Hong Kong needs to fast-track electric buses, trucks and coaches, not just private cars, to really clean up roadside air

For the first time, a chief executive of Hong Kong was unable to deliver the policy address in the Legislative Council this year. Even so, looking at the policy documents, it is doubtful that the government can deliver on them.
Climate change and Hong Kong’s waste crisis aside, air pollution continues to affect our lives, much like the social unrest. Indeed, the government’s policies, funding schemes and environmental campaigns have all failed to raise the city’s environmental conditions to the levels enjoyed by other developed economies.
Air pollution remains a serious issue, lowering Hong Kong’s international liveability ratings. The government claims that between 2013 and 2018, the concentration of PM10 and PM2.5 respirable particulates, and nitrogen dioxide, dropped by around 30 per cent.
But air pollution levels tend to spike whenever a tropical cyclone approaches, and ironically, diluting pollution concentrations depends on proper air flow rather than stronger policies.
As for Hong Kong’s consistently poor air quality, particularly at the roadside, reasons include exhaust emissions, congestion, poor engine maintenance, emissions from ferries and large vessels, and the street canyon effect, which hinders the dispersion of pollution.
With the introduction of government incentives, the number of electric vehicles on our roads is growing, albeit slowly. Inadequate charging facilities across the city have been the main bottleneck. Car owners can afford electric vehicles, even luxury models costing over HK$1 million (US$127,500); their worry is finding a recharging facility.
Offering HK$2 billion in financial aid to residential estates to increase the number of charging facilities is a welcome, if belated, move. This will help overcome concerns from building owners’ corporations and address some of the problems identified by the Ombudsman.
However, while private vehicles contribute to congestion, they do not account for the greatest share of roadside air pollutants. The main polluters are franchised buses, trucks and coaches, which spend more time on the road than most cars.
The government needs to set aggressive targets for vehicles, especially commercial vehicles (starting with buses) to become electric-powered, in order to reach World Health Organisation air quality guidelines as soon as possible.

Officials claim that Hong Kong’s conditions are too challenging for electric-powered double-decker buses. If an electric motor cannot power a double-decker bus by itself, there are diesel-electric hybrid models which could be adopted in the interim for better fuel economy and lower emissions.
If Hong Kong does not have enough expertise, officials should not be too proud to seek help from Shenzhen, which is far ahead of us in green public transport.
According to 2017 data, the shipping sector accounts for the highest emissions of sulphur dioxide (52 per cent) nitrogen oxides (37 per cent) and particulate matter (an average of 37.5 per cent).
The proposal to reduce the sulphur content of locally supplied marine diesel from 0.05 per cent to 0.001 per cent, and to run a test scheme of electric-powered ferries is a worthwhile step, but the quantities are too small to achieve significant improvements.
Worldwide, ports have adopted onshore power facilities at terminals to eliminate – rather than just lower – harmful pollutants emitted by cruise ships and container vessels.
In Hong Kong, the three main terminals are close to business and residential districts. If the government is serious about safeguarding public health, there is no reason not to install such onshore-power facilities at Hong Kong’s terminals. A 2015 feasibility study approved the building of such facilities for Kai Tak Cruise Terminal.
Besides local ferries and ships, many ocean-going vessels operate in Hong Kong waters and their emissions need to be lowered, too. There is a global trend for ocean-going vessels to use liquefied natural gas to cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
This year, Hong Kong mandated the use of low-sulphur-content fuel (not exceeding 0.5 per cent) for all vessels at berth or operating in Hong Kong waters. But the city needs to quickly catch up with world trends, otherwise LNG-powered vessels will steer clear of Hong Kong. This could see the city lose business competitiveness and subject the health of citizens and visitors to unnecessary risk.
Worldwide, many countries have announced plans to ban the sale of fossil-fuel vehicles. Taiwan will prohibit the sale of non-electric vehicles by 2040. Norway is expected to stop selling fossil-fuel cars by 2025; it has the highest take-up rate for electric cars, at 46.6 per cent last year, compared to 1.3 per cent for Hong Kong.
Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing has said the government plans to phase out all fossil-fuel vehicles by 2030 or 2040. The plans for zero-emission road transport are welcome. However, Hong Kong needs to take a holistic approach if the city is to achieve its vision of clean, safe air for everyone to breathe.bsp;
Edwin Lau
Executive Director of The Green Earth
31 October 2019 SCMP