Lack of political will holding back push for green transport

The minibus is a common form of public transport in Hong Kong. As of the end of February, there were over 4,300 minibuses on our roads with more than 3,400 of them powered by liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
The government launched the LPG minibus scheme in 2002, offering HK$60,000 if operators replaced diesel-powered vehicles with LPG ones as part of measures to improve roadside air quality. However the sole distributor of LPG minibuses in Hong Kong, Crown Motor, has told the government it will stop importing them by 2021. This makes it essential that the government swiftly propose a practical and environmentally friendly solution to the minibus industry to prevent it from switching back to diesel vehicles.
But our government seems unconcerned about the likely increase of roadside air pollutants if diesel minibuses return.
It is well aware that the annual concentrations of harmful PM10 and PM2.5 particulates at Hong Kong’s roadsides last year were 38.7 micrograms per cubic metre and 25 micrograms per cubic metre respectively, well above the 2005 World Health Organisation air quality guidelines of 20 and 10 micrograms per cubic metre.
The government set up the Pilot Green Transport Fund in early 2011 with HK$300 million to subsidise trials of green transport technologies. But as of this March, only three electric light buses, 11 hybrid light buses, 21 single-deck electric buses and two single-deck hybrid buses were undergoing trials, out of a total of 149 vehicle trials.
It seems that the fund has not succeeded in persuading the public bus sector to choose electric or hybrid models for daily operations.
To reduce the main vehicular emissions including nitrogen dioxide and particulates, experts recommend turning public and private vehicles electric.
But Hong Kong relies on power grids that use fossil fuels to recharge a small number of electric vehicles. One might argue that this simply means electric vehicles produce air pollutants and greenhouse gases at the power plants instead of at the roadside.
True. But it is far easier to control air pollutants from a few stationary sources than from hundreds of thousands of vehicles moving on roads. Other developed economies and even the mainland have implemented policies to support the use of electric vehicles. For that reason, their electric motor and power storage system technologies have advanced rapidly in the last 10 years or so.
By the end of 2017, our neighbouring city of Shenzhen has turned its entire fleet of over 16,000 buses electric, becoming the first city in the world to do so. Hong Kong is just next door, but our government has not learned from this striking example.
Currently, Hong Kong has more than 6,000 franchised buses, mainly powered by diesel, as well as the minibuses. Together they are the main forms of public transport after the MTR. The failure to turn them electric and thereby make big cuts in air pollutants has lowered Hong Kong’s rating as a liveable city and driven away health-conscious professionals who could be a great asset to the city’s sustainable development.
In 2017, researchers from Hong Kong Polytechnic University recommended the use of lithium-titanate batteries coupled with ultra-fast charging system for buses. It was estimated that the amount of roadside suspended particles would drop by 17 per cent if the entire public transport fleet went electric.
If our government genuinely cares about public health, the health and environment ministers should submit a joint proposal to turn the public bus network electric. There is no excuse in terms of technology or money, the only thing lacking is political commitment. To healthy people, air pollution is a slow-release toxin, but for people with illnesses, air pollution is an acute toxin that could end their lives prematurely.
Edwin Lau
Executive Director of The Green Earth
21 April 2019 SCMP