Quality of Life Issues in Hong Kong
Dr Sarah Liao, Secretary for the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau, was the Foundation's guest speaker on 24 October 2003. The following is a summary of her remarks.
People asked her about her threefold portfolio, Dr Liao began. They looked at it negatively, saying that the three functions must be in conflict. Dr Liao said that the union of the three functions gave her a magnificent opportunity to practice sustainable development.
Partnership with business
She had spent thirty years in the environmentalists' camp, Dr Liao went on. There had been great impact from the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio. It had been a landmark for all those determined to make a better world. Prior to Rio, environmentalists had been opposed to economic development. After Rio, environmentalists and policy makers had realised that they had to work together. The environmentalists saw that they could not only be negative about development, they had to forge a viable partnership with the business sector.
In those days, environmentalists were optimistic. They thought that every situation could be win:win. But now, ten years on, they knew that this was not so. It was true that there were win:win cases. Al Gore documented many in his book, "Our environment in balance". There were many examples of businesses adopting environmentally-friendly polices - Dupont, 3M and others - but these cases were still rare. It was not easy being green.
In those days she was with the Friends of the Earth (FOE), said Dr Liao, and they adopted a new philosophy of partnership with polluting companies. As a result FOE Hong Kong was kicked out of the FOE international organisation by the UK headquarters. But eventually the whole FOE organisation turned to this approach. They were ready to compromise and work with business in order to ameliorate pollution, not merely oppose development. And there had been gains from this policy. Sha Lo Tong was a landmark court case, saving the valley from development. But on the other hand there had been no improvement in Sha Lo Tong in the ten years since then.
Ten years after Rio, the Johannesburg Earth Summit was held. The mood was more sober than at Rio: people realised that you could not rely on win:win. So there was a push to further collaboration between the non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector and the commercial sector. So Johannesburg was less glamorous than Rio: there was no new philosophy for the following decade. The spirit was more down to earth.
Taking the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge as an example, this had been opposed by some environmentalists because of the possible threat to the white dolphins. But studies showed that the dolphins were quite adaptable, and had actually multiplied when for example they were displaced by the airport to a new sanctuary. The impact of the Bridge was not so great as the landfill for the airport: it was just the pillars that impacted the water, not the whole bridge.
Hong Kong's record
The Hong Kong Government had done many good things.
Forty-three per cent of Hong Kong's land area was conservation area, while the equivalent figure for Singapore was 4.7 per cent. In respect of diesel, Hong Kong complied with Euro 4 emission standards, while Singapore was still at Euro 2. On petrol, Hong Kong was Euro 3 to Singapore's Euro 2. In Hong Kong an environmental impact assessment was compulsory for development projects, but in Singapore an assessment would be done only if ordered by the Minister of Environment. And on ozone the position was similar. Hong Kong was firmly in the developed world on environmental standards.
Regional factors were important contributors to Hong Kong's environmental problems, said Dr Liao. There was sometimes contention between the Hong Kong side and the Guangdong side as to which was the source of pollution. The Hong Kong Government employed computer modelling to plot the source. An environmental inventory was drawn up, taking account of population differences and the percentage of manufacturing plant on either side of the border. It was discovered that 80% of the airborne pollution was from Guangdong. In many cases the prefecture from which the pollutants came could be identified.
Taking power as an example, Hong Kong had two power stations with about 14 subunits. Guangdong had 99, not counting small units. So there was a lot of work to do. It was not that the Guangdong side did not have the technology; it was more the monitoring. Hong Kong had given them technology, and also auditors. That way we knew where the pollutants were from.
Both sides of the Shenzhen border had agreed to reduce environmental pollutants by 30-50 per cent. However, sometimes it made sense to ship waste across the border. Hong Kong did not have much space, whereas Guangdong did not have enough landfill. It was a shame to see Guangdong excavating its natural landscape for landfill when Hong Kong could supply it.
On animal waste, surprising thought it might be to some people, Guangdong no longer allow pig farms. Hong Kong still had some 200,000 pigs. Guangdong needed fertiliser, but because of the Basle Convention on waste, pig waste could not be shipped across the border in its raw state. It had to be converted into compost. Then there was domestic waste. This had to be sorted into wet and dry – the dry was useful to a lot of prefectures because of their low development level.
Turning to transport, Dr Liao said that there were daily applications for more bus licences. Thus there were more and more empty buses to be seen in Central. The trouble was that District Board members like to have routes with stops outside their constituents' homes. A choice had to be made. The issue would come up in the District Board elections. It was a question of convenience versus overall quality of life.
Electronic road pricing ERP had been controversial in Hong Kong, but she had raised it in the discussion over the Central Reclamation and had not been stoned. Look at Switzerland, Dr Liao urged. They had lots of transient traffic, lorries coming across the border to deliver goods and then disappearing after using the roads. You could not make the user pay any other way than by ERP: there was no other equitable solution. The situation was similar with the Shenzhen Western Crossing and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. The lorries filled up across the border where the duty on hydrocarbon oil was lower, and then came and used Hong Kong's roads for free. An equitable solution would be to introduce ERP and lower petrol tax.
Hong Kong had a few toll roads, namely the Western Crossing and Route 3, but these were not very auspicious cases. There was a need to educate people on the principle of user pays – not just in odd places but more generally. So this was the theme for the current year. The user pays principle would pave the way for sustainable development. It was not just roads. There were too many subsidised services in Hong Kong - water, rail (if one counted the use of land adjacent to stations), waste water, the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme (HATS). The Government could not afford to subsidise everything.
If you charged people, they would value the service and use it sparingly. Dr Liao was preparing to go to Legco for approval of landfill charges. People would have to pay HK$120 per ton or go to the sorting plant.
There was a need for comprehensive solutions to environmental problems. It was necessary to evaluate problems objectively, not just criticise everything the Government tried to do. Legislators should act as if they were, or would be, the ruling party, then their criticisms would be more constructive.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation.