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February 19th, 2009:

Greener Paths

SCMP – Updated on Feb 19, 2009

It is fashionable, the world over, to talk about government budget-stimulus measures and job-creation packages. There is also a trend promoting the transformation to a “green” and “low carbon” economy, as well as creating “green” jobs. What might work in Hong Kong? A green economic approach needs to be defined for policymaking purposes. Now is the right time to shape a new kind of prosperity, based on quality of life rather than materialism. If the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003 and the current financial crisis have taught us anything, it is to treasure how we live rather than to define ourselves by what we buy. Good health and well-being have become much more important to Hong Kong people, and they will only become more important. The green agenda reminds us that our good health depends on ecological health. Therefore, protecting the environment and reversing climate change are vital. A degraded environment will definitely compromise our health.

Thus, a green economy is one based on creating prosperity and jobs while stabilising the climate, protecting the environment, reversing its degradation and promoting people’s health. This new economic vision works within ecological boundaries of resource renewal and waste absorption, while people’s health is also a key focus. This means we must pay more attention to what the planet is telling us about ecological tipping points.

Mainland China has several strategies, which are already national policies, that Hong Kong can adopt while making the transition to a green economy.

First, Hong Kong must strive to be more resource efficient, which means conserving all raw materials, including water. When we use raw materials, we must do so as efficiently as modern technology and good management allow us. For example, we must become much more energy efficient in everything, from power generation to transport, manufacturing, property development and consumer choices.

Second, we should aim to achieve the greatest number of benefits across the board. For example, as policymakers seek ways to improve energy efficiency, they could also address the impact of air pollution and climate change. Third, we must reduce waste massively, by redesigning products, improving their durability, and promoting reuse and recycling. National policymakers call this the “circular economy”.

Such concepts aim to achieve the greatest climate, ecological and health benefits through saving resources, which can also result in financial gains. In other words, use less, spend less, pollute less. To get there, the government has numerous tools at its disposal. A good start is better standards. Tightening the city’s air-quality standards, for example, would promote technical innovation and new management approaches, while improving air quality and public health. By reforming energy and building codes, Hong Kong will get a new generation of much better buildings in return.

Another powerful tool is for the government to use its procurement and public works as levers for a green revolution. Public-sector spending, coupled with wide consumer-product labelling and public-information campaigns, can play a very important role in ramping up economies of scale and therefore achieving cost competitiveness.

Public works offer a large range of green projects and jobs. There are many opportunities for green “intelligent” government buildings and public housing, to propel the economy out of its current inefficient, “business-as-usual”, mode.

More green jobs could be created on the design side of development. Thoughtfully designed buildings and districts require more services like architecture, urban planning, landscaping, electrical and mechanical services, and indoor air-and water-quality control. Many buildings will need to be retrofitted to make them more energy efficient, for

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange.