Environmental Protection Department Deputy Director Owin Fung says the government won’t seek “a very relaxed” timeline on banning petrol and diesel car sales

Hong Kong will likely ban sales of new petrol or diesel cars by around 2035, suggests Environmental Protection Department (EPD) Deputy Director Owin Fung Ho-yin, putting forward timelines from London and Tokyo as feasible models for banning combustion engines in the city.

In an exclusive interview with Transit Jam last month, Fung, one of three EPD deputies, revealed that the city will, within weeks, firm up a plan to ban petrol and diesel  car sales and will “take reference” from London and Tokyo – the only cities Fung mentioned by name and which both have marked 2035 for conventional-engined car sales bans – as well as “European and mainland cities” with targets between 2030 and 2040.

“Other than Norway, most cities around the world are setting the target between 2030 and 2040, and that’s why we are making reference to that timeline,” he adds.

Last February, Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing floated 2040 as a possible target, but Fung indicates the government won’t sit back and accept a too-leisurely target.

“I can assure you, we will set the timeline to ban the conventional vehicles, and we will not set a very relaxed timeline, we would like to try to do our best to be aggressive, but at the same time we need to be pragmatic,” he says. The plans will be announced in the Electric Vehicle Roadmap, due to be launched before the end of March.

The rare sight of a pair of electric cars was worth a photo in 2015 – today, around 1 in 8 private cars are electric, with over 320 new electric cars registered every month in the first nine months of 2020

Fung says Hong Kong would be unable to meet Norway’s very aggressive target of 2025, as there’s simply not enough charging infrastructure in the city yet. But he says Hong Kong is making progress, pointing to the government’s controversial $2 billion subsidy for EV parking as a model for the rest of the world. “I would expect other countries to copy our model, to try to help these multi-storey residential buildings to build EV infrastructure,” he says.

The parking subsidy has been criticised for encouraging more cars on the road.

Fung does recognise the unsustainability of Hong Kong’s private car growth. “This is a never-ending game,” he says. “We can provide more and more parking spaces, and even when we come close to meeting the demand, the demand will be higher and higher.”

But at the same time, Fung says aspirations to car ownership are acceptable. “We don’t encourage people to buy a new car, but it is unavoidable. Maybe people would consider owning a car is a kind of signal of a higher living standard. That is very reasonable, that happens everywhere in the world.”

To tackle the environmental consequences of this status-symbol effect, Fung says the government’s “one-for-one” replacement scheme is already coaxing people to replace their traditional cars with EVs. He considers the scheme a success in that, of around 7,000 new EVs registered in the last three years, 90% were through the one-for-one replacement scheme.

“This growth is kind of manageable,” he says, adding that emissions from EVs can be better managed through regulation of the power companies, rather than controlling individual car emissions.

Public transport: lacking decent electric vehicles

While there are now 103 electric car models to choose from, for public transport (in which Fung includes taxis) there’s a yawning gap of vehicles fit for purpose, says Fung.

Electric double-decker buses, he says, are improving fast but still expensive. The latest models cost around $7 million against $3 million for traditional buses, a gap which would swallow the entire $1.1 billion New Energy Transport Fund to subsidise just 5% of the 6,000 double-deckers in the city.

The government is trialling drop-down fast-charging at minibus stops around Hong Kong

Other bus issues such as steep-grade roads are not insurmountable, says Fung, especially as the technology advances. “But frankly we cannot set a target like 2030, when we have these 6,000 double deckers turned into e-double deckers.”

The government was recently accused of covering up the poor performance of a hybrid electric minibus under the $1.1 billion New Energy Transport Fund, but Fung takes the opportunity to set the record straight: the delayed report was solely down to manpower issues at the contractor, Jockey Club Heavy Vehicle Emissions Testing and Research (JCEC).

Fung rejects claims that EPD tried to bury the bad news of the poor-performing Dongfeng minibus. “We’re not dealing with Dongfeng, our sole purpose is to see if the EV or hybrid is usable in Hong Kong. And that model is already obsolete, it is not welcomed by the trade, nobody liked it, we were not trying to hide anything.”

Crucially, and with EPD revealing this for the first time in the 10 months since the story broke, JCEC was fired, several years ago, and wasn’t paid “a penny” until all outstanding reports were completed.

Fung says the problem arose due to a very small pool of consultants able to carry out the assessment work for the New Energy Transport Fund. “I’m not saying it’s very technical but they need to be in this field. And it’s not a very profit-making sort of business,” he says, adding that the revamped fund now includes technology such as e-motorbikes and e-ferries and, as such, needs even more specialists than at its launch as the $300-million Pilot Green Transport Fund a decade ago. Fung doesn’t rule out using the fired consultant, JCEC, for future government work. “We will look at it from an objective manner. If they have the qualifications and can submit a reasonable price then, basically we will look at the tender afresh.”

Taxi woes

Meanwhile Fung says the taxi trade cannot accept an electric model until there’s a better charging network, servicing network and a more substantial battery guarantees.

“Hong Kong taxis work 22 hours a day,” says Fung. “It’s pretty amazing, but it means they cannot use the traditional way to charge their car.”

Servicing is also a huge issue for the workhorse taxis, Fung says. With almost all taxis under one brand, at present, repair and maintenance is extremely slick, quick and cheap. Switching to a new model, across the board, might prove problematic from a service perspective.

“We’ve discussed with suppliers, OK we can give you a big business prospect, 18,000 cars under your brand, could you manage the maintenance, and they’ve said, ‘OK we can do it but we need time, we can’t do it next year.'”

In addition, battery guarantees offered by EV carmakers wouldn’t come close to covering a taxi’s lifespan. “Hong Kong taxis travel around 100,000 km a year, most manufacturers only have a guarantee up to 180,000, 200,000km. For Hong Kong we’d need a battery life of at least 500,000 or even a million km. That’s not feasible,” says Fung.

“More than willing to subsidise” e-mobility

A food delivery rider trialling a now-defunct start-up scooter brand in Singapore, 2019: e-scooters were banned in Singapore in late 2019 after a spate of accidents.

When it comes to other potentially sustainable transport such as micro-mobility or e-mobility, Fung says EPD is working with at least one food delivery company on e-scooters, with that firm confirming it is also taking part in the recent e-mobility trials run by Transport Department (TD).

“Businesses and delivery companies around the world are trying to be more environmentally friendly, they are asking to see if it is possible to use e-scooters, and we are more than willing to subsidise the trial,” says Fung, with any potential subsidy coming from the New Energy Transport Fund.

But Fung warns the vehicles will need Type Approval from TD first.

“We will look at it from environmental perspective, emissions etc, but in terms of safety, that will be considered by TD. They will look at them in terms of competition of land use, road use, safety,” he says.

“We are not against any type of vehicle, what we would like to see is more and more environmental friendly transport to be used on our roads.”

Red tape

Talk of TD raises an oft-levied criticism of Carrie Lam’s government: a silo mentality between departments, burying the simplest task under clouds of red tape – Lam herself recently pointed to overblown and delayed replies by officials to lawmakers, requesting her Chief Secretary sharpen bureau interactions.

For EPD’s part, Fung fields the criticism with a pledge to deliver better cross-bureau cooperation for long-lived policy plans such as the imminent Electric Vehicle Roadmap. “How do we tackle the problem of red tape? For these measures that will last for 10, 20, 30 years, we will set up interdepartmental liaison, some chaired by my boss, the Secretary, some chaired by me or other colleagues, to have inputs of all the relevant bureaux and departments to try to solve problems at an early stage.”

Fung, a former trader, says government cannot be blind to commercial considerations, and says his experience on the trading floor brings a different perspective to the bureau. “When we champion these environmental initiatives, we all want these in place from tomorrow, from an environmental perspective. However we need to strike a balance, because there are different stakeholders, different interest groups, we have issues under Development Bureau, Transport and Housing Bureau, we need to work together.”

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