Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Red light on private cars needed in Hong Kong to curb roadside pollution

CommentInsight & Opinion

Mike Rowse says air pollution caused by the combination of traffic congestion and tall buildings has created a health crisis that can only be tackled by cracking down on the number of vehicles on the roads

 

It is a basic duty of governments to maintain the health and safety of their citizens to the maximum extent possible. If they can’t do that, then they don’t deserve to call themselves governments.

There are two policy areas where our government is close to failing in its duty (some would say has failed): roadside air pollution and peak-hour public transport. The issues are connected, but what is really alarming is that the problems are well documented, the solutions are well known and readily available, yet the likely outcome is that nothing will be done until it is too late. This suggests we have a fundamental problem of governance.

The subject of air pollution is broad and multifaceted. There is the cross-border aspect because of industrial activity in Guangdong province. There is a marine aspect because our busy harbour is close to the urban area. Some measures have been implemented to address these issues in recent years, though many would say too little, too late. To be fair, we should also acknowledge the greater use of cleaner fuels in power generation. Despite these modest improvements, air pollution is thought to cause five premature deaths per day in Hong Kong, and contribute to the deaths of around 20,000 Hongkongers per year.

Specifically on roadside air pollution, Hong Kong has a particular problem because of the “canyon effect”, where we have a large number of tall buildings in proximity. The major cause here is emissions from motor vehicles.

There has been explosive growth in the number of private cars during the last 10 years. We now have over 750,000 vehicles of all types on our roads, more than 540,000 of which (over 70 per cent) are private cars. Their direct contribution to roadside air pollution is modest – probably under 5 per cent. But their very presence on the road in such large numbers creates congestion. These vehicles would cause a lot less pollution if they were able to move more freely.

Which brings us to transport policy. The mainstay of our public transport system is our railway network. This is world-class and does a great job. But as anyone who uses it during peak hours will know – and I suspect this does not include our ministers – the MTR is getting dangerously overcrowded at certain times. The extensions to existing lines and construction of new ones are welcome but at key interchanges, they will bring more passengers and exacerbate the problem. At Admiralty, the situation is already dangerous, tolerable only because of the good sense and behaviour of passengers. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

To reduce the overcrowding and danger, our railway needs to be supplemented by a well-planned network of bus routes. But no matter how good the planning is, it will be to no avail if the vehicles are not moving freely. We do not need more buses on the road: we just need the ones we already have to be able to make more and faster journeys.

Here, the roadside air pollution and peak-hour transport overcrowding problems come together. We must halt the growth in the number of private cars on Hong Kong roads and then take bold steps to reduce the total. We cannot rely on fiscal means alone to achieve this as Hong Kong is a wealthy society and some people will always be prepared to stump up. That means we have to introduce a permit system.

There are various ways in which this might be done. People wishing to buy a car could be invited to bid for one of the limited number of permits to be issued each year (whether by lucky draw or highest offer is open to discussion). Existing owners of cars over a certain age, say 10 years, would also need to secure a permit before their car is relicensed. Any such scheme would be wildly unpopular with owners, but unless draconian steps are taken, the roadside air pollution and transport safety situations will deteriorate.

We cannot continue with a situation where the environment department just records how bad things are, the health department tries to treat the afflicted, while the transport department passively licenses increasing numbers of private cars which add pollution and increase congestion. That is not joined-up government and it is time we had some.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises.

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How Europe is working to solve the plastic waste problem – and Hong Kong can, too

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
2018-01-25

Carmen Cano

Carmen Cano outlines a new EU strategy involving making recycling profitable, limiting use of non-recyclable plastics, stopping littering at sea and promoting R&D, to keep plastics out of our waters and bodies

Every year, Europeans generate 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, but less than 30 per cent is collected for recycling. Microplastics are now found in our lungs, air and dinner tables, and damage our health without us even noticing. We need to address this and that is the objective of the new European Union Plastics Strategy.

The strategy on plastics is part of the EU’s transition towards a more circular economy. It will transform the way products are designed, produced, used and recycled in the EU. Now plastics are produced, used and discarded without the economic benefits of a circular approach. This mistake harms the environment. Our goal is to protect the environment while laying the foundations of a new plastic economy that promotes economic growth. This can be achieved by fully integrating the need to reuse, repair and recycle throughout the entire life cycle of products. At the same time, we will continue to develop more environmentally friendly materials. Europe is best placed to lead this transition.

By taking the lead, we will turn a threat into an economic and health benefit, while creating new investment opportunities and jobs. Under the plans, all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and intentional use of microplastics restricted. To ensure the strategy is effective and yields the best results, the EU will measure progress and adapt its policies where needed.

What does the strategy mean in practice? First, make recycling profitable for business through new rules on packaging to improve the recyclability of plastics and increasing the demand for recycled plastic, along with new recycling facilities and a standardised system for the collection and sorting of waste across the EU. This will create a more competitive, resilient plastics industry.

Second, curb plastic waste. Standards in Europe have reduced plastics use significantly. The new proposal focuses on single-use plastics and fishing gear, measures limiting microplastics use, and labels identifying biodegradable, compostable plastics.

Third, stop littering at sea. New measures will ensure that waste generated on ships is not left at sea but returned to land and disposed of adequately. It will also reduce the administrative burden on ports, ships and competent authorities.

Fourth, drive investment and innovation with guidance for national authorities and European businesses to minimise plastic waste, with 100 million euros (HK$956 million) more in support for R&D for smarter and more recyclable plastics.

Get on board the battle to stop plastic polluting the oceans

The EU strategy is not only relevant for Europeans. Last September, the EU Office to Hong Kong and Macau held a beach cleaning with more than 100 volunteers at Rocky Bay beach. In less than two hours, more than 900kg of waste was removed, the large majority of it plastic. The world faces an emergency. If we do not change how we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. We must keep plastics out of our water, food and bodies. The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more. This is a challenge citizens, industry and governments around the world must tackle together. We hope the guidelines, available online, will be useful to others as well.

The EU will do its part but cannot, and should not, do it alone. Everyone must join in to make the waters clean, the air breathable and the environment safe again. Hong Kong can be a part of the solution and reap the benefits. The EU and its member states are ready to work together with Hong Kong on its plastic and environmental policies.

Ambassador Carmen Cano is head of the EU Office to Hong Kong and Macau


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Why big data must be shared to realise Hong Kong’s smart city vision

CommentInsight & Opinion
2018-01-24

Christine Loh says data transparency across government departments and access to information from private companies providing public services are needed to create a smart, sustainable city

Experts have warned that Hong Kong could slip behind in the use of big data. The challenge requires data sharing across government departments, so they can compare information and assess correlations for Hong Kong to function better across the board. Being a smart, sustainable city is all about maximising efficiency by saving as well as sharing resources.

Managing a city in the age of the internet of things requires governments to have the relevant data in the first place. In some cases, authorities have the data because essential services, such as electricity, water and transport, are provided by the public sector.

There are cases where all or some of those services are in private hands. Unless there are arrangements whereby private operators are required to provide the data to the authorities, accessing it is not easy.

In Hong Kong, electricity data belongs to private companies as power generation and supply are in private hands. While the electricity companies provide excellent services at a reasonable cost to users, they are not obliged to share all their data with the government. Now that energy saving has become a major part of the city’s climate-change efforts and creating a smart city is another policy objective, not having the data is an obvious hindrance.

The new schemes of control reached last year for the two electricity companies are more data transparent than before but there is room for improvement. Data for individual buildings would enable the government to draft sharper policies and help occupants be more energy efficient.

This contrasts with freshwater supply, which is provided by the Water Supplies Department, where the government has the full range of data to consider what it can do to save water. While it uses technology to identify leaks and get public water pipes fixed quickly, the department only stepped up dealing with private water pipe leaks after a highly critical Ombudsman report in 2015.

Another problem is the inability to raise water tariffs. The government is fully aware Hong Kong’s cheap water encourages wastage but fears legislators will object to any increase. So, the challenge in this case has not been the lack of data for analysis but the lack of will to deal with problems.

Mobility data presents other challenges. While the government is the largest shareholder of the MTR Corporation and can presumably access the data it needs, this is not the case for all other trips. Buses, minibuses, taxis and ferries are all operated by private companies. Small providers, such as minibus owners, may only collect minimal data.

Private companies providing public services say they can’t share data because of privacy issues or because it is commercially privileged information. In the case of water supplies, no one has complained about the government knowing how much water users consume or indeed waste. It is hard for the energy companies to make a case on privacy grounds. As regards whether releasing the data would lead to unfair competition between the two electricity providers, there could be arrangements whereby the full data could be given to the government on a confidential basis, which the government could then release publicly in a form that avoids unfair competition.

Transport data is mostly anonymous, although new services such as Uber don’t want anyone to access their personal ride histories. Even here, the companies can provide data without showing details about riders.

Data is king and it is a major policy issue for the government to work out with the private sector.

Christine Loh is chief development strategist and adjunct professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Division of Environment and Sustainability


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Asia’s world city? Hong Kong is mediocre at best, if we’re honest

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-21
Peter Kammerer says stagnant Hong Kong, with its low liveability rankings, need only look at Melbourne to see what a real globalised city offers residents by way of living
standards and civil liberties

Hong Kong’s government has been throwing around that tired old “Asia’s world city” tag since 2001. Anyone who gets to experience what’s on offer elsewhere knows that’s not true; it may arguably have been once, but no longer. We’ve fallen so far behind on representing global standards and values that such a claim is a joke. It’s time to rebrand, with an eye on honesty.

This was brought starkly home during a recent trip to Melbourne. I worked there in the mid-1980s and found it a pleasant enough city, but not sufficiently special to make me stay longer than two years. I moved to Hong Kong and was captivated. But the longer you stay somewhere, the more comfortable and less demanding you get; and I realise I’ve become far too complacent.

Melbourne has moved ahead by leaps and bounds since I lived there, which makes me realise how little Hong Kong has changed.

There’s culture, art and sophistication in downtown Melbourne; pedestrian precincts, roadside dining, street art and performance, free inner-city trams and large areas set aside for leisure pursuits – all with pristine air to breathe. This is a place that thinks about people and puts them first.

I’m not the only one impressed. The Economist Intelligence Unit has, for the past seven years, put Melbourne at the top of its annual global liveability ranking of 140 cities (Hong Kong placed 45th in the latest, and Singapore 35th). Lifestyle magazine Monocle’s top 25 liveable cities list for 2017 has Melbourne at number five, with Tokyo at the top, Hong Kong 15th and Singapore 21st. US consulting firm Mercer’s yearly quality of living study for expatriates ranked Melbourne at 16th, with Vienna at the top and Singapore 25th. Hong Kong only managed 71st.

These studies take into account factors like rights and freedoms, social and political stability, infrastructure, food prices, rent, public transport, education and air quality. Australian, Canadian and Western European cities usually take the top spots. In Asia, Japanese cities fare best, with Hong Kong and Singapore close behind.

Given that the research is by European and North American firms, their results understandably reflect liberal Western viewpoints.

In a world of globalised business, employment and education, it’s right to expect certain standards. Rule of law, freedom of speech and expression, and a reasonable quality of living are as essential as infrastructure, to attract major firms and talented employees. A city that doesn’t offer such fundamentals is bound to lose out. Cities are expected to follow trends and make improvements.

Melbourne has done that well and it’s paying off, with a booming economy and population growth in line to make it Australia’s biggest city by 2031. Hong Kong hasn’t had such dynamism. Worse, for all the gloating of the government’s Brand Hong Kong website about the city being “anchored on the bedrock of the rule of law”, with a “fair and stable society that cherishes freedom of expression”, there are those among us who increasingly have their doubts.

Recent comments by Beijing officials, court rulings and a continued lack of genuine democracy are just the start. High poverty levels, unfair treatment of ethnic minorities and the elderly, congested traffic and bad air quality say much; there’s been little, if any, change since we started contending to be a world city.

Those denied gay marriage, bike riders told they can’t have cycle lanes in urban areas, those lamenting the lack of outdoor eateries and shopping zones free of vehicles and diesel-choked streets, make plain we’re not what we claim to be.

So let’s rebrand. The obvious choice is Asia’s Mediocre City.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post


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People-first transport system eludes Hong Kong even as other cities race ahead

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-07

Peter Kammerer finds it hard to understand why, with its wealth of information and financial resources, the Hong Kong government is not adopting any of the bold ideas that are giving advanced societies cleaner air and a higher standard of living

 

Hong Kong’s top officials travel the world for meetings and to look for new ideas. They see and experience the best and our trillions of dollars in spare cash makes it easy for them to adapt and adopt.

Yet, on any given working day at rush hour, our so-called premier districts of Central and Causeway Bay are bottlenecks of people and vehicles, congested, polluted and unpleasant. The conclusion can only be either that the people who run the city on our behalf don’t much care about us or that they’re part of the sector of society that prizes cars as a status symbol.

It’s a different story in major cities in Europe and North America, where there’s a push for people-first downtowns. Roads are being given over to pedestrians and cyclists and, increasingly, electric cars. Public transport systems are being expanded. It’s all in the name of clean air, healthy living and, yes, “people first”.

Even Singapore has caught on. The government has announced it would stop issuing additional licences for cars and motorbikes from [2]February, keeping growth at zero per cent, because there simply wasn’t enough land for more roads. The move is in addition to taxes and fees that make car ownership in the island nation among the world’s most expensive.

Hong Kong has the same land scarcity problem, but our car numbers are going up. Some 11,955 additional private vehicles were registered from January to August, compared to 15,151 for all of 2016. Hong Kong has long been near the top of global lists of cities with the most vehicles per kilometre of road. Street-level air pollution hits unhealthy levels in the busiest districts numerous times a year.

There aren’t any new plans to make changes, either. A much-delayed road tunnel from Central to Causeway Bay has long been touted as the solution to congestion on Hong Kong Island. It has been given as the reason there’s no need to introduce electronic road pricing in Central; there’s no alternative route, the explanation goes, so no need to follow in the footsteps of Singapore, London and others.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan doesn’t even see any urgency about raising the first-registration tax for new car purchases, believing it to be a last resort and favouring soft approaches like discouraging ownership by making public transport more user-friendly. Keep in mind that this is a man who contended last month that car ownership was rising because young people were unable to afford homes and were buying cars instead to “ let body and soul wander off once in a while”. Well, if this is the guy in charge, those of us who want a better city are obviously fated to be bitterly disappointed.

But let’s be positive and believe that our government has our needs and desires at heart. Our leaders may be unelected, but they’re among the highest-paid officials in the world and they’re using our tax money, so they have an obligation to do right by us, surely. I’m not being naive here, simply mindful that a refusal to get with global trends will make Hong Kong ever more backward in the eyes of potential expatriates, tourists and forward-looking residents.

For inspiration, think Singapore or Vancouver, where a 10-year vision for better transport is under way. We can go even better with Oslo. The Norwegian capital is on course to keep its inner-city car-free by 2019. Paris, Madrid, Dublin and Milan have similar, though smaller-scale, plans. In Oslo, the first of its on-street parking will go later this year, to be replaced by wider footpaths and cycle lanes. The focus is on walking, cycling and public transport. This is the future we need, not more of the same and worse.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post