Saturday August 21 2004
While other world cities have embraced hybrid cars, Hong Kong’s government has been cautious about these low-emission vehicles, writes Peter Kammerer
The wheels of government efforts to curb Hong Kong’s air pollution turn slowly. More than 18 months after it began assessing environmentally friendly vehicles for its fleet, none have been purchased.
Some so-called hybrid cars are on the way as part of continuing trials – although they will not join the 6,700 vehicles in the government’s garages until the first few months of next year. Even then, tenders which closed recently provide for only five vehicles.
The Secretary for the Environment, Transport and Works, Sarah Liao Sau-tung, traded her government-issue BMW for a petrol-electric Toyota from February to April last year as part of an initial trial. She liked it so much that she bought one for personal use.
The car’s emission performance and fuel efficiency were found ‘comparable to other good performing petrol vehicles in the market’, a statement issued last week by Dr Liao’s department concluded. A tender was opened in May to buy five hybrid cars for a pilot trial to enable an in-depth assessment of performance and suitability. Testing will begin when the cars arrive in the first quarter of next year.
‘Hybrid vehicles are a developing technology with a view to providing more environmentally friendly vehicles,’ the department statement said. ‘We are watching carefully its development.’
Concern about the contribution of vehicles’ petrol emissions to air pollution and global warming and, more recently, rising oil prices, have sparked interest in alternative types of transportation. Electric cars, initially seen as a solution, have not gained popularity because no way has been found to quickly recharge batteries, make them sufficiently light or produce the necessary power to compete with petrol-driven vehicles. Alternatives, such as hydrogen fuel cells, have similarly not taken off with motorists.
In 1997, the world’s biggest car-maker, Toyota, began marketing its first hybrid saloon, combining batteries and petrol. Its latest model, the Prius, has a reported top speed of 169km/h and can travel 100km on 4.3 litres of fuel, about twice as efficient as comparable sedans. Honda also markets models, and Ford this week unveiled in the US its Escape, the world’s first hybrid four-wheel-drive sports utility vehicle. Mercedes-Benz and Audi also have ‘green’ cars.
Despite the rapidly growing popularity of hybrids in Japan and the US, Hong Kong’s government is being cautious. Dr Liao said in January that providing incentives such as tax concessions to stimulate the market for cleaner vehicles in Hong Kong would be inappropriate. The problem, she said, was with supply.
Environmental lobbyists oppose the government’s approach, saying it is out of touch with the reality of Hong Kong’s pollution problems. They say that although the city’s 17,000 taxis have been converted to liquid petroleum gas under a tax-incentives system, other promised measures have yet to be enacted. All said, though, that hybrid cars were not the solution to clearing air pollution. Alone, they would make a tiny, possibly indiscernible, dent on the problem.
The chairman of Clear the Air, Christian Masset, said government departments approached environmental issues passively and shied away from making bold resolutions.
‘There’s a lot of talk, little action and a great deal of inconsistency,’ Mr Masset said.
Greenpeace China spokesman Martin Baker agreed. ‘The government should lead by example,’ he said. ‘It needs to identify the problem of air pollution. The public is very confused.’
Detailed information on the pollutants in Hong Kong’s air is available on the Environmental Protection Department’s website, www.epd.gov.hk, but no overall conclusions are drawn as to how polluting the sources are. A senior officer yesterday refused to make an assessment of the contribution of vehicle-exhaust emissions to the clouds of pollution hanging over Hong Kong this week.
Civic Exchange chief executive officer Christine Loh Kung-wai said on Thursday that government procedures meant making decisions took a long time. But when it came to getting hybrid cars, there was no need for stringent testing by departments.
She said she recently drove one in the US, from Denver to Aspen in Colorado, a long, uphill trip, and it performed like any other car.
‘There’s nothing wrong with the car and the government can send someone to test drive it elsewhere,’ Ms Loh said. ‘It’s just like an ordinary car. It can go uphill if they’re worried about that.’
But whatever the suitability of hybrid cars to Hong Kong, even large numbers would do little to improve air quality, environmental experts said. Another Environmental Protection Department senior officer, who declined to be identified, said diesel fuel-powered trucks and buses were far more of a problem to air quality than passenger vehicles.
‘Diesel vehicles do comply to very stringent standards, but there are lots of these vehicles,’ he said. ‘Even though they use ultra-low sulphur diesel, they still emit emissions.’
In urban areas, 90 per cent of roadside pollution was from vehicles, Hong Kong Polytechnic University air quality expert Hung Wing-tat said. ‘High-rise buildings block the dispersion of pollutants,’ he said.
Clear the Air said that 44 per cent of locally produced air pollution comes from vehicle emissions, 30 per cent from electricity generation and 26 per cent from other sources, such as construction sites. It said the bulk of vehicle pollution was caused by older-model diesel-powered delivery and container trucks and buses. As just 3 per cent of the 340,000 registered vehicles are privately owned, the contribution to air pollution from them is considered far less of a problem.
Nonetheless, Mr Masset said the government’s use and encouragement of hybrid cars would help. ‘We favour any measure that improves the emissions, whatever the percentage,’ he said. ‘As well, there is the message that is being sent to the public.’
Greenpeace Germany’s climate-change expert Wolfgang Lohbeck said the group and his country’s environmental protection agency did not believe hybrids were the future of ‘green’ motoring. Questions needed to be answered about battery life, the heavy subsidies Toyota was offering to make its hybrids competitive and the weight of the vehicles.
‘We are not against hybrids, but do not actively promote them as a solution,’ he said.
For now, Hong Kong people do not seem worried about high oil prices and the knock-on effect on the cost of petrol. Fuel-inefficient SUVs are growing in popularity. To July, 1,142 had been sold, compared to 1,320 for all of last year. SUVs also remain popular in the US, which is the reasoning behind Ford’s decision to produce a hybrid model. Hybrid sales in the US have been partly spurred by the US$2,000 tax breaks the government offers to purchasers. California environmentalist Gary Wolff, who owns two Priuses, said increasing numbers of Americans were environmentally aware and wanted more fuel-efficient vehicles.
‘Hybrids are catching on generally,’ Dr Wolff, an environmental engineer and principal economist at the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, in Oakland, said. ‘Some people were early adopters and have been waiting and watching and others are trying to make a statement like certain celebrities have done. But there are also a lot of people who are buying the cars because they’re functional, and they are concerned about oil prices.’
Hong Kong ‘green’ car enthusiast Eric Wong Yat-po, the chairman and chief executive officer of Richburg Motors, said that rising petrol prices would also turn Hong Kong motorists towards hybrids. Public awareness would be increased through celebrities and big corporations buying them.
But he said the government was not doing enough to encourage people to turn to environmentally friendly vehicles. ‘I’m quite disappointed with the government policy,’ Mr Wong said. ‘They should encourage vehicle importers and owners to buy more hybrids by offering tax exemptions.’
Whether such methods are adopted and draw Hong Kong people towards less-polluting cars will only be determined in coming months or years.
While hybrid cars will have only a minimal effect in clearing Hong Kong’s pollution problem, they will at least substantially lower petrol consumption for motorists.
The biggest impact of the ever-developing technology could be more far-reaching – the creation of a culture of environmental awareness.