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Rooting out the source of bad air
By Hong Liang
Published: Dec 7 2010 9:12
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Many people in Hong Kong have complained about the deteriorating quality of the air they breathe. I read a recent article by a noted environmentalist warning that more and more expatriates and well-to-do Hong Kong citizens are leaving because they can no longer stand the foul air of this city.

Hong Kong has no industry to speak of. So, we have to look for the source of the pollution elsewhere.

Some environmentalists blamed the smokestack industry in Shenzhen for fouling Hong Kong's air. But that shouldn't be a problem in the summer when the southeast monsoon blows pollutants from Shenzhen northward, away from Hong Kong. What's more, there is really little the Hong Kong government or its people can do about pollution drifting down from the mainland.

The main source of pollution, however, must come from the tens of thousands of cars, vans and trucks that clog the highways and streets for almost the entire day, every day. You don't need to bore yourself reading statistics to establish the fact. All you need to do is stand on the sidewalk at a main street in Causeway Bay for half an hour and you'll understand how bad the pollution problem in Hong Kong is.

The government has made numerous efforts to fight automobile pollution. Thanks to government incentives, nearly all taxis in Hong Kong have converted to cleaner fuel that emits much lower levels of pollutants than cars running on traditional gasoline engines.

The latest government measure, which should have been introduced much earlier, requires drivers to turn off idling engines of waiting cars.

None of the government efforts seems, so far, to have achieved any noticeable reduction of automobile pollution. It's not clear how many people actually have emigrated from the city because of Hong Kong's bad air. Numerous studies have shown however, that air pollution is the top concern of many Hong Kong people. It is time for the government to be seen to take strong measures to clean up the air Hong Kong citizens breath.

The obvious place to start is the private car. Hong Kong's efficient public transport system has made private cars redundant. For most people, owning a car is a luxury rather than a necessity. What's more, car ownership is not really a luxury that can offer much pleasure in Hong Kong because of the severely limited parking space available in the city centers and the almost constant traffic congestions on many roads.

For that reason, there should be little concern for social or political backlash in forcing high emission, gasoline powered, private cars off the roads, by raising registration fees to prohibitive levels. Meanwhile, the government should consider introducing meaningful incentives to encourage motorists to switch to cars burning cleaner fuels.

The government should set an example by replacing its own fleet of gas-guzzling official cars with vehicles that run on lower-emission engines, such as the new-generation diesel engines or the various semi-electric-powered hybrids. Senior officials need not worry about compromising on luxury or prestige in making the change. Luxury car makers such as Mercedes Benz of Germany and Lexus of Japan produce and sell top-of-the-line models that run on alternate engines.

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