Saturday, November 18, 2006

Hong Kong Smog

By Uncle C

Is there something fundamentally misguided in the Hong Kong government department responsible for tackling our horrendous and worsening pollution problem? I get the impression that the government has a mindset that prefers to concentrate on what is not possible rather than what can be done. A sort of negativism pervades their utterances and policies. Take a look at the four main aspects of the pollution that blight our lives, cost the economy billions and actually kill the weak.

First, electricity generation. The government has negotiated long-term terms of control with the makers of our electricity which have left the government in a stranglehold. Measures to reduce pollution from generating stations will take time and lots of money and in the short term there is little that can be done, we are told. But isn’t this way of thinking too negative? Should not the emphasis be on large-scale solutions, alternative sources of energy, even if the cost is great? Hong Kong faces the sea, we have plenty of off-shore islands, there is plenty of untapped wind energy. Why can’t we lead the world and tap that wind energy by building huge off-shore wind farms. Of course the wind does not always blow, and sometimes it blows too fast for wind turbines, so we need back-up sources of supply. But the back-up supply could as easily be pollution-free nuclear power. It seems that the latest designs of nuclear stations are much safer and produce hardly any nasty radioactive waste. Why can’t Hong Kong negotiate with China and find sites for new nuclear power stations. But whatever happens we simply must close down mega-polluters like the Castle Peak and Lamma Island generators.

Secondly, transport pollution. The government is tied into long-term agreements with the bus companies that actually create unnecessary pollution. As everyone knows our roads are often clogged with buses carrying few passengers. Perhaps the bus companies should be penalised for every empty seat/kilometer they carry. As for cars, the government appears wedded to the ancient idea that the best answer to congestion is to build more roads. But we all know that new roads simply lead to more vehicles and yet more congestion. Again, we need to think the unthinkable. Higher taxes on the most polluting vehicles, congestion charging, variable parking charges, charges per kilometer — there are lots of ways to tackle vehicle pollution. And more can be done to encourage electric vehicles. The same applies to aviation pollution at the airport, which is a pollution blackspot. Should we not be thinking about pollution taxes on air transport?

Thirdly, urban planning. Our planners are wedded to the ultra-high-rise solution. This is mainly the result of the old colonial policy of high land prices. Our urban roads have become narrow canyons of high-rise buildings. Take a walk down Hollywood Road and between the new skyscraper blocks where the narrow street level lives in permanent shade. Heat and pollution from air-conditioners and vehicles is trapped between the buildings and cannot escape. Surely, we need a change of direction. Let’s move away from the high land price policy and design buildings so that pollution can escape. We also need rules that require buildings to create their own pollution-free power.

Finally, there is that old bugbear, pollution imported from across the border. Most of this pollution is caused by factories owned by Hong Kong businesses and I simply cannot understand why the government cannot tackle the problem. The fact that the polluters are outside the jurisdiction is not an insurmountable problem. Again, there is this govrenment mindset that says because the pollution is outside our jurisdiction, there is nothing or not much that can be done. This negativism is a principal part of our pollution problem.

Oh, I forgot to mention the big common thread that links all four pollution problems. Every solution will mean offending big business interests. Does the government have the stomach for that?

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