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Can a new broom sweep clean in HK?

Paul G. Harris calls on the government to adopt bold thinking on the environment

Jul 05, 2012

The recent Rio+20 conference on sustainable development revealed how difficult it is to persuade politicians to take environmental protection seriously. The declaration, “The Future We Want”, addresses important topics, such as plans to establish sustainable development goals and new measures of gross domestic product that account for environmental services. But, overall, the conference was a flop.

Here in Hong Kong, sustainability has been a declared objective of government for almost two decades, but far too little has been done to implement it. We have terrible roadside pollution, sewage flowing into the sea, infuriating noise pollution, enormous material consumption, one of the highest levels of rubbish per person, thousands of uninsulated, energy-hogging skyscrapers, and huge per capita carbon footprints.

With the inauguration of a new chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, so soon after the Rio conference, a question worth asking is whether his government will make environmental protection a bigger priority than did his predecessor. Will he and his new ministers adopt their forerunners’ tendencies to disappoint with incredibly weak policies that do little to address Hong Kong’s air, water, waste and energy problems?

There are reasons to worry that we might get more of the same. The majority of new ministers have extensive experience in government, which is probably the last thing we need. Incredibly, former environment secretary Edward Yau Tang-wah, who was repeatedly criticised by environmentalists for impotent policies, has been put in charge of the Chief Executive’s Office. With Yau as gatekeeper at Government House, one assumes environmental protection won’t make it through the door.

The new secretary for housing, planning and lands (under the restructuring plan), Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, is a consummate insider. He has no credentials suggesting he’ll make sustainability a priority.He will have to unlearn the government’s style of “consultation”, which is to decide policy among insiders behind closed doors, work hard to sell it to the public, and then ram it through even if people won’t buy it.

There is some cause for hope in Wong Kam-sing, the new environment secretary, an architect who knows well that Hong Kong cannot tackle its environmental problems without abandoning the government’s love affair with developers who lock the city into unsustainable living with their concrete-pouring. But he may find vested interests too much to cope with.

A test of the administration’s credibility will come when it implements promises to shorten the waiting time for public housing. Will new developments come at the expense of the environment? Will they be built on green belt and agricultural land, or will ministers cut through the calcified bureaucracy and utilise former industrial areas close to jobs and public transport?

Another test will be whether new housing stock, both public and private, meets international standards for energy efficiency. Buildings are the largest users of electricity in Hong Kong. Will new housing for the poor be insulated to keep out the heat in summer and retain it in winter, thereby limiting the city’s carbon footprint and greatly reducing tenants’ electricity bills?

The administration can overcome past failures if it approaches sustainability with resolve and creativity. But this will require putting sustainability at the top of the policy agenda, shaking up the bureaucracy,democratising the political system, accepting much greater responsibility for pollution, and implementing robust environmental education.

Without aggressive moves towards genuine sustainability, “the future we want” here in Hong Kong will remain little more than a dream.

Professor Paul G. Harris is author/editor of 15 books, including the newly published Environmental Policy and Sustainable Development in China: Hong Kong in Global Context

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