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Hong Kong needs a bolder action plan to protect its environmental legacy

Michael Lau and Gavin Edwards say the government has let Hongkongers down with its safe and ineffective framework for public discussion on a strategy to safeguard our amazing biodiversity
Hong Kong’s subtropical climate and unique position at the mouth of the Pearl River mean the city is blessed with an amazing diversity of plant and animal life. The need to protect the diversity of life on earth is enshrined in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which also extends to Hong Kong.

In his 2013 policy address, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying committed to develop a biodiversity strategy and action plan [1] to help implement the convention locally. Unusually for Hong Kong, a participatory approach was embraced, with academics, environmental NGOs, professionals and other stakeholders invited to develop a set of recommendations for Hong Kong’s first biodiversity strategy for 2016-2020.

After more than a year of intense work by more than 100 experts and stakeholders, over 400 recommendations have been produced and grouped into 33 draft key actions. They are aimed at strengthening conservation across the territory, to find a better balance between urban development and environmental protection. A public consultation is being held until April 7 [2], after which the government will produce a final action plan.

However, most of the 400 recommendations have been omitted from the consultation document, and most of the 33 draft key actions have not been directly incorporated. Instead, there are 25 pages summarising previous or ongoing initiatives to conserve biodiversity, and only 17 pages on an action plan.

A closer inspection of the consultation document reveals a mixture of vague “possible actions” and restating of existing government commitments, such as implementing ongoing species action plans even though they are falling short – for example, in relation to the decline of the Chinese white dolphin. This is in stark contrast to the call by the UN convention for an effective and practical action plan.

There is also a danger that the government will be tempted to take the easy route in formulating its action plan, by prioritising research and awareness-raising, with less emphasis on new direct conservation action. This takes responsibility away from government – for example, research can be undertaken by academics and non-governmental organisations, whereas only the government can lead on specific policies.

Also, research, while an essential component of conservation, won’t directly result in an improvement in our natural environment. Such an approach is also contrary to the UN convention’s “precautionary principle”, which states that “where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, then lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimise such a threat”.

More worryingly, the consultation document emphasises enhancing existing conservation measures, implying that the government has no interest in introducing new measures to protect our natural heritage.

So, what more should the action plan contain? The answers lie within those 400 specific recommendations. For example, less than 2 per cent of our seas now receive some form of protection and are under increasing threat from reclamation, contaminated mud deposits, pollution and unsustainable fisheries.

Governments around the world have identified marine conservation as lagging behind, and have adopted a specific target to ensure at least 10 per cent of the marine environment should be protected globally by 2020. Such a target could easily be achieved for Hong Kong.

Another priority is more coordinated preservation of the Inner Deep Bay wetlands, which are of international importance to the tens of thousands of migratory water birds. A growing number of wetland reserves are being created as mitigation of urban development around Deep Bay. A statutory Wetland Trust needs to be set up, to ensure their long-term conservation, and a holistic management plan developed.

Effective species action plans are urgently needed to halt and reverse the decline of species such as the Chinese white dolphin. A comprehensive list of threatened species should be produced. It is also important to address Hong Kong’s impact on global biodiversity, which is considerable due to the unsustainable consumption of shark fin and Bluefin tuna.

There is no reason why the government cannot adopt these and other measures into the biodiversity strategy while continuing to develop the city; Hong Kong has a history of doing just that.

For example, we can draw inspiration from the previous success in turning a treeless landscape into a recognised biodiversity hot spot. Accounts from visitors arriving in Hong Kong in the 1800s described the place as “barren” and “sterile”. During the Japanese occupation in the second world war, nearly all the plantations and regenerated forests were cut down for firewood.

We can draw inspiration from the previous success in turning a treeless landscape into a recognised biodiversity hot spot

Since then, a dedicated effort involving decades of reforestation and protection and allowing natural regeneration and recolonisation has resulted in a flourishing landscape, with over 1,900 species of flowering plants (over 5 per cent of China’s total) and over 500 bird species recorded (some 40 per cent of China’s total). This demonstrates that, when the government pursues dedicated conservation efforts by working with nature, biodiversity decline can be reversed.

Previous governments have left a legacy of a world-class country park system, afforested our barren hillsides and protected an internationally important wetland. What legacy will the current government leave for the plants, animals and 7 million citizens that inhabit Hong Kong?

Dr Michael Lau is assistant director, conservation, at WWF-Hong Kong. Gavin Edwards is director, conservation, at WWF–Hong Kong
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