One common complaint about the scheme is that the subsidies for scrapping an old vehicle are too low. Under the current plan, vehicle owners can get a subsidy of 18 per cent to 30 per cent of the price of a new vehicle, according to the age of the vehicle they have. For van and truck drivers who depend on their vehicles for their livelihood, making up the shortfall is a headache.
“Even after the government has paid 30 per cent, we still have to pay for 70 per cent of the price of a truck,” says Stanley Chiang Chi-wai, chairman of Lok Mau Chau China-Hong Kong Association. This means the owner will have to pay more than HK$700,000 for a new truck, as a heavy duty truck now costs over HK$1 million because of the drastic price inflation in recent years. Chiang says he suspects that suppliers have deliberately jacked up prices in anticipation of a rise in demand.
He is unhappy with what he sees as the way the government has pit the trucking industry against the public. “The Environmental Protection Department has said a lot of negative things about my industry, leading the public to view the industry as polluters,” says Chiang. “The public may think, why do I need to pay for the polluters? I would however, urge the public to realise that all trucks contribute to the livelihood of Hong Kong residents by transporting goods.”
Nonetheless, Chiang says the industry is willing to upgrade their vehicles, as long as subsidies fall within an acceptable range and the compensation payment is a one-off sum with no strings attached. “After all, we don’t want the public to have a bad image of us,” says Chiang.
Patrick Fung, campaign manager of the Clean Air Network, says the previous government did not take research on roadside pollution and maritime pollution by academics and NGOs seriously. He hopes the new Leung government will do a better job.
Before common ground can be reached between different interests, Hong Kong may stand to lose many talents in the business sector. A survey by the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) found that over 30 per cent of respondents had difficulty recruiting as a result of air pollution. The same survey also reveals that 48 per cent of respondents are considering leaving Hong Kong.
“I have considered leaving Hong Kong,” says Evan Auyang, chairman of the Environment Steering Group of AmCham. He says the figure could have been higher, as some people will not even consider coming to Hong Kong, especially for those who have young children and elderly parents.
It is not just those in the business sector who are considering leaving. James Matthews is an English teacher and examiner in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). His life is adversely affected by the air pollution.
Matthews is a long-distance runner but the poor air in Hong Kong prevents him from practising his hobby. He used to run three times a week but now he sometimes runs just once a week, depending on the air quality. Before he runs, he checks the website for the Hong Kong Air Pollution Index.
The 47-year-old is very sensitive about air pollution because he had a bad experience of running when the air quality is poor. Matthews participated in the Hong Kong 100 Ultra Marathon in January and successfully completed the race but he felt very uncomfortable.
“I started to wheeze like I had asthma. I am very, very fit. I exercise a lot so it wasn’t my heart or my lungs, it wasn’t lack of training,” he says. “The day we had the race was an average day for Hong Kong but the pollution was high and I’ve got no doubt my wheezing is the result of pollution.”
Matthews is considering leaving Hong Kong after retirement. He finds the food, security and convenience of Hong Kong attractive, but health is his biggest concern. “The only reason I would have to leave is because of pollution; 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I am breathing in the air which is damaging my health,” he says. The poor air quality is making Hong Kong an uninhabitable city for him.
In the meantime, he has bought some air filters for his home to make the air quality suitable for living. But he knows this cannot solve the root problem. He would need to keep the filter on, the windows closed and stay indoors. But once he leaves home to go to work, to teach, he breathes the normal Hong Kong air which he describes as “toxic”.
Even on a perfect day with a blue sky, Matthews says he is always aware that something is not quite right, “It’s a beautiful day, I live next to a park and I walk into the park. The sun is shining and it’s warm. You feel very, very good because it’s warm and beautiful but you don’t realise the pollution. It’s there. Even though you can’t see it, you are breathing it in.”