Public policy think tank Civic Exchange today called on Chief Secretary Henry Tang to work with the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), Transport Department (TD), and the Secretary for Food & Health to reduce the threat to public health caused by pollution from the franchised bus fleet, which accounts for up to 40% of roadside emissions.
“Air pollution, especially from commercial diesel vehicles, is the greatest unmanaged threat to public health in Hong Kong. Conflicts of interest and misallocation of responsibility within the Government are delaying swift action to fix the problem. It is the clear duty of the Chief Secretary to resolve this”, said Mike Kilburn, Environmental Programme Manager, Civic Exchange.
Franchised buses account for up to 40% of peak period roadside pollution. Most of the fleet (4,000+ of 5,700) run on highly polluting pre-Euro, Euro-I or Euro-II engines. Diesel emissions are directly linked with asthma and allergies, and a range of chronic conditions including strokes, heart and lung diseases.
Civic Exchange also noted that EPD had identified measures to reduce emissions including the introduction of low emissions zones in congested areas, and the introduction of catalytic convertors, and that the Financial Secretary has allocated HK$300 million in a Pilot Green Transport Fund to fund trials of cleaner technologies. Bus operators have either resisted the proposals or remained silent.
TD directly controls the replacement of buses, requiring operators to keep buses running between three and five years after they are fully depreciated. TD does this to keep fares low – bus operators’ returns are based on their capital assets (including buses), and fully depreciated buses have no capital value. However, once buses are fully depreciated, early retirement comes at no cost to the bus operator, so there is no need to pay compensation.
Options for reducing public transport emissions will differ according to the routes they serve. Hybrid buses are the easiest to introduce. They would dramatically reduce pollution, cut carbon emissions and fuel consumption, and require no changes in infrastructure. Hybrid buses cost about HK$4.5 million, compared to HK$3 million for a diesel-powered Euro V bus, but their operating costs are about 30% lower.
Civic Exchange also expressed concern over the lack of urgency in reducing emissions, even though the facts regarding the health impacts are well established.
“The urgency to clean up comes from the proven threat of roadside emissions to public health. But EPD has a limited remit, less expertise and no moral authority to address health issues. This can only come from the Food and Health Bureau. Until the Secretary for Food and Health is accountable to the public for the impacts of air pollution the lack of urgency to clean up is likely to remain?” added Kilburn.
Summing up, Christine Loh, Chief Executive Officer, Civic Exchange noted: “The Chief Secretary must set the direction with a clear policy statement: ‘to improve Hong Kong’s air quality to the point where pollution nolonger poses a significant threat to human health, as it does today.’”