|The Outlook for
the Environment 1997 and Beyond
Mrs. Mei Ng, Director of Friends of the Earth, was the
Foundation's guest speaker on 17 March 1997. This is a summarised version of her speech.
According to the Territorial Development Strategy Review (TDSR) released by the Government
last year, there will be a population increase of 1.5 to 1.8 million by the year 2011. As
a result the TDSR predicts that the increase in sewage load will exceed the carrying
capacity of our water bodies, the traffic load will degrade air quality and exceed noise
standards, and our landfills will run out of space. Do we have other options? Do we have
an alternative vision for our future? Do we have enough information to make the choices
about our future? Do the six million Hong Kong people have the right to know?
Behind closed doors
For decades, the Colonial executive-led government made their policy decisions behind
closed doors. The meetings of the Executive Council and most of the over 300 advisory
bodies to the Government are not open to the public. The members of these bodies are
appointed by the Governor. Industrialists and business representatives are nominated to
the environmental advisory bodies but the privilege is not reciprocated for
environmentalists to sit on the industry or trade committees. There is a general
unwillingness to involve the public in the decision making process. There are no specific
guidelines for public consultation procedures. There are no "meet the public" or
townhall forums for public scrutiny of strategic development plans.
In a black box
The restriction on access to information is depriving the public of the right to know
how government policies are being formulated. The controversy over the The Executive
Council's decision to approve the building of new power plants by the China Light &
Power company is a classic example. Friends of the Earth (FoE) were denied access to the
million dollar consultancy study on the estimation of Hong Kong's future energy demand.
Similar denials were repeated with our requests for a full public report on the stoppage
and further slippage of the $20 billion dollar Sewage Strategy. The public outcry against
the extensive harbour reclamation is another testimony to the fact that Hong Kong people
are being deprived of the right to know.
The "one option syndrome"
The linear thinking mentality of our policy makers is particularly worrying. The way to
meet our energy demand needs is to keep building more power plants instead of promoting
energy efficiency. The way to deal with increasing waste is to keep building landfills
instead of promoting waste minimization. The way to dispose of our daily 2 million tonnes
of untreated sewage is to partially treat it and pipe it into China waters instead of
promoting clean production and water conservation. The way to solve traffic jams is to
keep building more roads instead of improving public mass transport and town planning. The
cheapest and quickest option to provide more land is to reclaim the harbour! Because of
this linear thinking, Hong Kong is going on an unsustainable path. It's time for Hong Kong
to shed our "developing country" status and move on to the ranks of progressive
developing countries. If not, Hong Kong appears to be backward, and we shall be made to
pay a very high price with our environment and our quality of life.
The blind leading the blind
Our policy decisions are based on misleading information or insufficient data. The GDP
is being presented as the only indicator of the growth and well-being of six million
people but it fails to include non-monetary aspects of society such as a clean
environment, a stable community, health and natural assets. The Government's lack of
willingness to find out the true cost of pollution is unacceptable. The absence of health
and social impact data due to air, water and noise pollution is inexcusable. We have no
idea how much air pollution costs. Loss of productivity? Community health care? How much
does traffic congestion cost? What savings can be gained in promoting energy efficiency
and renewable energy? Our government has no idea what natural assets need immediate
protection nor has it any idea that Hong Kong has resource to develop renewable energy. It
does not believe in setting up conservation and energy departments.
Business as usual
The lack of urgency to reform and rethink existing policies is hurting Hong Kong's
competitiveness. There is a general complacency towards maintaining outdated policies such
as the Scheme of Control to allow utility companies to make money out of building more
power plants, to tolerate illegal dumping and development encroachment into our
countryside without the commitment to expedite the zoning process to cover the whole New
Territories. An investigation by Friends of the Earth revealed that pipe leakages and
excess capacity water (purchased from China) led to overflow from reservoirs and Hong Kong
people are made to squander $360 million a year. Inspite of the fact that China's own
water shortage is becoming critical, our Water Supplies Department is not prepared to
renegotiate the water supply agreement to avoid wastage of precious resources. We cannot
continue the business as usual approach because the six million Hong Kong people will be
the losers in the end.
Borrowed time, borrowed place
Hong Kong people's lingering "refugee mentality" has not helped to motivate
more community concern for their long term quality of life. The "Borrowed Time
Borrowed Place" mentality perpetuates the indifference of the silent majority. There
have been no resources and strategy to promote public environmental awareness.
Environmental education has been a low priority of the Government. The Government
Information Services and the media are not proactive in spreading the message. The
community hardly understands what sustainable development is all about. It's time to help
the people develop long term vision.
The Wrong message
If a building contractor is only fined $20,000 for its 21st offence or its failure to
comply with the requirements of a noise abatement notice, then what kind of message is
being sent out to the public? Abusing the environment is no crime and liability can be
discharged by paying one's way out. The Laissez Faire principle of our colonial government
is gaining on economic growth but losing out on quality of life. The government could be
seen as the biggest polluter filling in our harbour, dumping toxic mud and untreated
sewage into our waters, encroaching into our Country Parks for landfills. We have to stop
being naive to believe that voluntary compliance or attitude and behaviour change will
eventually happen to a materialistic society such as Hong Kong. We need strict enforcement
and stiff penalties to make the polluters pay.
Prescription for sustainable development
Ignorance, apathy and greed are the enemies of the environment. Through long term
environmental education and research we should try to provide information for the public
and our policy secretaries to make informed choices about out environment. Friends of the
Earth recommends the following prescription for sustainable development:
- To reform the mandate of the Environmental Campaign Committee (ECC). It should be
modeled as a Green Consumer Council to undertake research and testing of products and
production processes and to disseminate information on life cycle analysis of materials
for consumption and production. To undertake the development of eco-labeling and consumer
- To develop a comprehensive environmental education strategy for the public. To set up a
council for environmental education with the cooperation between the ECC, the green groups
and the Consumer Council, with the support of the Education, Housing, Planning,
Agriculture and Fisheries, Health, Water Supplies, Government Information Services,
Industry and Labour departments.
- To combat apathy it is necessary to offer incentives. Research into the possibilities of
offering tax incentives, subsidies and sponsorship for promoting and piloting cleaner
production, renewable energy and green products. Set up a permanent exhibition and
resource centre to introduce and create markets for the latest alternative technology and
- To tighten laws and enforcement and to increase penalties for polluters. To consider
introducing personal liability and criminal implications for repeated offenders of the
- Improve communication and cooperation among different government departments. Establish
specific departments to develop and implement policies on conservation and energy. Make
government departments and advisory bodies more transparent and accountable by opening
committee meetings and setting up specific guidelines for comprehensive public
- To set up the Chief Executive's Council on Sustainable Development to coordinate
strategic planning and cooperation efforts with our neighbours in the Pearl River Delta.
Conclusion: "A silver lining"
Friends of the Earth is happy to report that our pilot scheme in promoting
environmentally friendly housekeeping practices in the Tseung Kwun O public housing
estates has yielded encouraging results. Since its launch of the "Adopt A Housing
Estate project" in 1995, FoE successfully convinced residents of Chung Ming Housing
Estates to cut back on flushing water by placing a filled PET bottle into the toilet
tanks. At the same time building management agreed to repair any leaking tanks. The
results are telling. In October 1995, Block A paid $17,549 in water and sewage charges
over a four month period. One year later, the bill was slashed by two-thirds to $5800.
Blocks D and E enjoyed even more savings. With October 1995 bills of $35,904 and $9485
respectively, both blocks reduced their bills to zero by November 1996!
Waste minimization and resources conservation is the way forward to achieve sustainable
development for Hong Kong. Friends of the Earth's research paper on sustainable
development Agenda 2047 has identified an alternative development vision for Hong Kong. It
is through long term public education, incentives provision and successful pilot schemes
that Hong Kong people will be convinced that saving the environment also saves money,
saves lives and makes the world a better and healthier place to live.
As Hong Kong is preparing for a historical change, there is an opportunity to overhaul
our existing development direction and change for the better. There is no time to waste to
regain our stolen future.
The above summary does not necessarily represent the views of the Hong Kong