Hong Kong’s idling engine

Ten years after the handover, there is great wealth in Hong Kong, but how has nature fared? Christine Loh reviews a decade of environmental policy in the city of stifling smog.

Hong Kong’s environmental policy over the past decade has seen some advancement, but there has also been limited progress on some issues – and even stagnation in many areas. So why have policies succeeded or failed?

Successes included the completion of stage one of the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme (HATS). This has improved marine water quality and reduced polluting emissions from diesel vehicles; the relocation of the airport from Kai Tak to Chek Lap Kok has significantly reduced the number of people affected by noise pollution; and there has also been a large increase in the quantities of solid waste recycled. New Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which include a new country park and a new marine park, have all been designated.

In addition, progress has been made on a number of policy fronts: the implementation and refinement of the EIA Ordinance, the imposition of a construction and demolition waste-charging scheme. There were also successes in cross-border cooperation on a number of issues, particularly air pollution. Water conservation and recycling are being promoted.

Generally though, it has been a decade of broken promises, lost opportunities, missed targets and stalled programmes. These include:

* The large proportion of the population (in a city of such wealth) who remain without sewers, or receive only primary water treatment;

* The lack of a comprehensive conservation policy and effective mechanisms for biodiversity protection;

* The lack of a sustainable energy policy, targets for greenhouse-gas emissions  and climate-change related issues;

* Failure to fully implement the “polluter pays principle”, meaning transportation, energy, water, waste and sewage services are all under-priced. 

The result is that, on a per capita basis, Hong Kong residents use more resources and create more pollution in 2007 than they did in 1997. Hong Kong still suffers from dangerously high levels of air pollution; there is poor water quality in several areas, particularly Deep Bay and in a number of rivers; there are high levels of exposure to severe traffic noise; and rapidly diminishing landfill space. Areas rich in biodiversity are being squandered for housing, roads, and other infrastructure.

There are a number of reasons for this predicament: 

Leadership: From Hong Kong’s chief executive down, decision-makers are (and long have been) reliant on large physical infrastructure as a primary tool to promote economic growth. A lack of leadership on environmental protection from the two chief executives has had knock-on effects on the civil service. The policy bureau responsible for environmental protection had been restructured twice since the handover, disrupting momentum for policy development, while energy supply is handled by a separate bureau. In a third round of restructuring from 1 July 2007, environmental and energy responsibilities have finally been put in one bureau, which will hopefully lead to better coordination of policies in the future. In some areas, such as climate change and the “polluter pays principle”, there is uncertainty over who is in charge or what the policy is. The environment has not been a sufficiently high priority issue for the Legislative Council (LegCo), which has not offered much resistance to the administration’s often poorly justified proposals for infrastructure. 

Sustainable development: Government decision-makers use the rhetoric of sustainable development freely, but have yet to truly put it into practice. They have failed to identify sustainable development as a policy objective or to align government organisational structures and practices to meet this goal. As a whole, the decisions and behaviour of ministers and officials do not reflect the attempt to find sustainable solutions. Indeed, most senior political leaders have yet to internalise sustainable development, and how it can be both a development strategy and an operational guide in policy implementation. They continue to promote economic development in terms of bricks-and-mortar investments. Those in high office seem not to know the two are intertwined. After all, the natural environment is the overarching sphere within which all human activities take place. It is not a matter of “balancing” growth and environment: the two should go together. Indeed, environmental clean-up is a way to spur quality development and create jobs.

Planning: In 2007, the planning process, particularly strategic and transport planning, continues to display a lack of integration on environmental issues. This partly stems from the government’s development-led ethos, which conflicts with stated sustainable development objectives in the planning system. Hong Kong’s inherited legacy of pollution problems stems largely from poor planning. Strategic planning still takes a top-down approach that does not effectively involve the community in decision-making. Public engagement processes seldom provide for the fundamental questioning of government plans. There is a tendency for large infrastructure projects to bypass the strategic planning process and be pushed through without robust analysis. 

Public consultation and participation: Despite a more systematic approach to public consultation on issues since the 1997 handover, general public participation is still lacking in environmental policymaking. There is still a tendency for the government to rely on its statutory and advisory bodies rather than genuine community participation; often the fundamental decisions on issues have been made beforehand. This not only results in sub-optimal decision-making, but it also reduces the buy-in on issues from the public, reduces opportunities for educating the public on environmental issues and can backfire in terms of the additional time and resources it takes to implement key policies.

Cross-border cooperation: Hong Kong’s environment, particularly air and water pollution, is heavily influenced by regional emissions. At the same time, Hong Kong’s economy is growing ever more integrated with the rest of the region, so there is both the need and the opportunity to exert influence. Despite some useful studies and initiatives, the level of crossborder cooperation has been more limited and passive than had been hoped for at the time of the handover. Release of data from the mainland remains a problem (although there has been better air pollution data from Guangdong since 2006). Without good data on the source of the problem, it is difficult to direct policy or resources to its solution. Most of the cooperation is also done at an administrative level, despite the interest of business and NGOs in supporting government efforts. The engagement of the business community, in particular, is vital to expedite any efforts to reduce pollution across the border.

As dire as the situation is, there are glimmers of hope: further vehicle emissions reductions are planned; stage two of HATS may yet drive further improvements in marine water quality; and a new strategy for reducing waste, including energy recovery technology, is rolling out. At the same time, however, none of the fundamental factors discussed above are altering significantly. Indeed, the current chief executive is promising to accelerate infrastructure development, which can only increase the demand for resources, the threat to biodiversity, and the levels of pollution.


Christine Loh is the CEO of Civic Exchange

The above article is a summary of Idling Engine: Hong Kong's Environmental Policy in a Ten Year Stall 1997-2007, one of four books Civic Exchange has published examining Hong Kong’s policies over the ten years. The other titles are: Still Holding our Breath: A Review of Air Quality Policy in Hong Kong 1997-2007; Reflections of Leadership: Tung Chee Hwa and Donald Tsang 1997-2007; and From Nowhere to Nowhere: A Review of Constitutional Development Hong Kong 1997-2007. For more information, visit

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