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No Time For More Hot Air On Pollution

Chris Yeung – Updated on Feb 27, 2008 – SCMP

It sounds undiplomatic, but speaking at a media session on a report about better air quality, the head of a government-appointed panel on sustainable development declined a request from a radio journalist for a formal interview.

“I don’t want to talk any more,” said Edgar Cheng Wai-kin. “It’s been almost two years since we launched a public engagement exercise on better air quality. People want to see action.”

Dr Cheng, who chairs the Council for Sustainable Development, has good reason to feel concerned about whether the government and community can walk the walk after the prolonged debate on how to clean our foul air.

Kicking off a session with senior journalists on Friday, which followed a separate session with environment-beat reporters on Thursday, he made it clear that the Council’s Report on Better Air Quality Process deserved better media coverage.

The report, submitted to the government about 10 days ago, was publicised in a brief despatch by the Information Services Department. Officials gave no immediate response. Media coverage was scant.

The government’s cool treatment of the report reflects a sense of caution among officials. They are wary of raising expectations about an early implementation of the proposals contained in the document.

This is simply because ideas such as an electronic road-pricing system, a new alert system on high air pollution days and subsidising the upgrading of buses to the latest Euro vehicle standards are bound to trigger yet more heated debate.

It is not surprising that officials prefer more time to study the report before making a commitment on specific measures. But, if a feeling of unease has gripped council members and some sectors of the community, it is because of the depth of uncertainty about the practical meaning of the so-called public-engagement process in handling difficult issues such as air pollution.

Noting shortcomings in the government’s traditional public-consultation method, the council has adopted a new style of bottom-up engagement in policy discussions. This process, in the context of the report on better air quality, meant there was a full programme of discussion sessions, public exhibitions, stakeholder meetings and briefings for students. An unprecedented 80,000 written responses were received.

Of these, an overwhelming majority either expressed support for, or no opposition to, the electronic road-pricing proposal. Most respondents also indicated that they were willing to pay higher transport fares for cleaner air.

The formation of a strong body of public opinion on ways to beat air pollution could become a double-edged sword for the government. Public backing for certain proposals could become ammunition for the government to fight tough political battles when turning ideas into policies. Clear, strong public support could, nevertheless, limit the room for the government to play a balancing act in policy formulation.

Now that there is a clear public mandate on certain anti-pollution measures, the government will face growing pressure for an explanation on which ones are plausible, how and when they can be achieved, and why others are non-starters.

If the government fails to meet these expectations, it will deepen public scepticism that the high-level sustainable development body – an initiative of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa – is just another talk shop with a fancy name.

Reflecting on the experience of the five-year-old council, Dr Cheng said Hong Kong needs a combination of bureaucrats and “out-of-the-box thinkers” to tackle problems like air pollution.

The thinkers have done their job in setting out what can be done. Now it is the bureaucrats’ turn to work out the policy options for people to choose.

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