Hong Kong and the Environment: Two Views

Here are two recent Hong Kong Journal articles on Hong Kong’s environmental protection efforts. Christine Loh, founder of the Civic Exchange think tank and probably the most prominent environmental activist in the SAR, argues that, after years of hesitancy, Hong Kong may now be taking more serious steps to address its air quality and address the public health threat from environmental pollution.

In the other essay, Hong Kong Institute of Education Professor Paul Harris writes that “there is still a bit of time for Hong Kong to be the climate leader in China.” But this window is quickly closing, he warns. “Hong Kong’s failure to behave in a way that is consistent with its affluence suggests that Beijing will have to show it how. Because China now has the unenviable status as the world’s number-one polluter, Beijing may hold the key to a future in which the Earth’s climate is more benign than many scientists fear – but only if affluent people in prosperous parts of China, including Hong Kong, accept that they are part of the problem.”

(Also posted on hkandtheworld.wordpress.com)


11 Responses to “Hong Kong and the Environment: Two Views”

  1. 1 Paula 03/11/2009 at 9:42 am

    I think Paul G. Harris made a very good point. China as a state is poor, but there are lots of affulent people. They have and should bear the responsibility of reducing carbon emission. Hong Kong, as an affulent city in China, should take the lead in reducing carbon emission. I think Hong Kong people have a substantial level of awareness of environmental protection, we need a more comprehensive policy to support a low-carbon economy.

    In this 21th century, we cannot rely on the government to take the initatives to action. Instead we can and should voice our opinion and let the government know what we want. I believe with collective action the governemnt would be forced to act more swiftly.

  2. 2 Samuel Quintanar 03/11/2009 at 12:48 pm

    I don’t know if I see the political will in China to take a leading initiative in pollution control, especially considering the emphasis it places on driving its economic growth. Instead I see western consumer economies as being the ones that have to lead the way in creating a cleaner trend. Until this happens, China can always make the argument that it is disadvantaged if it pursues these policies because it is in a historic period of industrialization, which requires that it be a mass polluter. Other nations have already industrialized without the limitations that China is being pressured to face. Although this line of thought is unfortunate for the Chinese and global environment, I believe that it is the attitude that the Chinese elites hold on the issue. Because of this, I doubt that China will be a leader in increasing air quality.

  3. 3 Lau Siu Fai 03/11/2009 at 6:19 pm

    Actually two articles are of entirely different nature. Ms. Loh’s one is more like an overview (historical and contemporary) of HK government’s effort to tackle air pollution problems, while Professor Harris’s article is a more general discussion on the global emission problem, with an emphasis on China’s leading role.

    I quite agree with Samuel’s suspicion on China’s willingness to take initiative to reduce emission. Argument for “common but differentiated responsibility” is just an artificial excuse for China to ‘legitimately’ refuse any aggressive reduction of emission. It is so ironic for a country who is in pursuit of ‘a rise of great nations’, but at the same time constantly takes advantage from alleging its position as a developing country.

    Professor Harris’s note on the crucial role of China in meaningfully tackling global emission problem is probably right, but just too idealistic to expect China, who desperately needs constant GDP growth for performance legitimacy, to take a lead. Besides, overriding numbers of China’s local officials are also GDP-oriented for furtherance of their political careers. This poses additional difficulty for persuading China to aggressively reduce emission.

  4. 4 Chow Chui Yin, Kuma 03/11/2009 at 9:33 pm

    When I was an intern reporter in the summer 2008, I reported the publication of some findings linking health implications and environmental worsening by some concern group. In that summer, there was also an exhibition in the Wanchai Expo attended by government officials like representatives from the EPD. I remember interviewing him about the initiatives to take buildings as a whole and evaluate energy efficiency of buildings, make assessments etc.

    But that was in the summer 2008. Now with 2010 fast approaching, I don’t see how a lot of improvements have been done to serve better our environment and our citizens’ health.

    It’s inevitable to smell some very dirty engines here walking round in Hong Kong. Or sitting on a ferry. So it is very interesting to read that the operators behind these dirty gigantic devices are asking the government to subsidize their switching to a cleaner fuel, and the request falls on a death ear. (http://energy.cleartheair.org.hk/2009/10/07/transport-firms-seek-funding-to-upgrade-bus-fleets-switch-to-cleaner-fuel-in-ferries/)

    Back to the initiative to assess buildings’ energy efficiency. I don’t know how many buildings got assessed since 2008. We better ask. How such assessment will translate to better environment is yet another question. But isn’t it more important to do environmental assessment and evaluation for HUGE construction projects? Isn’t it more evidently vital to do it on huge project like the bridge linking HK and Macau? But some is saying the government is not doing any. (http://www.cleartheair.org.hk/hk-zhuhai-macao-bridge.php) AGAIN, I’m shocked to find out.

    Because I agree so much with Paul Harris that Hong Kong being such a wealthy city should take responsibility to clean its mess up, having got the resources to back up its measures, I find it so necessary to reflect what Hong Kong has done and what HK should do in the future to be a responsible city amidst global climate change.

    1. Applause to charging plastic bags, introducing electric cars, banning indoor smoking and subsidizing energy efficient light bulbs

    2. Can government subsidize us for rechargeable batteries after light bulbs? one set for every family?

    3. More green roofs please. I know it’s on the EPA’s agenda to plant trees and other plants on governmental buildings’ rooftops. As far as I know, the potential for all buildings in HK to make their roof green is great, such act will mitigate heat island effect, but will create employment as well? By the way, not just me, but many people think the flyovers especially those extending out from the MTR station in Mong Kok are really hideous, is it time to plant more stuff on flyovers’ tops as well?

    4. HK should take an active role in C40. Pooling the buying power of neighboring cities to activate some green initiatives.

  5. 5 Liu Ka Yu, Athena 03/11/2009 at 10:10 pm

    I think it would be an undeniable fact that China plays a key role in climatic change, but the core part of this question is we have to see why China denies her role in climatic change. DIscussing this question helps us to see further and farer.

    Climate, environment and air, they are all public goods. Public good refers to something that are jointly used by all but the amount of you use will not affect the availability to others. It implies that something that you wont treasure as it is not your private good and you share the goods with others that you may not know.

    Public goods infer one key public administration problem-collective action problem. When you know that you will be better off when others try to improve the situation, you will try to be the free-riders because the goods are public good. You will also use it after others have improve though you may not have to contribute once.

    Same here in this case, global climate change should not also confine to China sole responsibility, others have also. As for China, it would be so irrational if they take the leader role because it isnt a private goodn to it.

    With the understand of the nature of the problem, I think it would be easier for us to suggest solutions to the global climatic change.

  6. 6 Vicko Cheung Chun Sheung 04/11/2009 at 9:15 pm

    The problem of air pollution has been debated for long in Hong Kong; however, it is worth considering whether we, general public, are willing and ready to bear the increasing cost of the implementation of the proposed emission control measures. More realistically, to change our comfortable and convenient way of living.

    I do believe that the conversation of energy saving by the citizens would help a lot to save our world, even more the various measures done by the corporation and government. Simply switch off the electrical appliances when not using is not easy, especially when it is public goods. For example, we could easily find lights are not turned off in various areas in our university, as the electricity bills are going to be beard by all students here, but not solely on the users.

    Also, without well-supervised implementation, good measures are useless. Hong Kong government has long been suggested the shopping malls to adjust the inner room temperature to 25.5’C; however, we could easily feel that lots of the famous shopping centers are very cold, of which women wearing cardigan in summer is common.

    I do appreciate the actions taken by the Beijing authorities in improving the air pollution there. The Beijing government encourages people not to drive the car and take the public transportation instead when go to work in weekdays; simultaneously, they have built several resorts outside (nearby) Beijing for the numerous reputable alumni, so as to attract them to drive there during weekends. As a result, it successfully reduces the pollutants emission. I am thinking like, whether Hong Kong government can adopt any of these “special” measures besides the used ones.

  7. 7 Chen Chuen Tien Nadine 08/11/2009 at 4:39 pm

    Among the many ineffective and self-defeating things the HK government does/has done, the ones that strike me the most (besides those relating to democracy) are policies concerning the environment.

    The first is the “switch off engine when the car is idling” scheme. While the government is right in identifying that vehicle emission is the major cause of street-level pollution, how much emission do they think they could cut down with such a policy? It’s hot in HK three quarters of the year. If the government were to attach a penalty to such a scheme (provided that they could allocate enough manpower to actually catch people doing it), instead of turning off the engine while they wait for their passenger, most drivers would drive the car around in circles just so they could keep the air condition running. The more effective way to reduce vehicle emission is to encourage people to take public transport by subsidising bus fees and increasing licence fees (yes it is already more expensive to own a car in HK than many countries, but only HK has such narrow roads and cramped airspace (high rise buildings everywhere, hello?)

    The second thing is the electricity charge subsidy of $300 to EVERY domestic account for 12 months (Sept 2008 to Aug 2009). The government claims it is to ease inflationary pressure faced by households. Sure there are families that really need it, but why not lower the threshold for CSSA? All I know is, since the subsidy cannot be converted to cash, people will use electricity more recklessly since they think “it’s free”. As you can infer from the table from http://www.indexmundi.com/hong_kong/electricity_consumption.html, the electricity consumption in 2008 reduced significantly (from 44,550,000,000 in 2007 to 38,020,000,000 in 2008) perhaps due to the inflation. But in 2009, the consumption level saw a 17.31% increase, the highest since 2003. My guess is that, thanks to the subsidy, people stopped bothering to go to public places to escape the heat and instead turned to their A/Cs at home.

    Finally, if the government were genuine about wanting to protect our environment, they could do well to stop building infrastructure we don’t really need. The Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Link is a case in point. This project is not only unnecessary (I recall from the HK Magazine that it saves each passenger 5 minutes at best (compared to the existing trains) to reach the city centre, but with the higher ticket price, it’s doubtful how many people would actually make use of this facility), it requires digging an underground tunnel through Sheung Pak Lai in Yuen Long, which is a village high in ecological value. Building projects create pollutions of all sorts, not to mention this one would destroy mangroves and exhaust billions of taxpayer’s money. Use that to upgrade bus fleets to use cleaner fuels already!

  8. 8 Lai Hoi Ho Jackson 16/11/2009 at 3:49 pm

    Christine Loh argues that Hong Kong may now be taking more serious steps to address its air quality. But before taking any concrete action, it is very important to set some policy foci for action. I think the first policy focus is that we have to identify the major emission sources. Power sector is undoubtedly the largest source of air pollution but it is not difficult to understand that it is unlikely the sector will play a very active role in combating air pollution. In view of this, I would suggest other major emission sources, including land transportation and marine transportation. In addition to targeting the aforementioned emission sources, another policy focus is that the government should devise a comprehensive process.

    As far as the first policy focus , there are actually a wide range of ways to control or even reduce the air pollution brought by land transportation and marine transportation. For land transportation, a phase-out scheme can be launched in order to replace Euro I and Euro II vehicles with biodiesel ones. Besides, there should be a better coordination between rail and bus/minibus/taxi services and rail structure should be used more extensively in the long run. For marine trasnportation, the government can implement a scheme which encourages lower emissions from ships, including the requirement of switching traditional fuel to low-sulphur fuels for ship engines. The governemnt can implement retrofit programmes so that the new engines are of lower emission.

    For the second policy focus, the government should adopt the latest global air pollution guidelines which reflect the curent knowledge about the impact of air pollution to public health. The recent review on Hong Kong’s current Air Quality Objectives should be appreciated. I hope that following international guidelines could be adopted immediately so that it is easier for the government to have a more accurate standard and better plan to tackle the public health problem brought by air pollution.

  9. 9 Anna 18/11/2009 at 11:19 am

    After reading the two articles, the first question strikes my mind is are our HK citizens keen on protecting the environment in the face of altering our ways of living? I agree that HK should take the initiative in improving the air quality because generally we do contribute to the problem largely, still, economic interests often gains the priority.
    This situation is not confined to HK alone, every country does seek to avoid any responsibility, on one hand, by laying the blame on others, on the other hand, by shifting the focus on economic development.
    I am sick of these excuses and those attributing the problem to the nature of the air quality. There must be cost for everything we do, but the benefits of better environment or air quality is not negligible. Not only not negligible, but also not calculable. Most importantly, I do not find that the economic development and environmental protection are mutually exclusive. It is just every government putting them in a conflicting position but is this the reality. It is not unlikely to find that they can be mutually reinforcing.
    We know how much we have to sacrifice at this moment if we really take action, on the contrary, the cost of taking actions in future is hard to be foreseen owing to the constant-changing envirnoment.
    On the one hand, our government actually can do a lot save for its initiative and the pressure it faces, on the other hand, we can pay efforts to the campaign. Simply discussing the role of our government but without contributing to environmental protection, we are by all means like our government. This brings us back to my first question, do we want to change for the better environment?

  10. 10 Kei Kit Lung 30/11/2009 at 1:05 pm

    No doubt that cleaning up the air should be of the first priority of the Hong Kong government. Directly, air pollution harms the health of citizens, affects our next generation, jeopardizes the environment, and contributes to the increase in medical expenses. Indirectly, it drives businesses and professionals away from Hong Kong. This hinders Hong Kong to become a global financial city.

    So far a number of measures have been adopted by the government to tackle air pollution, few of them are effective. The Action Blue Sky Campaign, which relies on the voluntary participation of citizens, was proved to be unsuccessful. Nowadays, who does not aware the harm generated by pollution? Yet, no one is willing to take the initiative to change. When it comes to saving the environment, sometimes economic incentive, regulation and communication with major polluters will be more effective.

    Within Hong Kong, the main polluters are the two power plants. They burn non-renewable energy, e.g. coal to generate electricity. The government should provide some economics incentives for them to reduce pollution. An emission permit exchange system may be adopted. That is, to set an upper limit for emission. Companies which emit less can trade the permit in the open market. This method not only ensures the maximum level of emission, but also recognizes the need for economic development. In addition, the two plants shall also explore the feasibility to develop the use of other renewable energy in generating electricity.

    Outside Hong Kong, the main source of pollutants comes from factories inside the Pearl River Delta Region. Often, monsoon winds will bring the emitted polluted gas here. The government should enhance the cooperation and communication with the Guangdong government. Without tackling this source, the air condition in Hong Kong cannot be improved significantly. As most of these companies are owed by Hong Kong businessmen, negotiations should not be very difficult. Strict enforcement will also help. Compliance rate will be low if no one supervises.

  11. 11 Taylor Rens 07/12/2009 at 5:16 pm

    It seems as thought one of the challenges in getting governments to cooperate on the issues of climate change is the lack of effect global warming has on the day to day lives of average people around the world. While there is a general consensus amongst scientists that the very real effects of global warming are beginning to change the world in which we live, thus far the pace of this change has been in excruciatingly slow and its significance minimal. The panic about global warming is centered more on how dangerous it is for the future rather than how devastating it to the present. It is difficult to convince people to drive less, drink more tap water, or to save energy by keeping their homes cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer because the benefits of these sacrifice are not overtly noticeable. This is one of the main obstacles to climate change reform in the United States, and I suspect that it will be a problem for China as the world starts to call on Hong Kong and other developed areas for more environmental responsibility. One people have achieved a high level of affluence, it is hard to convince them to give it up.

    Furthermore, even if it were possible to convince people that direct benefits, would result from environmentally friendly actions, the problem of collective action and free riding would arise. It is perfectly rational for an individual actor to not make sacrifices under the logic that if everybody else is acting environmentally friendly, then its actions are not significant enough to make a difference either way. If only a small minority employs this logic, then they are able to gain all the benefits from the actions of the majority without having to do anything. This is the problem of free riding. However, if a majority of people decides that they will just let everyone else change, then the problem of collective action arises and not positive progress is made. Economic growth and individual affluence still override environmental protection for people, businesses, and governments everywhere. Until these people, governments and business begin to directly feel the negative effects of global warming on their respective economic interests, the hope for a sufficient level of environmental friendliness seems far-fetched.

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