of society. And if the people don’t care, the government doesn’t care. It is safer to do nothing than gather the guts to show strong leadership. So happy breathing, everyone.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster.

HK again suffers very high air pollution

RTHK 15 Jan. 2011

Hong Kong is again experiencing very high air pollution, with the roadside station in Causeway Bay recording a level of 179 this morning.

Readings taken at Central and Mongkok have reached 155 and 156 respectively.

General stations have also recorded high levels, with the readings taken at Kwai Chung going as high as 117.

Levels are also very high in Sham Shui Po, Tsuen Wan and Yuen Long.

The government advises that those with existing heart or respiratory illnesses should avoid prolonged stays in areas with heavy traffic, or if they must stay in these areas they should reduce physical exertion as far as possible.

Proposed Application to the Hong Kong SAR Government for a Grant from the Pilot Green Transport Fund for the Purchase of experimental Electric Trolley Buses for use on Discovery Bay Road

Download PDF : TrolleyBus-Proposal-F (2)