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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

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