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Christine Loh Kung-wai

Air pollution, overflowing landfills, incinerators, reclamation and now the controversial Tai Po artificial beach: the new Undersecretary for the Environment, Christine Loh Kung-wai, sure has got her work cut out

Words by Shirley Zhao; photography by Calvin Sit

Wearing a pair of nerdy glasses, speaking in a calm, modest manner and emanating a composed, thoughtful air, Christine Loh Kung-wai shows little sign of her manic new life as Undersecretary for the Environment. Until she starts talking about it, that is. “My days are filled with meetings,” confesses the 56-year-old during our exclusive Time Out interview, offering up an overwhelmingly packed magazine-sized 8am-11pm itinerary of her daily engagements as proof. “On my busier days, I can have up to seven meetings,” she adds.

Indeed, Loh is a busy woman – but this is hardly a new development. As the former chief executive of think tank Civic Exchange, founder of the now defunct Citizens Party and member of LegCo on and off between 1992 and 2000, Loh has always led a demanding life in the public eye. But with her recent – and somewhat unexpected – appointment in CY Leung’s government as the Undersecretary for the Environment, her schedule has reached a whole new level.

With a reputation for being a progressive politician – and with a strong track record of campaigning for the environment – Loh’s appointment to the government has been deemed a breath of fresh air. And just as she settles into the hot seat – and as the controversial artificial beach plan in Tai Po gains huge public attention – Loh sits down with us to discuss how she plans to battle Hong Kong’s environmental dilemmas over her five-year term.

So, let’s start with the hot topic: Tai Po’s Lung Mei Beach. Why did you agree the government should go on with its artificial beach plan?
The idea for the beach arose following a request from the Tai Po District Council more than a decade ago. It had been through many procedures, including obtaining funding for building the beach earlier this year from LegCo. We believe that development and conservation can go hand-in-hand and there could be a win-win solution. By taking proactive initiatives to preserve the ecological environment of the Ting Kok coastline and parts of Tolo Channel, the longstanding decision for the Lung Mei Beach project would go ahead.

Environmental groups say Lung Mei’s waters include harmful elements so it’s not suitable for an artificial beach. They are also planning a judicial review because they say the government didn’t include the quality of Lung Mei’s waters in its environmental assessment report. What’s your response?
The government is providing a new sewage network in Lung Mei and its vicinity to improve water quality. The construction is underway and will be completed next year. The water quality of Lung Mei has improved from Grade 4 to Grade 2 in recent weeks. It’s a marked improvement. We are confident that, in 2015, when Lung Mei Beach is open to the public, the water quality will meet the required standard. We will continue to monitor its water quality and publish the monitoring results regularly. More recently, NGOs have raised the issue that there is dumped mud in the water with heavy metals. We are looking into that right now.

The Lung Mei beach issue is the talk of the moment. But there’s lots more to talk about as well. What else are you working on?
Topics such as air pollution, water quality, energy, conservation and waste are all within our range of responsibilities. Actually I’m doing all of these. We will put a lot of effort in dealing with air pollution and waste because there is great public demand. Hong Kong has a fantastic biodiversity and Hong Kong people are very interested in our natural assets. I hope, during this term of the government, we will have a much more robust policy on protecting nature and restoring areas where we have damaged. Actually everything is important in our portfolio – but there are major initiatives to be launched for air quality, waste and conservation.

What are those initiatives?
For example, there is public and expert consensus on dealing with air pollution. In the coming year we will announce policy initiatives on roadside pollution, emissions from ships and regional co-operations between Hong Kong and Guangdong. On roadside pollution we will have measures to reduce emissions from diesel commercial vehicles like vans and buses–they are the major polluters, as well as commercial vehicles like minibuses and taxis. I can’t disclose the details yet because we need to battle for money for our policies. No money no talk, right?

Former environment secretary Sarah Liao Sau-tung wanted to introduce road pricing to cut traffic but top civil servants persuaded her not to do so. Will you be as easily persuaded?
I will look at it from a different angle. There are different types of methods to deal with roadside pollution. One is to deal with the emissions source – the vehicles. If you can make the vehicles pollute less – for example through switching to a cleaner fuel or buying a cleaner vehicle – it will be a very fast way of lowering pollution. The second type involves urban planning such as pedestrianising areas so people are separated from vehicles. That requires you to design a whole area and reroute all the traffic. It’s an effective method, if you can do it, but it’s very complicated. The third method is financial planning and that is Electronic Road Pricing. You have to design the system and then put in place an electronic foundation. If you ask me which of these is the low-hanging fruit, I would say the vehicles. That’s the fastest way to have some beneficial changes.

Hong Kong has been criticised as having an air quality standard much lower than the international standard. Will you work on that as well?
The last government had already announced the tightening of the standards. We’re going to put it in legislation. That will be coming soon.

How soon?
In less than six months.

The plan to build an incinerator at Shek Kwu Chau has stirred up much controversy as well. What do you think of the plan?
Does Hong Kong need an incinerator? I think the answer is clearly yes. Right now, all the waste goes to our landfills. It’s not sustainable. If we can reduce the amount of waste we produce, will we still need an incinerator? The answer is yes. Hong Kong does not have an incinerator [for disposed waste] right now. We can argue about whether we need two or three but I think we need one. Some people may be objecting to the location or prefer this technology rather than that technology – but they are not saying no to an incinerator. So we need to be very clear about what people are supporting and objecting to.

Where’s the incinerator plan on your agenda?
It’s not just about the incinerator. It’s about waste management. Waste is a huge issue. We have waste that can be reused quite easily. We have food waste which is really challenging to deal with. We also have electronic waste, construction and demolition waste, and very difficult waste like clinical waste. Right now they all go to the landfills but they all require some different handlings. For the first time, Hong Kong is talking about investing in a comprehensive, foundational waste handling and disposal system. For such a rich city as Hong Kong, we are doing it rather late. It’s just so important to Hong Kong, because this defines how we’re going to deal with different types of waste. Hong Kong now has a sludge treatment plant being built in Tuen Mun [set to be completed next year]. This is a big scale incinerator to deal with sludge. We also need to build an organic waste treatment plant. At the same time, we need to reduce waste. The next thing we are going to do is consult the public again on how the charging system could work. This is another major piece of work that will come in the next year.

Do you mean the government has set its mind and will go on with the waste charging plan?
The last government had one round of consultation on whether we should have a waste charging plan and I think the answer is yes. We are some years away from actually charging but we are definitely very committed to moving towards it.

How long will it take for the comprehensive waste treatment plan to be completed?
Actually, it will take way beyond the time that I’m in the government. We are talking about a 10-year plan.

What do you think will be the biggest challenges to seeing your policies work effectively?
I’ll put it this way. I’ll tell you what I would like to do. First of all, I would like to help people see the broad picture of environmental infrastructure. Everything has a cost and people may not like it. In the coming year I want to show Hong Kong people what the investments are and how it will make their lives different. I want to spend a lot of time engaging with the media, stakeholders, experts and the public. We’ve already had one round of engagement with experts as well as environmental groups on air quality. I’d like to compare Hong Kong’s development in this field with other places so that people can see what cities have moved before us and what cities are behind us. With our level of development, we are lucky because we can afford to invest in building an infrastructure [to protect the environment]. We need successive generations of government to be committed to it, otherwise we won’t make it.

But currently Hong Kong people don’t seem to trust the government. Will that be one of the challenges?
I think people in Hong Kong are reasonable. If you put out a clear plan and if you are able to explain what the plan is for and why we need it, Hong Kong people are willing to listen. I do want to explain to people very carefully and in great depth ‘why’, so people understand [our policies]. I think we owe them that explanation. So hopefully, in the environment, with clear, well-explained and hopefully well-designed policies, we will get public support.

Do you think your inclusion into the government means that Beijing has realised the SAR needs to draw on a bigger pool of talent –
even including people from the broad pro-democratic camp?

I didn’t talk to Beijing so I don’t know what Beijing thinks. My discussions have initially been with the Chief Executive Mr CY Leung and subsequently with the Secretary for the Environment, Mr KS Wong. I accepted the offer to join the government because I think they are serious about doing something for the environment and I think I can help.

Do you think we will see more people from the pro-democratic camp joining the government?
I don’t know.

Do you hope so?
I don’t know. I’m looking at just my area where I can do something

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