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Sustainable Development

Sust. Dev. 10, 171178 (2002)


Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/sd.188

ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY
AND PLANNING IN HONG
KONG: AN EMERGING
REGIONAL AGENDA

Peter Hills*

The Centre of Urban Planning and Environmental Management, The University of


Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China

For the past 20 years, environmental local perspective as well as by one that
policy in Hong Kong has been driven by explores the utility of the ecological
responses to a variety of local problems modernization model. This paper
resulting in an array of environmental discusses the recent evolution of
ordinances and supporting regulations environmental policy in Hong Kong, the
addressing air, water and noise pollution emergence of a regional environmental
problems, waste management and the use management agenda and the potential of
of EIA in the development planning ecological modernization as a basis for the
process. Hong Kongs approach to development of a broader strategy to
environmental policy has been based on manage the environmental problems of
the conventional command and control the Pearl River Delta Region. Copyright
model of environmental management. It 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP
has, however, become increasingly Environment.
apparent that many of Hong Kongs
environmental problems cannot be
Accepted 2 May 2002
effectively addressed solely by local
initiatives but must involve broader
collaborative efforts with authorities in INTRODUCTION
neighbouring Guangdong Province.

T
Furthermore, the Hong Kong SARs efforts he development of environmental pol-
icy in Hong Kong has followed an
to address sustainability issues, which are
essentially conventional path and has
still at an early stage, may also be
addressed a number of traditional environ-
facilitated by a regional rather than purely mental problems. It has been primarily con-
cerned with tackling the major pollution prob-
* Correspondence to: Professor P. Hills, The Centre of Urban lems that are typical of most major cities,
Planning and Environmental Management, The University of
Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong SAR, China.
especially those that have experienced the
E-mail: phills@hkucc.hku.hk rapid population growth and intense devel-
opment pressures which have characterized
Copyright 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment. Hong Kong over the past 30 years (Hills, 1997;
P. HILLS

Hills and Barron, 1997; Hills and Welford, noise control and EIA ordinances following in
2002). 1989 and 1998 respectively.
Although concern about the possible impact Thus, by the late 1990s, the Hong Kong envi-
of transboundary pollution first developed in ronment had been subject to an increasingly
Hong Kong in the 1980s, it was not until the extensive regulatory regime introduced pro-
late 1990s that the issue attracted the attention gressively over a period of almost 20 years. A
of researchers (Hills et al., 1998; Liu and Hills, sizeable environmental agency the Environ-
1998). More recently, academic research has mental Protection Department of some 1600
been supplemented by major government- staff was also in place. Some successes have
funded studies, which have investigated the certainly been recorded in the environmental
nature and scale of key problems, particularly policy arena. These include controls on live-
regional air quality (Hills and Roberts, 2001). stock wastes (once a major polluter of local
This paper briefly explores the emergence of rivers and coastal waters), the introduction of
this regional environmental agenda and some low sulphur fuel oil in the industrial sector
of its early manifestations. It also examines (which dramatically reduced SO2 emissions in
Hong Kongs initial attempts to address the the early 1990s) and the current initiative to
issue of sustainable development and the encourage a switch from diesel to LPG use
potential role of ecological modernization as a by the SARs taxi fleet to reduce emissions of
model to enhance eco-efficiency at the regional particulates.
level. Nonetheless, Hong Kongs economic pros-
perity per capita GDP in 2000 stood at
THE DEVELOPMENT OF US$24 000 at current market prices, second
ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY: FROM A only to Japan in Asia has come at a con-
LOCAL TO A REGIONAL AGENDA siderable cost to the local environment and
many problems persist; indeed, some may
The origins of contemporary environmental even intensify in the years ahead (Barron and
policy in Hong Kong can be traced back to a Steinbrecher, 1999; Hills and Barron, 1997; Hills
consultancy study undertaken by Environmen- and Welford, 2002; Liu and Hills, 1998).
tal Resources Limited (ERL subsequently Local marine waters remain badly polluted
ERM) in the 1970s. This study resulted in the due primarily to discharges of untreated
publication of two reports: the first reviewed sewage. Air quality is often poor and visibility
the state of Hong Kongs environment and the limited. Levels of total suspended particulates
existing machinery for environmental protec- (TSP) and respirable suspended particulates
tion, and the second set out priorities for envi- (RSP) continue to represent a major source of
ronmental policy, legislative proposals and an concern. Noise pollution remains widespread,
administrative framework for environmental although the opening of the SARs new airport
protection (ERL, 1975, 1977). at Chek Lap Kok on Lantau Island has eased
The Hong Kong Government then set about the aircraft noise problem. Nonetheless, up to
reorganizing and strengthening the resources one million people may still be affected by high
for environmental protection and enacting new levels of road traffic noise. Solid waste disposal
legislation (Hills, 1986). The Environmental has also generated increasing concern in recent
Protection Unit later to become the Environ- years as major local landfill sites fill up more
mental Protection Agency (1981) and Envi- rapidly than anticipated despite initiatives to
ronmental Protection Department (1986) was reduce and recycle various types of waste
initially established in 1977, and waste dis- (Environmental Protection Department, 2001).
posal, water and air pollution control legisla- Government reports and statements by key
tion was enacted between 1980 and 1983, with officials focus naturally on improvements in

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EMERGING REGIONAL AGENDA

local environmental quality and the many pol- costs are much lower which largely explains
icy initiatives under way. However, progress the emergence of a broader regional environ-
in some key areas has been slower than antic- mental policy agenda for Hong Kong (Hills
ipated. Perhaps the most telling example is and Roberts, 2001; Hills and Welford, 2002).
the ill fated Strategic Sewage Disposal Scheme It has been growing awareness of the impacts
(SSDS), which is now more than 5 years of transboundary movements of air and water
behind schedule and which in 2001 was re- pollutants originating from the rapidly grow-
designated as the Harbour Area Treatment ing new industrial and urban centres of the
Scheme (HATS). Delta Region that has prompted the realiza-
To many local environmental NGOs, aca- tion that environmental quality concerns in
demics and professionals, the Hong Kong Hong Kong cannot be considered in isolation
SARs government, like its colonial predeces- from development processes across the bor-
sor, seems unable to push forward a compre- der. Hong Kongs pollution problems have not
hensive and integrated environmental policy. been solved locally; they have been displaced
Policy remains wedded to a pollution con- spatially (Hills and Welford, 2002).
trol approach, and while the terminology of Indeed, this has been recognized at the
sustainability appears almost routinely in offi- highest level in Hong Kong, most notably
cial pronouncements such statements of good by the SARs Chief Executive, who, in his
intent cannot be linked to a broader pol- 1999 Policy Address to the SARs Legislative
icy framework for sustainable development Council (Tung, 1999) observed that
because no such framework exists. Hong Kong
has not formally adopted Agenda 21, nor does Hong Kong cannot possibly solve all of
it possess a sustainable development strategy. its own environmental problems single-
A milestone report on sustainable develop- handedly. We need to work closely with
ment in Hong Kong published in the late 1990s the Mainland authorities. . .. We also need
(Barron and Steinbrecher, 1999) concluded that the co-operation of our neighbours, for
the SAR was heading away from a sustainable example to protect our air and water
future rather than closer towards it. quality. They in turn need our support
This formative period in the development since some of their pollution problems
of environmental policy in Hong Kong also originate from our economic activities.
witnessed a fundamental restructuring of the
local economy. There was a very substantial
decline in traditional manufacturing activity ENGAGING WITH SUSTAINABLE
(and, indeed, many of its attendant pollution DEVELOPMENT
problems) and the emergence of an economy
dominated by the service sector. In 1999, ser- Hong Kong first formally engaged with the
vices contributed 85.3% of GDP and manu- concept of sustainable development in 1993
facturing less than 6%. In 1985, the figures when the government published its Second
were 69.6 and 21%, respectively. The num- Review of Progress on the 1989 white paper
ber of manufacturing establishments declined on pollution (Hong Kong Government, 1989,
from 48 000 in 1985 to 21 000 in 2000 and man- 1993). This review contained an extensive dis-
ufacturing employment from 850 000 to 226 cussion of important concepts such as environ-
000. It is this process of economic restructuring mental stewardship, sustainable development
and the associated relocation of Hong Kongs and the precautionary principle, as well as
manufacturing base to the Chinese main- the Earth Summit, Agenda 21 and the impor-
land particularly within the adjacent Pearl tance of community involvement and active
River Delta Region where land and labour co-operation between government and private

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P. HILLS

sector as mechanisms to move towards a sus- the task of assessing the sustainability impli-
tainable future (Hills, 2002). cations of plans, policies and major projects.
Coming so soon after the Earth Summit CASET has only recently been distributed to
one might have expected the 1993 review to government agencies by the newly established
mark the beginning of a serious attempt on the Sustainable Development Unit and it is too
part of Hong Kong to engage with sustainable early to determine what, if any, effect it has had
development but this was not to be the case. on the policy-making process itself. Clearly,
This may in part be attributed to the politics of it remains questionable whether such a tool
the transitional period in the run-up to the 1997 can be used effectively in the absence of an
transfer of sovereignty and administration overall strategy setting out sustainability objec-
from Britain to China. At the time a high tives which government is seeking to achieve.
priority was attached to maintaining political Furthermore, it is unclear how it can assist in
stability and economic prosperity to bolster the analysis of the cross-sectoral policy issues
the confidence of the local community. The that are so important in the context of sustain-
more profound political and economic issues able development. This is a crucial issue in a
raised by sustainable development would no government structure that remains fragmented
doubt have seemed out of place during such a and territorial and wedded to the precepts of
sensitive period in Hong Kongs history. what Dryzek (1997) describes as the discourse
Nonetheless, government did commission a of administrative rationalism.
major consultancy study in 1997Sustainable The Chief Executives 1999 Policy Address
Development for the 21st Century in Hong Kong (Tung, 1999) not only discussed environmen-
(SUSDEV21) on just how Hong Kong might tal issues in their regional context but also
address the issue of sustainable development, represents a key contribution to the discourse
the final report of the project being published of sustainable development in Hong Kong.
in August 2000 (Planning Department, 2000). For the first time, sustainability concerns are
This study provided the following definition linked with the SARs long term prospects.
for sustainable development in the SAR: He also provided another definition of sustain-
able development for Hong Kong, a definition
Sustainable development in Hong Kong somewhat at odds with that provided by SUS-
balances social, economic and environmen- DEV21.
tal needs, both for present and future As I have observed elsewhere (Hills, 2002),
generations, simultaneously achieving a Tungs definition
vibrant economy, social progress and better
environmental quality, locally, nationally embodies the principles of recognizing and
and internationally, through the efforts of exploring the limits of sustainability, inter-
the community and the Government. generational equity, environmental stew-
ardship and shared responsibility, while
The study also presented guiding principles the SUSDEV21 definition emphasizes bal-
for sustainable development, baseline stud- ance between, rather than integration of,
ies, sustainability indicators and institutional social, economic and environmental objec-
change proposals, but what it did not do was tives, actively promotes decision making
to generate a strategy for sustainable develop- for future generations by present gen-
ment in Hong Kong. Its principal output took erations, seeks only better environmen-
the form of a Computer Aided Sustainability tal quality, and draws a clear distinction
Evaluation Tool (CASET), which is intended between the community and government
to assist policy makers across government in as participants in this process.

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However, what is also significant about this on sustainability issues. Indeed, this was also
address is that it marks a clear break with the a topic that Tung addressed in his 1999 policy
orthodoxy of much of the 1980s and 1990s, address. He announced that Hong Kong and
when the community was frequently reminded Guangdong Province would cooperate in a
by both government and the business sector of number of areas, including regional air quality,
the potentially negative implications for the fuel standards, water quality and the impact
economy of too rigorous an environmental of town planning and development (Hills
regulatory regime. Tung argues quite the and Roberts, 2001). On the institutional front,
reverse, emphasizing the need for a change in the Hong Kong Guangdong Environmental
the quality of the environment . . .as we set out Protection Liaison Group, first established
to build Hong Kong into a world-class city. He in 1990, was replaced in early 2000 by a
also acknowledges that pollution has harmed new joint Working Group on Sustainable
Hong Kongs international image and affected Development and Environmental Protection
the health of the community. (Hills and Roberts, 2001).
While Tungs comments appeared at the Although these developments are sig-
time to offer the prospect of a more vigorous nificant, movement towards any kind of
response to sustainability issues in Hong Kong, regional sustainable development strategy,
and one more consistent with widely accepted and the establishment of supporting institu-
principles and emerging international practice, tional structures, is likely to be limited. Chinas
there was subsequently a loss of momentum. own approach to sustainable development is
The institutional developments proposed by markedly different to that of Hong Kong and
Tung, which included a Council on Sustainable in some respects is rather more advanced with
Development and a Sustainable Development a clear national strategy and strong linkages
Unit within government, have been slow to with the economic development planning pro-
materialize. The former body is unlikely to be cess, although questions remain regarding its
established before late 2002, while the latter effectiveness. A more fruitful avenue to explore
was only established in April 2001. in the short to medium term may be greater
Other contributions to the official discourse cooperation between Hong Kong and Guang-
of sustainable development in Hong Kong, dong on sustainability assessment of policies
including the Commission on Strategic Devel- and projects with cross-border implications
opments Report on Hong Kongs long term (e.g. major infrastructure projects).
development (Commission on Strategic Devel-
opment, 2000), the SUSDEV21 Report itself
(Planning Department, 2000) and the recently ECOLOGICAL MODERNIZATION IN
launched Hong Kong Vision 2030 Study being HONG KONG AND THE PEARL
undertaken by the Planning Department (Plan- RIVER DELTA REGION
ning Department, 2001), all seem somewhat at
odds with Tungs bold and visionary state- A strong form of the sustainable development
ments of 1999. They offer only a narrow view model may not represent the most appropri-
of sustainability concerns and none provide ate or acceptable framework within which to
any clear pointers to the key elements of a sus- address many of the problems affecting the
tainable development strategy for Hong Kong. Pearl River Delta Region as a whole. It is
There are, however, some grounds for hope argued elsewhere (Hills and Roberts, 2001;
that even as Hong Kong struggles to get to Hills and Welford, 2002) that ecological mod-
grips with sustainable development as a local ernization, with its emphasis on eco-efficiency
issue, it can at least make some progress (Mol, 2001; Mol and Sonnenfeld, 2000), may
towards greater cooperation with the mainland prove more attractive as a transitional model

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P. HILLS

for both Hong Kong and Guangdong. Both (NEPIs), which potentially could transform the
remain growth oriented and both must explore policy-making process and redefine it as some-
solutions to environmental problems which thing much more than pollution control.
involve the private sector. In Guangdong Province, ecological modern-
Hills and Welford (2002) identify various ization may also attract interest for similar
reasons why ecological modernization as a reasons. An additional motivating factor for
weak form of sustainable development might enhanced eco-efficiency on the part of com-
find a receptive audience in Hong Kong: panies in the Delta Region may be Chinas
recent accession to the World Trade Organ-
it does not call into question the very isation (Hills and Welford, 2002). This will
foundation upon which Hong Kong is almost inevitably direct international attention
built namely the capitalist system or con- to operational standards of mainland firms as
tinued economic growth; it calls for the sys- well as to the effectiveness of the countrys reg-
tem to be restructured on environmentally ulatory framework for the environment, and
sound principles; the enforcement of its environmental laws and
it allows for the articulation of the regulation regulations. This may ultimately work to Hong
of the environmental problem as a positive Kongs benefit in environmental terms, but
sum game (Hajer, 1995, p. 65), offering the given that many of these firms are Hong Kong
chance to enhance business profitability and owned it can be argued that the SAR itself
exploit new business opportunities; should also encourage its entrepreneurs to
it offers the potential to develop partnerships enhance environmental practices and promote
between the public and private sectors to the adoption of higher standards of corporate
tackle environmental policy concerns which environmental governance, locally, regionally
may prove preferable to the business sector and internationally.
than greater regulation;
although much of the local manufacturing
base has relocated across the border, the eco- CONCLUSION
logical modernization model is concerned
with the environmental efficiency of the The dynamics of the relationship between
economy as a whole, and may itself pro- Hong Kong and the mainland on environmen-
vide a framework for policy initiatives in tal and sustainability issues is a fascinating
Guangdong Province. and complex topic. This relationship has devel-
oped more strongly over the past decade as a
Hills and Welford (2002) argue that Hong result of Hong Kongs political and economic
Kong has already embraced elements of the integration with the rest of the country. The
ecological modernization model, though not Basic Law, however, guarantees Hong Kong a
in any consistent or integrated manner. Exam- high degree of autonomy as a Special Admin-
ples include the promotion of energy efficiency istrative Region within the overall framework
(Electrical and Mechanical Services Depart- of the Peoples Republic (Hills and Roberts,
ment, 2001), waste reduction and recycling 2001). Thus, its approaches to environmental
(Planning, Environment and Lands Bureau, policy and to sustainable development remain
1998) and the strengthening of environmen- quite separate and distinct from those of the
tal aspects of new town design (Territory mainland. Meanwhile, it has become increas-
Development Department/Planning Depart- ingly apparent that Hong Kong is but a part of
ment, 1999). However, what is has not yet man- the much larger emerging metropolis of the
aged to do is to make the transition to the use Pearl River Delta Region, and that ecologi-
of the New Environmental Policy Instruments cal sovereignty is indeed mere fiction (Behar,

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1992). Clearly, this situation gives rise to a vari- Initiatives, paper to the Energy Efficiency and
ety of tensions as Hong Kong seeks to come to Conservation Subcommittee of the Energy Advisory
Committee (EE&C Paper 1/2001).
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Environmental Protection Department. 2001. Environ-
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