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Sustainable Development Deserves Highest Attention

Updated on May 05, 2008 – SCMP

The Council for Sustainable Development stands out among advisory bodies to the government. That is because it studies issues that will shape the future of our city and issues reports that are widely debated.

Lately, however, the council has become concerned about its own future. Since last year’s ministerial and bureau reshuffle, it has found itself under the Environment Bureau. Previously, it came under the chief secretary, who is responsible for policy co-ordination. Understandably, as we report today, council members feel it has been downgraded.

This would be regrettable if there is any substance in it. Officials say this was not the intention. In fact, the council is now under a bureau with policy responsibility for one of its main concerns – the environment. However, it is arguable whether that serves the broader community interest.

Thanks to its title, many people do associate the council with protecting the environment, because that is now an abiding issue in development. But the council has a wider brief of integrating economic, social and environmental perspectives in development strategies. While everyone supports the protection of our environment, the challenge is to balance that goal with economic development and improving livelihoods.

The council has engaged the public widely on this brief. Soon after it was founded in 2003, it launched a consultation on urban development, waste management and renewable energy, which detected a shift in public opinion towards environmentally sensitive development. More recently, it consulted the public on population policy in an ageing community. This revealed support for later retirement to bolster the workforce, and paternity leave as an incentive for families to have children. These are all ideas that call for consensus among policy bureaus with different priorities.

It is also true, however, that the council’s biggest consultation, and the most extensive ever in Hong Kong, was on a purely environmental issue – air pollution and how to tackle it.

The question – and the issue that worries council members – is how its advice and the public opinion it reflects can have an effective impact at the policymaking level. Because sustainable development is about more than just the environment, it has to be reconciled with the interests of other bureaus. Given that policy bureaus can be overprotective of their own turf and objectives in policy debates, the chief secretary is arguably better placed to resolve inter-bureau differences.

In practice, however, Hong Kong’s developing ministerial system is such that every bureau chief is directly answerable to the chief executive. There might therefore be some merit in the suggestion that the council should come under the Office of the Chief Executive. There is no question that sustainable development is very important. This should be reflected in the status of the council’s access to the government at the highest and broadest level. It would be asking too much of the Environment Bureau to push other bureaus to take the views of the government’s advisers on sustainable development seriously.

In any case, it is now imperative for the chief executive and the administration as a whole to demonstrate the political will to take sustainable development seriously. Only then would it dispel the perception that it has turned the Council for Sustainable Development into just another committee on the environment.

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