Cleaning up the air improves quality of city

The following is the speech (English only) by Secretary for Planning, Environment and Lands, Mr Gordon Siu, at the MTRC Conference on Clean Air today (Thursday):

Ladies and gentlemen,

Before I start, I'd like to thank the MTRC for organizing this conference, and for bringing together experts from the United States and Hong Kong to share experiences and ideas on future urban and transport planning. Such exchanges are vital. In planning for the future we don't have a green field or clean piece of paper to work on, but living cities. Patterns of transport have already shaped the design and influenced the economy of our cities. They also have affected the assumptions of citizens.

Changing those existing patterns would affect life and livelihoods. Our aim is not to disrupt but to modify these arrangements steadily through change in land uses, change in investment and through the influence of economic instruments. The object is to create new patterns that meet people's need for mobility while increasing the liveability of the city.

There are many partners who have a share in that process of change, and I welcome all of you here today.

We all share a vision for Hong Kong, for a city that is healthy and happy to live in, a place that is thriving for business and socially enjoyable.

What we see today doesn't match that vision - at least, not in all respects. The quality of our air is the most obvious exception.

Cleaning up the air has been the top priority for environmental policy during 1999. In June, on World Environment Day, we published the policy statement 'Clean Air for Hong Kong'. In October, actions to reduce vehicle emissions were at the heart of the environmental section of the policy address.

What I would like to do this morning is to:

* Provide a brief reminder of why cleaning up the air is important;

* Give a quick report on progress that has been made, and on parts of the agenda that are moving from planning to action over the next few months; and

* Finally, review how planning for clean air is about much more than just control of vehicle emissions. It is a process that will affect the whole quality and feel of our city in the new millennium.

My first point, why cleaning up the air is important, is simply made by this chart. It shows the correlation between admissions to hospital and an increase in the air pollution index. It covers one very high pollution episode in August 1997, but as a general observation, whenever the air pollution index goes above 50 there is significantly increased hospitalization of those with heart or lung problems.

In the year from June 15, 1998 to June 14 this year, there were 227 days when the air pollution index was above 50. There were 52 days when the roadside air pollution index was above 100.

Why is our air pollution index so high?

The two main offenders are particulates and nitrogen oxide levels. Ozone is also an increasing concern. Sulphur dioxide has been reduced greatly since 1989. Lead and carbon monoxide are also at low levels.

Where are these pollutants coming from?

Between 1991 and 1997, total emissions of particulates in Hong Kong fell by about 17 per cent, but emissions from vehicles increased by 11 per cent. Vehicles now account for over 50 per cent of all particulate emissions.

In the same period, total emissions of nitrogen oxides in Hong Kong fell by 40 per cent, but emissions from vehicles increased by 13 per cent. Vehicles now account for over 30 per cent of all nitrogen oxide emissions.

And over the same period, recorded levels of ozone have increased by about 50 per cent. Ozone is a secondary pollutant formed over time. Its rise reflects the increasing influence of regional air pollution, to which our own emissions also contribute.

In short, over the last decade, we have seen three processes at work:

* Great improvement locally in control of emissions from industry, construction sites and power generation;

* Concentration of local emissions at street level as tough emission standards for new vehicles have been offset by a 30 per cent increase in vehicle numbers and

* Increasing regional effects from industrial, urban and transport development across South China.

Over the longer term, it is the regional problem that is the major challenge, and we are working hard with colleagues in Guangdong to prepare a full inventory of emissions and trends so that more comprehensive and effective strategies for dealing with these can be developed.

But we have to recognize that our own emissions are contributing to that regional problem, and that it is our local emissions from the vehicle fleet that are the major problem here in Hong Kong today. Dealing with these is where our immediate priority lies.

The action we are taking covers all categories of vehicle, since each contributes different elements to the cocktail of pollutants in our air.

Taxis have been the first target for measures to reduce particulate levels, by converting from diesel fuel to LPG. We are looking at a similar scheme for light buses. We will be making catalysts or particulate traps mandatory for all older diesel goods vehicles and buses.

To reduce NOx, goods vehicles, private cars and buses are all targetted by requirements for cleaner engine technology.

New transport modes such as trolley buses, hybrid engined vehicles - or possibly even electric vehicles in certain circumstances - offer promise of significant reduction in street level emissions.

Electric systems - principally those of our two railway companies - are already doing a great deal to lessen dependence on road transport. Work is already underway to expand the rail network by 40 per cent by 2004, and the second railway development study is in the final stages of assessing programmes to increase the rail network even further. The aim is to have about 50 per cent of passenger movements taking place on rail systems, compared with 33 per cent today.

While new railways are built and new vehicle technologies introduced, there are other measures now being taken to improve conditions at street level.

Pedestrianization is a shorthand term for a range of measures from complete closure and reconstruction of roads to suit people on foot, to access restrictions and time limited closures. In addition, it involves reorganization of bus, light bus and taxi stops and routes to reduce congestion and reduce conflict between people and vehicles. Proposals for three extensive schemes in old urban areas of Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mongkok are being finalized and will be presented in the new year.

The ideas for pedestrianization illustrate the last of the points that I want to make this morning, that planning for clean air goes beyond control of vehicle emissions and can bring added benefit to the quality and liveability of the city. Streets without cars and lorries are not just cleaner, they are quieter, more sociable and more attractive for those essential aspects of Hong Kong life, shopping and dining.

We cannot do without vehicles and roads. They are essential to distribute goods efficiently, to connect outlying housing areas to major transport modes and to provide flexibility. But we can do a great deal to reduce their impact and the times when we need to use them:

* For new developments, putting the distributor roads around the outside, so that we can have people friendly design inside;

* Putting roads underground or under cover;

* Using new travellators between transport or commercial hubs or more escalator links up our steep hillsides

* And building most intensively above and around railway stations and transport interchanges.

The density of population we have here in Hong Kong - an average of three times that of New York - makes a pattern of urban design around rail as the principal people mover necessary, achievable and beneficial.

* Every piece of land is precious - dual track railways have a width of 11.1 metres, a dual three lane road with the same passenger carrying capacity is 31.8 metres wide.

* It is far cheaper to build underground railway than underground road, and underground is the only space we have left in the central urban areas.

* Underground rail is very quite - and even when above ground, rail is subject to much more stringent noise control than is practicable with roads.

* And adding to the environmental balance is the fact that rail is more energy efficient, less demanding of material resources and emits less pollutants overall than road transport.

All in all, rail development, coupled with imaginative urban design and supporting transport arrangements, is the key to the long term quality of local air, and it is a major factor in the quality and attractiveness of this city. For these reasons, it is crucial to our ability to sustain Hong Kong as one of the world's great metropolises in the new millennium.

Thank you.

End/Thursday, December 9, 1999