Hong Kong will ban high-polluting vehicles and offer subsidies to replace diesel-powered buses and trucks, after 15 years of clean-air measures failed to limit smog responsible for more than 3,000 premature deaths a year.
The government will introduce its new “carrot and stick” approach next month, Christine Loh, undersecretary for environment, said in an interview. She said past incentives weren’t big enough, declining to provide the size of the planned subsidies.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is making air quality a priority as smoggy skies and choking exhaust fumes have turned the city into the world’s most polluted financial center. Air quality has gotten worse since 2007, 10 years after then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa vowed to clean up pollution in his maiden policy speech.
“When we look at the totality of what we’re going to be pushing out, I think we’ll be among the most aggressive in the world,” Loh said. Leung will announce the new measures during his January policy speech, and reduction in emissions should start by 2014, she said.
Hong Kong has never met its air quality targets in the 25 years since they were adopted. Some 121,300 commercial diesel vehicles, which include franchised buses operated by companies controlled by billionaire Cheng Yu-tung, are the biggest contributor to roadside pollution, Loh said.
Failure to force aging buses and trucks off Hong Kong’s streets is a key cause of pollution that results in more than 3,000 premature deaths a year, according to Civic Exchange, a think tank that Loh founded before joining the government.
Last year saw 175 days of very high pollution, more than twice the figure from 2007, the government said in an audit report last month.
“There was no big stick before saying owners must make the switch,” said Hung Wing-tat, an associate professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a member of the Clean Air Asia Partnership Council. “Hong Kong started clean air initiatives more than ten years ago but we’re always afraid of opposition and protecting economic interest.”
Airborne particles from vehicle exhausts and power stations have the greatest impact, and are linked to 9 percent of lung cancer deaths globally, according to the World Health Organization. Hong Kong’s average roadside level of nitrogen dioxide, which inflames lungs, was more than triple WHO limits.
“Because roadside is our biggest daily public health risk, that is where we’re going to focus our firepower,” Loh said. The government also plans to curb emissions from taxis and public light buses, she said. “If the carrot that we give is reasonably attractive, then we want to make sure after a certain period of time, the old vehicle is essentially banned.”
Hong Kong has lagged behind rivals in upgrading its bus fleet and legislating against polluting cars. Of the 121,300 commercial diesel vehicles in Hong Kong as of Oct. 30, more than 40 percent were Euro II models or lower, according to the Environmental Protection Department. There are five EU standards, with I the least stringent and V the most.
Singapore, which topped Hong Kong as the most desired place in Asia for mobile millionaires, banned such vehicles in 2001. Euro II models emit 12.5 times as much particulate matter as Euro V, according to the Civic Exchange.
In June 2010, the government announced a plan offering HK$540 million ($69.7 million) for owners to replace Euro II vehicles, subsidizing as much as HK$203,000 of a new one. As of October, about HK$340 million of subsidies have been approved.
“Hong Kong has the resources, but of course we need to persuade other people in the government that we should be spending substantial amounts of money where we can make the biggest difference,” Loh said.
NWS Transport Services Ltd., the second-biggest bus company jointly owned by Chow Tai Fook Enterprises Ltd. and NWS Holdings Ltd., said in an e-mail reply to questions that the government hasn’t contacted it about incentive plans. It also said current subsidies for diesel commercial vehicles don’t cover franchised bus operators.
Kowloon Motor Bus Co. (1933) Ltd., which operates the most buses in Hong Kong, said in an e-mail reply it won’t comment on the planned subsidies because details aren’t yet available. The company will spend more than HK$5 billion to upgrade its fleet over the next five years, and has also installed converters on older buses to improve emissions, it said.
Other measures in the roadside pollution program includes a revamped index to gauge air quality and reducing bus routes, Loh said.
Hong Kong will implement a new set of air quality objectives in 2014 which, if attained, would save 4,200 unnecessary hospital admissions and 7,400 statistical life years annually, according to the government’s audit. Loh said the government believes the targets can be reached by 2020.