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Chp 38, “White Paper: Pollution in Hong Kong – A Time to Act” – Forty years champion for the environment

White Paper: Pollution in Hong Kong – A Time to Act

Looking back, the 1989 White Paper “Pollution in Hong Kong – A Time to Act” was a historic document defining a new era in Hong Kong government’s environmental policy making. But as fate would have it, the World Environment Day on which it was released happened to be the day following the Tiananmen Square tragedy on 4 June 1989. For a few months, Hong Kong civil society – or perhaps Hong Kong itself – had only one agenda, namely, the June 4 Incident.

The White Paper gave a comprehensive account, for the first time, of the government’s environmental objectives and outlines a number of initiatives in waste management, air quality, water and noise pollution, environmental planning, enforcement and education. It was in this White Paper that the establishment of the Planning Environment and Lands Branch, the Drainage Services Department and the Planning Department was proposed. The preparation of a Waste Disposal Plan, the construction of a Chemical Waste Treatment Plant, the sewage strategy study, and measures to reduce diesel engine vehicles all came from the White Paper.

Significant as it was, the White Paper was not entirely the government’s doing but the product of engagement between the government and the community. Its preparation began in November 1988 when newly appointed Secretary for Public Works Graham Barnes announced to the Legislative Council that a White Paper on the environment would be published. While welcoming the news, CA Chairman Hung Wing Tat emphasized that the White Paper should be guided by the polluter-pay principle, the need for treating pollution at source, and full public participation in the battle against pollution. In 1989, in anticipation of the White Paper, CA organized a two-day seminar on “Hong Kong Environmental Protection Strategy 1989” on 27 and 28 May. After the White Paper was published on 5 June, CA issued a 24-point paper with comments including, among other points:

  • disappointment that the White Paper only addressed pollution and not conservation or sustainability;
  • proposal to set up an energy committee;
  • more resources to be devoted to education, including more funding to support green groups;
  • whilst welcoming the sewerage master plans, emphasizing the need for treatment, not just collection and disposal;
  • advocating electricity regulation;
  • supporting switch from diesel to petrol for vehicles’
  • the importance of town planning, including appointing green group representatives to the Town Planning Board;
  • the need to enact legislation on environmental impact assessment EIA);

Looking back, many of CA’s comments have gradually materialized over the years; for instance, In 1992, the then CA Chairman Fung Shiu Wing was appointed to the Town Planning Board; later an Environment and Conservation Fund was established providing funding for community programmes; and an EIA regime was eventually established in 1997.

The White Paper was an achievement in environmental policy making not just because of the initiatives themselves, but because it set off a continuous process of reviews enabling further policy improvements. The First Review was presented on World Environment Day in 1991 and was essential a progress report of the White Paper. The Second Review was a more elaborate process starting in early 1993, with briefing meetings on the scope and outline of the review. CA was generous in presenting views to the government, especially on the experience from the Earth Summit which CA attended the previous year.

The Second Review published in end-1993 turned out to be a 170-page document titled “Second Review of the 1998 White Paper: A Green Challenge for the Community”, which gave a detailed stock-taking of the state of the environment in Hong Kong. While welcoming the paper, CA criticized the government for confusing policy review with public education. Although there was an acknowledgement in the Second Review of the need for policies in conservation and energy, there were few specific targets and taken as a whole the document was more a public education tool than a policy review.

But that was then remedied in the Third Review, which started with a “think-piece” by the government on 5 June 1995 highlighting sustainable development as the crux of the Review. CA made a submission using Agenda 21 as the outline and drawing on CA’s own version of Agenda 21 for Hong Kong. The following year, the Third Review entitled “Heading Towards Sustainability: Third Review of Progress on the 1989 White Paper” was published. Though a small unprepossessing booklet, this Review drew an uncharacteristically favourable response from CA.

In a 30-paragraph comment on the Third Review issued in April 1996, CA stated, “Although this Third Review was published late (in 1996 instead of 1995), and in a much more modest and unimpressive format than the Second Review, our view is that the contents of this Third Review are much more substantial and it merits a place as an important document in the ongoing formulation of Hong Kong’s environmental policy.” This is because the Third Review has “set government firmly on the direction of a policy guided by sustainable development.” The announcement that a SUSDEV21 study would be launched was seen as the fruition of CA’s many years of patient lobbying, as was the promise of a conservation strategy. CA also made the point that the then Financial Secretary Donald Tsang has made sustainable development a theme in the “framework for action” of his initiative to promote Hong Kong’s service industries launched in his 1996/97 Budget, thus showing that “environment and sustainable development is no longer a matter of lip service but a genuiue commitment from government which should be recognised.”

But CA’s comment was not all about giving recognition: “Equally importantly, there must be concrete action to put sustainability into practice which, at the end of the day, is how government will be judged.” Besides making specific comments on issues ranging from waste, air, conservation, energy, environmental education to Hong Kong-Guangdong cooperation, CA also reaffirmed an idea it initiated earlier, of developing of a suitable Sustainable Development Bill in the long term.

May 14, 2015 Posted by | Dr WK Chan book | Leave a comment