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HK must fast-track switch to electric buses


Thomas London says Hong Kong is overlooking a ready-made opportunity to improve air quality – it should catch up with the latest technology in electric buses being developed and produced over the border

Aug 13, 2012

Hong Kong has recently experienced record-breaking smog levels. The Environmental Protection Department said that roadside pollution in 2011 was the worst on record. Clear the Air, a local non-governmental organisation working for improved air quality, reports that the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions have jumped 14 per cent from 1990 to 2005 and that vehicles are the second greatest contributor to air pollution. The Hedley Environmental Index estimates that this past month’s pollution will mean 154 premature deaths in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is unusual among developed-world cities both in the poor quality of its air and the many easy opportunities to cut pollution. Replacing the city’s ageing diesel-powered bus fleet with electric buses would effectively cut vehicular emissions, improve air quality and alleviate subsequent health complications. Hong Kong’s solution for where to source such a vehicle lies just across the border.

Mainland China has prioritised the development of electric and hybrid vehicles in response to its growing dependence on foreign oil. The government announced annual subsidies of up to 2 billion yuan (HK$2.5 billion) for fuel-saving vehicles, including electrics and hybrids, in an attempt to foster growth in the industry and eventually put five million alternative energy vehicles on Chinese streets by 2020. Hong Kong can benefit from this initiative, utilising the funds used to develop the mainland’s electric vehicle industry.

Shenzhen’s BYD, the company famed for being one of the world’s largest rechargeable battery manufacturers and winning financial backing from Warren Buffett, released an all-electric bus this past year. The K9 is fuelled by both solar power and a rechargeable lithium iron phosphate battery – one three-hour charge gives the bus a 250-kilometre range in urban settings.

This vehicle is fully capable of handling the routes and distances covered by the current bus fleet and would immediatelyminimise carbon emissions and noise pollution.

The Hong Kong government has acknowledged the potential of integrating electric vehicles, establishing a benchmark to make 30 per cent of private vehicles either hybrids or fully electric by 2020. The Transport Department is considering deploying electric buses from Kowloon Motor Bus. However, the vehicle’s range is a minuscule 10 kilometres, meaning these buses cannot be used on regular routes.

Money is not an issue. Last financial year, the government amassed a budget surplus of more than HK$73 billion. In fact, initial funding to implement the switch to public electric buses had been previously allocated. Leung Chun-ying’spredecessor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, prioritised an electric bus fleet, setting aside HK$180 million for the transition during his final policy address as chief executive. Furthermore, the Pilot Green Transport Fund has set aside HK$300 million to promote more sustainable transport solutions.

Many regions already recognise the benefits of operating all-electric public buses. Governments in Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Amsterdam and Ontario are all slated to integrate the K9 into their transport systems. Chinese cities, including Changsha, Shaoguan, Xian and most notably Shenzhen, have effectively put the bus through its paces. The fleets have collectively travelled over five million kilometres without major incident. The K9 is ready for Hong Kong.

Partnering with BYD would strengthen Hong Kong’s ties with mainland Chinese businesses and neighbouring Shenzhen. If successful, the partnership would encourage other mainland companies to invest and develop for the Hong Kong market. It may even boost public sentiment towards the ability of the Chinese private sector to benefit Hong Kong.

The new bus fleet would serve as an example of Chinese innovation and cutting-edge technology, a notion that too many dismiss as non-existent.

The Leung administration could use a political victory. Leung has the opportunity to illustrate his commitment to the city’s health and long-term sustainability while facing what one would assume to be little political opposition. Introducing the new fleet would promote Hong Kong as a modern, forward-thinking city. In short, pursuing this initiative would provide a much-needed easy win for the administration.

Hong Kong has a unique chance to illustrate its commitment to green technology and sustainability. Few cities are as fortunate to have a massive budget surplus, close economic ties with the world’s largest exporter, and new political leadership eager to improve its reputation. Even fewer are presented with a simple way to address one of its most significant problems.

Hong Kong must introduce electric buses to abate roadside pollution and overall emissions. Get smoggy diesel buses off the road now so that Hong Kong’s people can once again smell the scent of Asia’s most fragrant harbour.

Thomas London is a Princeton-in-Asia fellow at the Asia Business Council

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