Peter Liang urges the gov­ern­ment to fol­low some for­eign coun­tries’ ex­am­ple and gives a cut-off date on fos­sil fu­els

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

While Hong Kong drags its feet in com­bat­ing wors­en­ing air pol­lu­tion, the Chi­nese main­land and other ma­jor economies such as France, the United King­dom and In­dia have set am­bi­tious goals to phase out gaso­line and diesel cars.

The Bri­tish gov­ern­ment has said that by 2040 it would ban sales of new cars pow­ered by fos­sil fuel as part of the ef­fort to clean up the air in cities. United King­dom En­vi­ron­ment Sec­re­tary Michael Gove told the BBC that the only op­tion was to em­brace new tech­nol­ogy.

France has gone one step fur­ther by ban­ning even hy­brid cars that have sup­ple­men­tary gaso­line en­gines. In­dia, mean­while, will in­sist all new cars are elec­tric by 2030, a whole decade ahead of Bri­tain and France.

The Chi­nese main­land has al­ready be­come a ma­jor pro­ducer of elec­tric cars for both the do­mes­tic mar­ket and ex­port. A Hong Kong bus firm is con­duct­ing a trial run on elec­tric buses made by a main­land com­pany on some routes.

In fact, gov­ern­ments in many de­vel­oped economies are ac­tively pro­mot­ing the use of elec­tric cars with tax and other in­cen­tives. Lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in ma­jor cities are in­vest­ing heav­ily in set­ting up elec­tric charg­ing sta­tions to min­i­mize own­ers’ concerns about the lim­ited range of their elec­tric ve­hi­cles.

The Hong Kong gov­ern­ment used to tax elec­tric cars at a much lower rate than con­ven­tional ones. But it abruptly hiked the tax on elec­tric cars in its pre­vi­ous year’s bud­get as part of its ef­forts to cut traf­fic con­ges­tion by re­duc­ing the num­ber of ve­hi­cles on the street.

Since then, traf­fic has con­tin­ued to worsen, not im­prove. En­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cials have in­sisted the street-side air qual­ity was im­prov­ing. But pub­lished data show air pol­lu­tion on most days has re­mained at lev­els that pose a threat to pub­lic health.

It’s such a shame. As a city by the sea, Hong Kong should be much less sus­cep­ti­ble to air pol­lu­tion than most in­land cities. What’s more, Hong Kong has no man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries that would foul its air.

The source of air pol­lu­tion in Hong Kong is read­ily de­tectable. It’s from cars that clog the streets while belch­ing harm­ful pol­lu­tants as they crawl through traf­fic.

To be fair, the gov­ern­ment has made great ef­forts in try­ing to dis­cour­age car own­er­ship. But mo­torists have re­mained un­fazed by high taxes and the ris­ing cost of keep­ing cars in Hong Kong, where a park­ing space can cost as much as a small house in some other cities.

With a highly ef­fi­cient and rel­a­tively af­ford­able pub­lic trans­port sys­tem, you’d think

Although sales of elec­tric cars, led by Tesla, have in­creased, they only ac­count for a small per­cent­age of the car pop­u­la­tion in Hong Kong. Other than the higher prices, mo­torists are re­luc­tant to switch to al­l­elec­tric cars out of con­cern about the lim­ited mileage of each charge.

peo­ple would hap­pily aban­don cars in droves. That, un­for­tu­nately, is not the case in Hong Kong where car own­er­ship is still con­sid­ered a sta­tus sym­bol. That ex­plains why peo­ple here love their cars big and pow­er­ful although streets are mostly nar­row and traf­fic is al­ways slow.

As it is, the air pol­lu­tion prob­lem in Hong Kong will only be­come worse. No­body has done a study to gauge the eco­nomic cost of air pol­lu­tion. But it is widely be­lieved the prob­lem has greatly un­der­mined Hong Kong’s attractiveness to pro­fes­sional tal­ents in bank­ing and tech­nol­ogy, es­pe­cially those with young chil­dren, who are most vul­ner­a­ble to air­borne pol­lu­tants.

To re­verse this trend, the gov­ern­ment has lit­tle choice but to fol­low the ex­am­ples set by some other de­vel­oped economies by set­ting a target to elim­i­nate the source of air pol­lu­tion. With­out a gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tive, mo­torists are not go­ing to go elec­tric vol­un­tar­ily.

Although sales of elec­tric cars, led by Tesla, have in­creased, they only ac­count for a small per­cent­age of the car pop­u­la­tion in Hong Kong. Other than the higher prices, mo­torists are re­luc­tant to switch to all-elec­tric cars out of con­cern about the lim­ited mileage of each charge.

That should not be a big con­cern in Hong Kong, where the av­er­age dis­tance of travel is much shorter than in other places. The elec­tric­ity com­pa­nies are of­fer­ing a ser­vice of in­stalling chargers — at a cost, of course — for elec­tric car own­ers in their garages.

But the only ef­fec­tive way to con­vince mo­torists to make the switch to elec­tric is to make it their only choice some­time in fu­ture. Only that would make them take a hard look at elec­tric cars now.

The au­thor is a vet­eran cur­rent af­fairs com­men­ta­tor.

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