Motion on “Improve the Deteriorating Air Quality in Hong Kong” (2010.05.05)

Speech of the Hon K P Chan, JP at the Legislative Council on 5 May 2010 Motion Debate On Improving Air Quality

MR PRESIDENT: The increasingly poor air quality in Hong Kong is a cause for concern to the business community as well. Apart from being a threat to people’s health, it is also adversely affecting the environment of doing business. Multinational enterprises consider a list of factors in choosing regional headquarters in Asia and local air quality is definitely on the check list. In comparison to our major rival, Singapore, we are not only less aggressive in attracting foreign investment but also falling far behind in air quality. I therefore support this Motion.

Admittedly, the latest sandstorm calls for the Government to review and improve our early warnings and alerts so that people may be kept well informed. In my view, however, we still have to tackle the root cause of poor air quality. Actually, the Environment Bureau has done considerable work and put forward measures to redress the problem but most of them are either falling short of expectations or debatable at policy level.

Let me start with power plants. Electricity generation is the largest source of pollution in Hong Kong. If fuels of very low pollutants like natural gas were used instead, emission of carbon dioxide, inhalable suspended particles and other pollutants would be considerably reduced. This issue deserves more inputs. In his Policy Address of 2008/09, the Chief Executive undertook to increase the share of natural gas in power generation from the current level of 28 percent to 50 percent. However, during the public consultation on air quality benchmarks the Government also pointed out that such increase in use of natural gas would also push up the electric bill by 20 percent. In my view, the Government should not shift its responsibility and costs of improving air quality and reducing pollution to the public. Moreover, these considerations should not hinder the progress of its original pledge. Details of the action plan are still awaited and I look forward to an early agreement between the Government and power companies.

Apart from local sources, Hong Kong is also considerably affected by regional pollution. In 2003, the SAR Government and Guangdong Provincial Government signed the Pearl River Delta Area Air Quality Management Plan. The Plan will expire at the end of this year. Although there are encouraging improvements, regional air pollution remains severe. Last year, there was an unconfirmed report that the two Governments might discontinue sharing common targets in emission reduction. People are concerned that the two Governments might cease to cooperate in environmental issues. Fortunately, they have now signed Guangdong-Hong Kong Cooperation Framework Agreement that provides for joint efforts in research and setting targets and measures on reducing total emission of pollutants in the Pearl River Delta Areas from 2010 to 2020. I wish the two Governments would reach agreement on new targets not before too long because regional air pollution severely impacts on Hong Kong. No matter how good our home control on pollution sources might be the air quality in Hong Kong would hardly be improved without first redressing regional pollution.

In this year’s Budget, the Financial Secretary is allotting HK$540 million as one-off subsidy to encourage owners to replace Euro-II diesel vehicles early with a view to improving road-side air quality. The previous scheme of subsidy for replacement of Euro-I diesel commercial vehicles would expire at the end of March this year on schedule. Actually, Government first offered subsidy for replacing pre-Euro and Euro-I vehicles in 2007 but the result was disappointing. Eventually, less than HK$600 million out of HK$3.2 billion allotted was spent and some 38,000 of these vehicles are still running on the road.

With the unspent sum of HK$2 billion brought down from expired schemes, the Government is actually resourceful to operate replacement schemes of pre-Euro, Euro-I and Euro-II models in parallel. The Government could even improve these schemes with more incentives or by extending their eligibility to scrapping old vehicles. In a nutshell, the imminent target should be reducing the number of old model diesel vehicles that are causing serious pollution on the road. Hence, it is disappointing that the Government is terminating previous plans on schedule although they are still falling short of original targets.

Finally, I would like to say a few words on switching off idle engine. The Environment Bureau has table at this Council a bill to enforce mandatory “switch-off”. I believe that the spirit of the law deserves support but we should be cautious on enforcement. Hong Kong summer is hot and humid. Cabin temperature will go up rapidly under the sun if idle engine is switched off, affecting the health of drivers. We promote environmental protection for safeguarding the health of people but the policy initiative might become a health hazard. It is an irony that deserves our serious consideration.

Mr President, with these remarks, I support the Motion

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