CHRISTINE LOH – SCMP – Jan 15, 2009
It’s curious, but people are not voicing their concern about air pollution to those who can most do something about it. The government needs to adopt the national environmental plan and set a good example. Civic Exchange’s full survey report, titled “Hong Kong’s Silent Epidemic” and carried out by the Hong Kong Transition Project, was released last Saturday. It looked at how the public is reacting to air pollution and public health. It found that people discuss air pollution with family, friends and co-workers but most of them are not taking matters up with the government, legislators and the media.
So why don’t people complain publicly? They say they don’t think it will help. Some say they don’t know how to, while some don’t believe air pollution is affecting them.
Government officials should pay close attention to the report. It reflects badly on them when people say complaining won’t help. These people have lost confidence in the government’s ability to deal with the problem. The administration also has a responsibility to those who don’t know how to complain, or don’t believe they are affected. Hong Kong’s high level of air pollution speaks for itself – officials need to act.
Moreover, the level of dissatisfaction with government efforts is a very high 77 per cent. Past efforts have included switching taxis and minibuses from using diesel to LPG, supplying ultra-low-sulphur diesel, pushing regulation of idling engines, providing subsidies to replace highly polluting commercial lorries, and tightening emission caps for power plants. But despite these, the public remains dissatisfied, even though people have been silent. Pollution levels have not changed much, according to scientific data, and most people don’t feel any different. Those in charge will no doubt argue that Hong Kong will see substantial reductions in power-plant emissions because of the addition of flue gas desulfurisation technology. With the phased commissioning, Hong Kong should see lower emissions later this year. By 2011, 90 per cent of sulfur dioxide emissions from power generation should have been eliminated, and other pollutants significantly reduced. Officials have focused on power plants in their pollution-reduction strategy. They have yet to get to grips with another major polluter – transport. Viewed in this light, power plants are the easy option. There are only two power utilities in the city. Yet, transport involves many operators, on land, sea and in the air. The major public health culprits are diesel-powered road vehicles – vans, buses and lorries – and marine vessels – tugs, barges, ferries and ships of various sizes.
So far, government initiatives have, on the whole, been end-of-pipe solutions, such as switching to cleaner fuels and adding emissions traps. There have been limited efforts to combine them with urban planning and demand-side management tools to reduce the “canyon effect” on streets and create better roadside environments for the public. And hardly anything has been done to combat the pollution from the burning of toxic bunker fuels, by marine vessels, that gets blown to where people live and work.
It has become blindingly obvious that the government needs to change direction. Public health needs to be an explicit regulatory and legislative driver, and government bureaus and departments must integrate their work. There has been a lack of vision and leadership at the very top. Now the legislature has formed a new subcommittee to tackle air pollution, lawmakers can play a much more active role in calling officials to account and pushing for integrated policies. Without this, we have little to look forward to.
There will be those who say it is not the time to push because of the economic situation. The national 11th Five-Year plan would make good reading for them. The plan puts environmental protection on a par with economic growth and recognises that change must involve comprehensive action using legal, economic, technological and administrative measures. There is a national vision – would Hong Kong’s officials like to get on board?
Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange. firstname.lastname@example.org