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Welcome arrow Articles arrow Personality Profiles arrow Interview with Dr Sarah Liao
Interview with Dr Sarah Liao PDF Print E-mail

Dr Sarah Liao is Secretary for Environment, Transport and Works.  Among many other things, Dr Liao’s department is responsible for environmental protection, and in particular, progressively reducing vehicle emissions.  In this interview Jeff Heselwood, discusses the progress of this work, and a broad range of related issues.

Interview with Dr Sarah Liao
Dr Sarah Liao
My first question to Dr Liao the career that led her to her position as Secretary for the Environment.

“I am a professional in the engineering and chemical field.  I did environmental chemistry and environmental health, and I had been working at the university.  I also worked as a consultant and then went into environmental engineering, so I really have a wide spectrum of experience ranging from sewage treatment and water treatment plants.  I then joined a number of government committees, where they ask people, like myself, to work on a part-time basis; we would meet every week on a Saturday morning, so I got to know a fair bit about government policies.  So I was then asked by Mr Tung to join the HKSAR government.”

Dr Liao maintains her environmental knowledge by reading technical journals but she admits it is sometimes difficult to keep up to date, on a subject that changes almost daily.

“There are a few journals and publications that one must read, to keep myself abreast of what is happening around the world.  And, of course, in the newspaper these days, people are paying far more attention to the environment so you get a better idea of what is happening – not just technologically, but people’s attitude: the social development that comes with the awareness of the environment.
“I admit, it’s hard, but I try to read as much as I can: technical and professional publications.”

On March 30 the United States Department of Energy (DOE) issued a press release, allocating more than US$150m to General Motors and DaimlerChrysler for the development of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles.  Dr Liao is fully supportive of this initiative:  “I was aware of the U.S. government’s support of this research as far back as 2002, and that they have kept it up is a good thing.  Obviously this is the ultimate fuel as far as clean energy is concerned.”

Dr Liao was asked what the major concerns regarding pollution in Hong Kong were and how much of it related to motor vehicles.

“Vehicle emissions contribute to a major part of local pollution; that is, at street levels.  But we also have general pollution, mainly from power stations.  Like Lamma Island and Castle Peak.  There are therefore just two centres for concern as we do not have much in the way of industry left in Hong Kong.”

Dr Liao has gone on record as saying that air quality would not improve ‘until 2007 at the earliest’.  She elaborates:

“First of all, we re trying hard to reduce vehicle emissions but there is only so much we can do.  Taxis have joined the scheme with 99.9 per cent switching to LPG which is a clean fuel, and we are now trying to do the same with minibuses.  That’s another 6,000, but it is coming in very slowly.  Part of the problem is infrastructure: how many stations can we provide them with, so they have the convenience of refuelling when they want to?

“We are looking at more sites for LPG stations but Hong Kong is very constrained from that point of view because of the densely populated areas, and the risk associated with LPG has prevented us from establishing more gas stations, so if we want to extend LPG to other classes of vehicle, such as light goods vehicles which constitute a major percentage of our traffic volume, we will have to wait until we can find suitable locations for these stations.”

Dr Liao believes that in addition power stations should be converted to use natural fuels.  “We want the power stations to use natural gas as a fuel.  Again, there is a problem with supply as the suppliers have to provide additional compressors to obtain more gas from the gas fields.  Only when they switch to gas will our air pollution improve.

“Across the border they began a programme two years ago, to retrofit the power stations with low-NOx burners and electrostatic precipitators.  This is coming in every year, plants retrofitted like this but it will take at least two years to complete the programme so it will be 2007 at the earliest.

“There are new plants running on natural gas that will not come on board until 2007-8, so once they come on stream they will replace the old, dirty, coal-fired power stations.  It takes time to build in the physical infrastructure to provide us with cleaner energy and in turn reducing air pollution in general.”

Dr Liao says that light goods vehicles are a major pollutant, but where does that leave buses?

“Buses are fewer in number,’ says Dr Liao.  “There are around 40,000 light goods vehicles, but there less than 5,000 buses.  We have a programme with the bus companies to upgrade their buses.  When a bus comes to the end of its useful life, we urge them (the bus companies) to replace them with vehicles with Euro 3 and Euro 4 engines which are much less polluting.  We have also asked them to install catalytic converters to the exhausts which helps a little although it is not a perfect solution.

“I have asked the companies to look at hybrid buses and LPG vehicles, as well as compressed natural gas (CNG) and electric buses.  I am not an expert in this area but I have asked them to show the department the results of their research.  Unfortunately, all these alternative fuels only work with single-decker buses.  I have looked at the ones in Beijing which are double-deckers but they cannot use air-conditioning.

“I believe technology is improving all the time and also the mentality of Hong Kong people is changing.  They are coming round to the thinking that ‘we don’t need air conditioning all the time’ but people’s habits are hard to change.  However, we have not ceased researching more environmentally-friendly public transport systems.”

DaimlerChrysler is running a fleet of experimental fuel-cell buses in 12 European cities, as well as three such vehicles in Perth, Western Australia.  Could that be the answer?

Dr Liao: “Fuel-cell technology is still in its infancy but there are people in Hong Kong that are prepared to try it, using hydrogen as a fuel.  Fuel-cell technology is a long way off as far as Hong Kong is concerned.  I am afraid Hong Kong is never a pioneer of technology.

“I believe the best opportunity to test out an entire fleet of hydrogen buses will be the Beijing Olympics in 2008 which they are looking at, as they want zero emissions within the Olympic compound.  That will be a real breakthrough in this part of the world and I would be very keen to actually see how that runs.”

The Department for the Environment, Transport and Works introduced ultra-low sulphur diesel last year, but there have been concerns about trucks crossing the border and refuelling with high-sulphur content diesel.  Is this a major concern?

“We have been patrolling that issue very diligently,” says Dr Liao.  “I have been checking with my staff and they are now only allowing trucks to return to Hong Kong with a tank quarter-full. I don’t think there is any more smuggling – like there used to be – but we cannot stop cars running on dirty fuel because they need to come back to Hong Kong on the fuel.  What we are trying to do is convince our friends across the border that they need to upgrade their vehicles, from pre-Euro to Euro 2 – a leapfrog – so instead of retaining pre-Euro for two more years, then going to Euro 1 for three more years, we are saying ‘Why don’t you go directly to Euro 2?’ and this has to be a national policy.

“All the cities, such as Beijing which has the Olympics, are able to do this, but we are saying ‘Let Guangzhou have it too.’  

“We have been working with the Guangdong government to establish this policy so from this summer they are producing Euro 2 (vehicles) and next year they will be using them.  Coupled with that they will need cleaner fuel.  In my opinion, that’s the only way to do it.”

And is the Chinese government co-operative with these initiatives?

“Guangzhou is very keen to clean up their city, especially something like motor vehicles, because most people that can afford to buy a private car can afford the higher cost of fuel.  But it is the supply of clean fuel over the entire country that is the critical issue; whether they can have sufficient clean fuel to supply all the cities that want to upgrade themselves to Euro 2 or Euro 3.  It is the motor industry’s policy, the fuel and oil industries’ policies that are important.  

“It is a big country and unlike Hong Kong that imports all its fuel, China produces its own.  They need to resolve the problem in a systematic and overall efficient manner.”

Dr Liao was asked what her position was concerning environmental damage, such as the proposed Central by-pass scheme.

“It is a question I have answered on a number of occasions, but the press has been very forgiving to me and is not making a big issue over it.  Being an environmentalist, I was challenged: ‘Why do you want the Central-Wanchai by-pass?’.  My answer is that the subject – traffic in Central district – has been discussed many times for at least five years – if not eight years.  The original plan was shot down.  It was very extensive but at that time I was not the Secretary, but I was very aware of what was being proposed, and we actually counter-proposed with something much less.  

“The fact remains, that you already have the Convention Centre built.  And you already have the airport expressway built, and if you do not have a by-pass for Central, traffic becomes totally jammed up.

“You only need to see the Convention Centre on a day when there is preparation going on for an exhibition.  The queue goes all the way to Chaiwan, and, in addition, people coming out of the Western crossing cannot get into Wanchai at all.  You get stuck the moment you come out of the crossing.

“We have created a traffic problem, so going through all the studies we have done and examining all the proposals, there must be a Central by-pass to allow traffic to move.  What I am saying is that, while everyone is concerned with protecting the harbour, which is of course on high moral ground – everyone wants to protect the harbour – but  to stop it halfway is not, I believe, moral because if any society gets on with life and forgets about legal procedures, like the town planning board, consultations, gazetting and then Exco approval and suddenly wakes up one day and finds everything has been reversed, I think that will create a bigger problem for Hong Kong as a whole.

“As far as I am concerned, the by-pass is well justified.  It has gone through the consultation and legal process and we have to respect that.  What we have to do is minimise the reclamation and not use it as an excuse to erect more commercial buildings.  That is not what we want.  And of course, more commercial buildings with the height of IFC will cover up the whole harbour, but building a road on a narrow strip of land is not a problem.  Therefore, to summarise: we do not want any more commercial buildings as the access to the harbour would be restricted.  At the same time we need that traffic flow to allow people to conduct business.

Dr Liao was then asked about pollution from the airport, with Tung Chung consistently reporting high levels of air pollution.  Also, what is the department’s position on marine traffic?

“Ships are difficult, but there is the International Maritime Ordinance under which you do have some control, but not over the small craft, so I have been talking to the Marine Department and we do, when we study air quality for the region, we actually look at the marine contribution and it is not a small contribution, especially some of the heavy diesel vessels that belch black smoke.  I have taken many pictures of them but because they do not have a licence in Hong Kong, it is hard to control them, but we have not given up, especially the barges and suchlike.  It is a significant amount of pollution, but as far as aircraft are concerned it is a different kettle of fish, because we have been closely studying it.

“Using Kai Tak as a case study, to see how much the aircraft actually contributed to the air pollution in Kowloon peninsular, we found that the ‘before and after’ was not significantly different.  There have been a lot of studies at the airports, but Kai Tak of course was a lot smaller than Chep Lap Kok

“There is also the fact of dispersal into the atmosphere.  Dispersion is always the key.  For Hong Kong, in all the built-up areas, that is why you see smog locked in between buildings.  We are watching aircraft very carefully, but in addition, since the Seventies there has been a great improvement in aircraft engines.  So as long as we have the new aircraft coming in more frequently, there would be an improvement in terms of the pollution generated from aircraft.”

Rob Law recently retired as Director of Environmental Protection.  Upon his retirement, Dr Law said his biggest regret was failing to introduce the polluter-pays principle of waste disposal.  Dr Liao takes up the story:

“We were in it together at the time.  Dr Law was referring to the trade effluent charge scheme which was shot down by Legco, although they agreed to review it every year.  In 1995, they put up a bill for charging for construction waste and that was passed, but the truck drivers protested and blocked the roads to the landfill, so it was never implemented.

“However, last year we managed to get the bill passed and by June this year we will be charging for construction waste.  So Rob, he has actually succeeded in getting that proposal through.  He just had to wait two more months to see it in place and, as far as the sewage charge is concerned, we are determined to bring that back   I always ask my audience when I speak on polluter-pays, ‘Do you ever give it a thought every time you flush the toilet, how much that costs the taxpayer?’.  Why shouldn’t everyone pay for it themselves?”

Dr Liao was asked for her comments on large, luxury SUVs, that are allegedly a major contributor to pollution.  Should they be taxed more heavily because of this?

“My personal view is that I cannot see why people would want to drive an SUV in an urban environment, such as Hong Kong.  They drink petrol and they definitely contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.  At the moment we have a difference in the cost of the vehicle licence and we may have to review that at some point to give it the correct emphasis on the proportion of the pollution they generate.”

Dr Liao owns a first-generation Toyota Prius hybrid.  Why did the Secretary for the Environment choose a hybrid?

“I like the Prius.  It is very economical and uses much less fuel than my previous cars.  And it’s a good car in itself, although it’s not powerful.  It’s basically a Corolla, but I can get the fuel consumption down to 60 cents per kilometre which is good.

“The equipment level is modest – like a Corolla – but I don’t expect it to be like a Porsche or Mercedes.  The only problem with my Prius 1 is that when it is idling – when you stop at the lights, for instance – then the electric motor takes over and the petrol engine cuts out, which means you lose your air conditioning.  I don’t really mind as I always think that air conditioning is too cold.  The second-generation Prius, though, has dealt with that problem; mine is still the old one.”

The latest Toyota Prius
The latest Toyota Prius

Some of Dr Liao’s colleagues drive faster cars, such as Porsches or Ferraris.  Does this ever become an issue for the Secretary?

“Don’t get me on them!” laughs Dr Liao.  “Even my colleagues in the government, they laugh at my little car.  They think ‘How can you drive such a car?’.  It’s not comfortable; the air-con doesn’t work when you inch along; and it doesn’t give you performance.  But this, unfortunately, is the mentality of many Hong Kong people.  In places like California, this is not the attitude, but I always think it takes time for society and the public-at-large to develop this sense of so-called social responsibility.  Just because you may have a great deal of money, you are not entitled to pollute the air.”

Raising the question of the London congestion charge – currently £5 per day but shortly to rise to £8 – hybrids are currently exempt and are becoming extremely popular, with second-hand examples in great demand in the south of England.  Is that feasible for Hong Kong?

“Actually, I have been thinking about the registration tax.  My only problem is that we (currently) only have one brand (of hybrid), so being government, one has to be very careful in not promoting just one type of car.  And also the demand is considerably more than supply, so even if we allowed some kind of tax concession, it may not end up in the consumers’ pockets, because the distributor could easily put up the price and those that want to buy it would still buy it.  So I was trying to look for other brands: Honda has the Civic and the Insight, although the latter is not really viable.

“I know there are others coming, such as the Honda Accord and the Ford Escape, and as soon as we have this diversity of supply then we will have to think of some incentive for people to use those cars.  I will ask my staff to keep an eye on this.

“And if we should successfully introduce electronic road pricing (ERP) at some point in the future, these types of vehicles would get some kind of exemption.”

Dr Sarah Liao is clearly passionate about reducing pollution and improving air quality, but as she said in this interview, the exact answers to the problem may yet be some way off.

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© 2019 Jeff Heselwood. All rights reserved.
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