Hong Kong Engine Pollution Ban Hurt by Exemptions as Smog Climbs to Record

Hong Kong will ban idling engines to reduce vehicle emissions from as early as September, after pollution climbed to a record last year. A 14-year battle to curtail roadside smog was hurt by exemptions to the bill.

Drivers will be fined HK$320 ($41) should they idle engines for more than three minutes, according to the bill passed March 5. Government exemptions, including to cabs queuing at stands, lessened the impact of the law, environmental groups said.

New World First Bus Services Ltd., Citybus Ltd. and groups including the Motor Transport Workers General Union have fought the legislation, a proposal first sent for public consultation in 2000. Roadside smog reached “very high” levels for a record one in four days in 2010. Pollution is linked to 4,800 additional deaths between 2007 and 2010, the University of Hong Kong said Jan. 19, and is hurting the city’s ability to lure talent, according to the General Chamber of Commerce.

“The bill has been watered down a lot as the government caved in to political pressure from the transport sector,” said Edwin Lau, director at the Friends of the Earth (HK). “We don’t think this could bring significant improvement to the worsening air, but it’s better than nothing.”

Changes to the bill included the exemption of all cabs at stands, from just two vehicles in line, and allowing some buses to be exempted should they have at least one passenger on board.

More Vehicles

“The evisceration of this bill by transport interests demonstrates lawmakers’ inability to defend public health over the interests of narrow constituencies,” said Joanne Ooi, chief executive officer of Clean Air Network, a lobby group.

Vehicles are the second-biggest source of pollution in Hong Kong, after power stations, and their numbers rose 9.6 percent between 2004 and 2009, according to the government.

“We have carefully examined the views of the community, the needs of drivers and the transport trades, and balanced the effectiveness of the proposal,” the Environmental Protection Department said in an e-mailed statement. “It will certainly help reduce the environmental nuisances and the associated health hazard caused by idling vehicles.”

Hong Kong’s efforts to reduce pollution date back to Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s predecessor, Tung Chee-Hwa, who in his maiden policy speech in 1997 said “traffic fumes” and pollution swept in from China are problems the city must tackle.

Nitrogen Dioxide

While pollutants from neighboring China declined after an emission control pact with the Guangdong provincial government, the average level of nitrogen dioxide, a major auto pollutant that will shorten lives after prolonged exposure, was almost triple the European Union’s safety level from January to June last year in Central.

“We risk doing something too late,” said Fu Xiaowen, assistant professor in transport economics and policy at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “Pollution is slowly killing us. The government should do more, whether in terms of offering tax breaks or funding electric cars.”

Hong Kong said in its budget last month it is trying out hybrid buses and plans to replace government vehicles with electric ones. Nissan Motor Co. agreed to advance supply of its Leaf electric car to Hong Kong, the government said January.

Still, a government plan to replace older vehicles on the road has met with objections from bus companies concerned about incurring extra costs.

Citybus and New World, which run the most bus routes on Hong Kong Island, have resisted, saying they won’t speed the replacement of older, more polluting buses.

Older Vehicles

“We will follow a schedule for replacing buses based on their age to avoid wasting resources and increasing pressure for fare increases,” Citybus and New World, 50 percent owned by a unit of developer New World Development Co., said in a statement to Bloomberg. Buses will be replaced after serving 17 to 18 years, said the companies.

Buses account for as much as 40 percent of traffic in the busiest areas, and about 25 percent of the franchised buses have engines with emissions worse than the European Union II standard. Singapore banned such vehicles in 2001. There are five EU standards, with I the least stringent and V the most.

The tussle highlights the struggle of Asia’s third-richest economy to convince transport companies to pay for cleaner vehicles as a survey released in December said a quarter of respondents would consider leaving because of pollution.

“The pollution problem is an underestimated threat to the viability of Hong Kong as a center,” said Anthony Limbrick, chief investment officer of hedge fund Pure Capital Ltd. “It is not an environment that is easy to take a family that takes fresh air for granted to.”

Smoggy Shopping

The daily average pollution level in Central registered as “very high,” which triggers a health warning, for 86 days in 2010, up from the 44 days in 2009. Central, which has Mandarin Oriental International Ltd. (MAND)’s hotels and stores of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, was the worst among the 14 districts monitored. Last week, pollution reached “very high” levels in the five business days in Central.

“It’s obvious that the air is getting worse as we see smoky smog covering the harbor more than ever,” said Isabella Chan, sales and marketing director at Franklin Templeton Investments (Asia) Ltd. “Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe on the street.”

About 35 percent of the franchised buses would be retired by 2015, with costs pegged at between HK$2 million and HK$3 million each, the government said. Replacing all of them now isn’t possible, and trials are being conducted to fit emission- reduction devices to buses, Environment Secretary Edward Yau said Jan. 5.

Peregrine Cust, founder of Prana Capital, chose Singapore over Hong Kong when he moved his investment team from London in April partly because of the air, he said.

“A clean, healthy, friendly environment in Singapore was a big consideration,” said Cust. “The pollution obscured the Kowloon view from Central. You could almost taste it!”

To contact the reporters on this story: Sophie Leung in Hong Kong at sleung59@bloomberg.net; Marco Lui in Hong Kong at mlui11@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Panckhurst in Hong Kong at ppanckhurst@bloomberg.net

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