There aren't that many cities in the world that more urgently need to switch to electrically powered vehicles than Hong Kong. Our roads are clogged with conventionally powered vehicles, and our lungs are choked with the mainly invisible fumes they pump into the air we breathe. Furthermore, it's not as if this is a problem that has just developed in recent years - vehicle emissions have been a major contributor to our air pollution for decades.
It is one of the contradictions of life in Hong Kong that while we have arguably the most efficient public transport system in Asia, the urge to own a car is so irresistible we have no fewer than about 600,000 vehicles on our roads, most of them private cars.
The government's response has been highly predictable - it has turned vehicle ownership into a "cash cow" that it milks rapaciously, bringing in billions a year in licensing fees. But the government beanfeast at the expense of the motorist doesn't end there; every time they buy a liter of gas, well over half of the cost goes to pay another government tax. So if your average fuel bill is HK$150 a week, about HK$85 is going to the taxman, or HK$4,420 a year. And the bigger and swankier the automobile, the bigger the gas-guzzling engine it has under the bonnet, which translates into more revenue for the government.
Duplicity in a bureaucracy is commonplace so you won't be surprised to find that under one hat is the government's outstretched hand endlessly raking in all those taxes, while under another hat is the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), one of whose major responsibilities is - hold your breath - to promote the use of electric vehicles (EVs) on our roads.
And the EPD doesn't beat around the bush in its policy statement, which says: "EVs have no tailpipe emissions. Replacing conventional vehicles with EVs can help improve roadside air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A wider use of EVs also contributes to the development of environmental industries."
And here's a little gem not known to the average motorist - our Financial Secretary John Tsang is chairman of the Steering Committee on the Promotion of EVs which has the task of "recommending specific measures to promote use of EVs in Hong Kong, having regard to the resulting energy efficiency, environmental benefits and the creation of business opportunities." However, since Tsang is well aware that the present glut of conventional vehicles ensures an endless flow of taxes both from those 600,000 vehicles and the fuel they use, how forcefully does he pursue the promotion of EVs while discouraging ownership of pollution-causing vehicles?
The fact is that we currently have a total of about 600 electrically powered cars and motorcycles on our roads. Hello - since we have a grand total of 600,000 vehicles on our roads, doesn't that mean that every 1,000 car or motorcycle is an EV? How's that for progress! In 2010 the combined total of electric cars and motorcycles in Hong Kong was a mere 74, creeping up to 242 in 2012 - the most up-to-date available data from EPD.
We already have the nucleus of an infrastructure to service EVs. Altogether there are about 1,000 standard EV chargers plus about 10 quick chargers spread across all 18 districts including Lantau.
Also there are various enticements to promote the use of EVs - all of which are obviously not enticing enough. They include:
First registration tax does not apply until March 2014.
For the first year when they buy EVs, businesses are allowed a profits tax deduction of 100 percent for their capital expenditure on them.
A HK$300 million Pilot Green Transport Fund has been available since March 2011 to provide aid to transport operators and non-profit-making organizations to encourage them to switch to EVs or other innovative green and low-carbon transport technologies.
To encourage the introduction of zero-emission buses, HK$180 million has been set aside to help franchised bus operators finance the purchase of 36 electric buses for trials to establish their suitability for local conditions.
This is not enough. The government must get serious about EV usage. We've had electrically driven trams on Hong Kong Island for more than a century, plus the Peak Tram, the long-electrified Kowloon-Canton Railway, and more recently the MTR with its high-speed electrically driven trains, and the LRT in the New Territories.
The government should show the way by changing its fleet of official cars and all its other public service vehicles (Post Office cars for example) to EVs - specially its large fleet of limos and sedans that transport civil servants from one meeting to the next.
Don't say it can't be done - the Transport Department has already approved for use on our roads 25 EV models from seven countries comprising 15 cars and motorcycles, plus 10 public transport and commercial vehicles. It's time the government put its money its mouth is!