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November 5th, 2011:

When one side’s interest is the only one that counts

South China Morning Post – Nov. 5, 2011

The government is always telling us that it takes environmental issues seriously, while its actions tell a different story. We have seen this recently, with the chief executive saying that air quality objectives will be introduced in this Legislative Council session, but the Environmental Protection Department says there is no time allocated for the measures.

In another indication of the official attitude towards environmental matters, think tank Civic Exchange has drawn attention to the undermining of the department’s expertise when the government in 2005 merged the roles of director of environmental protection (DEP) and permanent secretary for the environment (PSE).

As Civic Exchange’s Mike Kilburn said in an article for the website CleanBiz Asia, the DEP was an environmental expert familiar with the technical and legal complexities inherent in presiding over the statutory environmental impact assessment mechanism.

The DEP was responsible for approving EIA reports and issuing environmental permits for projects. The PSE was concerned with formulating and delivering the administration’s policy objectives and the post was held by a career civil servant who did not have the technical expertise of the DEP.

In 2005, the government merged the posts, citing cost savings.

The then-PSE said: “The merger will achieve synergy between policy formulation and implementation, and is in line with the government’s commitment to streamlining and delayering the decision-making process.” He went on to say it would “improve service delivery and bring about efficiency gains in the area of environmental protection”.

The real effect has been a conflict of interest in the new PSE role, since the holder was both the regulator and at the same time beholden to political masters. The last professional DEP rejected the EIA for the MTR’s Lok Ma Chau spur line in 1999, which the EIA appeal board upheld, much to the consternation of the government.

This is in stark contrast to the recent judicial review of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, where these conflicts became apparent. As Civic Exchange said in its submission to Legco’s environmental affairs panel: “The potential for conflict is especially acute where the government is the proponent for a designated project, as is frequently the case in major infrastructure cases.” The government has clearly weakened environmental protection rather than strengthening it, as it so often likes us to believe.