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Clear The Air

Sulphur Success A Welcome Precedent

Victoria Button, SCMP – Saturday November 23 2002

Environmental campaigners yesterday said evidence that a cut in sulphur in fuel saved lives should spur the government to a greater sense of urgency in attacking air pollution.

Commentators welcomed a groundbreaking University of Hong Kong study showing a 1990 sulphur level cut swiftly saved 600 premature deaths a year. But green groups said more work was urgently needed across a range of areas, including cuts to respirable suspended particulates (RSP) and improved cross-border co-operation. Some suggested the government should include health costs related to pollution from vehicles when comparing the relative cost of building roads and railways.

The chairman of Clear the Air, Lincoln Chan, said the study was encouraging. ‘If it can be done with sulphur, it can be done with RSP. We should think positive. Air pollution is mass murder,’ he said.

Mr Chan urged the government to speed up the conversion of minibuses to LPG, ban idling engines in parked cars, crack down on vehicles using illegal fuel and step up cross-border anti-pollution efforts.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Jennifer Wang also urged action – including a ban on diesel vehicles – to counter respirable suspended particles. Air quality objectives in Hong Kong were less stringent than those of many cities overseas, she said.

The deputy chairman of Legco’s panel on environmental affairs, Cyd Ho Sau-lan, of The Frontier, said officials should count health costs when considering the merits of building roads.

‘Transportation is one area we could improve. The study shows that if we took more stringent measures to improve air quality then the mortality rate could be improved a lot,’ she said. Implementing smoking bans in indoor public venues also would cut health bills.

The chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange, Christine Loh Kung-wai, said it was important to note from the study that the health benefit of cutting pollution was almost immediate. ‘Benefits come quickly. We need to do everything we can to reduce pollution levels because it can help public health,’ she said.

In May, the South China Morning Post revealed that unpublished government tests found levels of fine particles called PM2.5 – a type of respirable suspended particulate – were up to four times higher in Hong Kong than a US safety limit.

American authorities set a limit on fine particles in 1997 after concluding they were more likely than coarse particles to penetrate the lungs, causing premature death and illness. The tests showed pedestrians in Des Voeux Road are exposed to about twice as much PM2.5 as those in London’s busy Marylebone Road.

Drivers Get Their Fill Of Dirtier Diesel

Jennifer Ehrlich, SCMP – Monday June 26 2000

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong-bound trucks and cars are filling up at a Shell petrol station near the border with mainland diesel that cannot be bought legally in the SAR because of air pollution standards.

The station on the Guang-Shen expressway is the last before reaching the Hong Kong border. Under SAR law, filling a tank with mainland diesel, which has a significantly higher sulphur content and is half the price of Hong Kong diesel, is still legal.

‘I go back and forth across the border every day, and I make sure to stop off at this station before I go to Hong Kong,’ said a truck driver while filling his tank. ‘Everybody does it – buses, trucks, you save yourself a lot of money.’ Angela Spaxman, director of lobby group Clear the Air, said: ‘It’s not illegal and that’s the problem. The incentive is there, but it’s so unnecessary.’ Hong Kong Customs law says that if a vehicle is bringing in more than 100 litres of mainland diesel, the driver must declare it and pay tax. Drivers say it is a common practice for everyone to fill up at the border and few declare it. Since they are rarely checked, drivers say they have no plans to stop unless the law changes.

About 30,000 vehicles cross the border every day, and traffic is expected to increase 400 per cent in the next 10 years.

Hong Kong has introduced proposals to shift vehicles to cleaner fuel, but cross-border co-operation on pollution in the Pearl River Delta is still hazy.

Ms Spaxman suggested an immediate solution would be for Hong Kong to model itself on Singapore, where the Government limits the amount of fuel drivers can bring across borders to a fraction of the tank – and tests fuel levels before vehicles enter the city-state.

Shell could not be reached for comment but green groups pinned the blame for the diesel problems on government policy-makers rather than corporations. Efforts to formulate policies are mired in bureaucracy in Hong Kong, they say.

The Environmental Protection Department says it has had talks with its mainland counterparts on pollution, but a department spokeswoman said it could not comment on cross-border traffic issues that fell under Customs’ watch. Customs said its job was enforcement, not environmental issues.

Hong Kong’s 110,000 trucks, light vehicles and buses account for 61 per cent of polluting nitrogen oxide and 67 per cent of respirable suspended particulates. Until laws change on cross-border regulation, drivers are likely to continue to opt for the cheaper, dirtier fuel. ‘I have no problem following the law,’ said one Hong Kong-bound tour bus driver. ‘But so far, I am doing nothing wrong.’