HK to see 'major reduction' in air pollution in 6 months

Hong Kong will see a "major reduction" in its roadside pollution within the next six months, as the government clamps down on a long-running problem that causes thousands of premature deaths annually and hurts the city's business competitiveness.

A new scheme will revoke the licences of taxis and mini-buses if they do not comply with tougher maintenance standards, said Undersecretary for Environment Christine Loh as she delivered the pledge.

These 20,000 vehicles are the culprits for increasing levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide - a key contributor to smog - here. Since 2008, it has gone up by nearly 20 per cent, even as levels of other pollutants declined.

The reason, said Ms Loh, was that while these vehicles had upgraded to cleaner LPG fuel, they fail to change their catalytic converters, which convert harmful emissions, regularly. These need to be changed every 18 months.

So under the new scheme, the government will pay for the owners to get a one-time replacement of converters which cost HK$10,000 (S$1,600) each. They have until next March to do so.

The bite comes in April, when five mobile sensors will be placed around the city, to spot and photograph recalcitrant vehicles.

Those nabbed will be given a grace period of 12 days to make the change, after which they will lose their vehicle's licence, said Mr Pang Sik Wing, the city's principal environmental protection officer for air sciences. Vehicles will also have to go for annual checks to ensure they comply.

Fighting air pollution is a key prong of the Leung Chun Ying government.

In March, an ambitious seven- year road map that included replacing some 80,000 diesel commercial vehicles was rolled out. But it has since met with some roadblocks, including resistance from industry.

Last month, the government announced it will delay by a year the phasing out of Euro I, II and III diesel vehicles.

Asked about this, Ms Loh said: "It's about striking a deal with them, a matter of negotiation. We think we have a scheme that is broadly acceptable. Unfortunately, we have to give up on some things."

The efforts extend beyond working on internal emissions.

In a press conference with the foreign media last Friday, Ms Loh said that the city is lobbying Beijing to work towards getting the waters of the Pearl River Delta (PRD) to be declared by the International Maritime Organisation as an emission-controlled area. This will mean stricter controls on ships belching sulphur oxide and other emissions.

These measures, among others, will hopefully herald cleaner air in the larger PRD region - an "air shed that is shared by 50 million people", as Ms Loh puts it.

The issue of air pollution is closely watched here by both the local community and foreign investors, and has gained currency again in recent weeks.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Oct 17 declared that air pollution causes cancer in humans, sparking talk here of whether workers can sue their employers for work-related cancer.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government, while saying it will be more proactive in wooing foreign talent, acknowledged that air pollution is a key obstacle.

Last year, WHO ranked Hong Kong 559th out of 566 cities when it comes to air quality.

Ms Kwong Sum Yin, chief executive officer of environment group Clean Air Network, said that the measures are a step in the right direction but called for more to be done.

One immediate possibility, she suggested, is to create zones in crowded districts to bar polluting vehicles.

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