A Brief History of Hong Kong Sustainability Innovation

I recently received an email asking about the track record of innovation in sustainability in Hong Kong. “Sorry, can't be too helpful here I think,” I replied. “Our track record of innovation in sustainability is probably terrible.”

But the email did get me thinking, and I replied with a short history of Hong Kong’s sustainability initiatives, drawn from my knowledge. Here is a slightly expanded version.

Looking back in time, perhaps the earliest such initiatives focused on farming, especially rice farming. People levelled land to create fields, and nurtured fung shui woods beside villages. These woods were typically just uphill from buildings – perhaps as they could protect against landslides from slopes cleared of most vegetation. As fung shui and similar woods are found elsewhere, they weren’t a local innovation.

After the colony of Hong Kong was established and began growing, there was a pressing need for stable water supplies. This led to surely the greatest sustainability related initiative in Hong Kong: large-scale reafforestation. The aim was to help supply reservoirs: forests are rather like sponges that can soak up some rainfall to release later, instead of having either torrents or nothing. They also stabilise soil, reducing silting of reservoirs.

Hong Kong has devoted huge investments and efforts to reafforestation, and should be seen as a key example of how to succeed with this in the tropics. The forests – and reservoirs – have served as unsung “heroes", proving critical to Hong Kong's development.

A closely related development was the establishment of Hong Kong’s country parks in the late 1970s. This proved a tremendous initiative, and today around 40 percent of Hong Kong’s land area is designated as country park – which is said to be more than any other territory in the world. The country parks deliver a multitude of benefits in addition to helping with water supplies, such as helping protect biodiversity, and affording recreational space for Hongkongers.

 But after establishing country parks, what really qualifies as innovation in sustainability in Hong Kong? There have been initiatives to reduce pollution, such as eliminating pig farming to clean up some rivers, and air pollution controls that led to factories cleaning up or closing and relocating to Guangdong, and closure of waste incinerators.

Yet mostly, I think Hong Kong does not innovate when it comes to sustainability, but lags behind the rest of the world. For instance, Europe introduces standards for bus emissions, and we may later adopt them. Indeed, what passes for policy when it comes to air pollution involves playing catch up with international standards – and catching up so slowly that our air is filthy for “Asia’s World City”.

            Then, there are alarming figures on waste, and Hong Kong is – per capita –one of the world’s most throwaway societies. This despite many discussions on how to tackle the issue after the waste incinerators were shut down. The main answer that emerged under Donald Tsang’s administration was: build another incinerator, and make it a huge one on an artificial island by Shek Kwu Chau, at a key site for the globally endangered finless porpoise.

            But then, Donald Tsang will hardly be remembered for sustainability. As I’ve written before here, Mr Tsang seemed very fond of construction projects. The new Legco complex in the Tamar site was supposed to be a green building, yet promptly devoured around four times as much electricity per square metre than the former Legislative Council Building.

Hopefully the new Zero Carbon Building in Kowloon Bay will prove far more efficient. I expect it will; after all, the design team included the new Environment Minister K.S. Wong.  Yet it is just three storeys high, including the basement – so unlikely to lead to sustainable soaring skyscrapers.

Right now, the skyscrapers are like symbols of unsustainability, and it’s too too easy to list ways Hong Kong is far from unsustainability, whether poor official support for the Eco Park in Tuen Mun, the casual use of plastic bags for newspapers and bread buns, along with plans like huge reclamations, new towns occupying farmland, and the artificial beach at Lung Mei. Looming over all these is our reliance on imports from around the world.

Yet while it’s the sad reality that Hong Kong is highly unsustainable – and far from alone in this, there is cause for some hope. Environmental awareness has surged in recent years.  More people are ready to oppose damaging projects, and keen to help shift Hong Kong towards a more sustainable course. Until Donald Tsang’s departure from office, I believed the administration – and most businesses – were disconnected with such aspirations. Now, however, there are indications of changes for the better, notably with changing personnel in the Environment Bureau.

More changes are needed; a shake up in the Environmental Protection Bureau seems essential if it is to refocus on actual protection. But maybe we can and will do better, and Hong Kong can introduce sustainability initiatives to rival the successes of the earlier afforestation schemes.

Chinese version [see below] published in Ming Pao Weekly on 5 January 2013.

Martin Williams

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Martin Williams's picture

我最近收到一封電郵,問及香港可持續發展的創新例子。我回覆說:「抱歉,我幫不上什麼,香港在這方面可說乏善可陳。」

幾經反思後,我在回覆時按著所知,寫出了香港可持續發展的簡史。以下是較詳細的版本。

香港史上最早出現的可持續發展以耕作為主,特別是種植稻米。人們夷平土地開墾耕地,再在村落旁邊培植風水樹林。大概因為山坡上大部份植物已被清除,建築物附近的小斜坡上都種有樹林,用來保護房屋免受山泥傾瀉影響。但風水和類似的樹林都可見於其他地方,它們並非本地開創的先河。

香港成為殖民地後日漸興盛,對穩定食水供應有急切需要,結果促成了大規模重新造林綠化,成為與可持續發展相關的最大型計劃。森林有助供應水塘所需,它像海綿般吸收雨水,再在稍後釋放,令水塘範圍減少出現急流,也可令珍貴雨水不致流失;此外,森林亦能穩定土壤,減少水塘出現淤泥阻塞。

香港在重新造林花了不少人力物力,算是在熱帶地區採用此法的重要成功例子。森林和水塘擔任了無名英雄,推動香港發展。

1970年代香港大規模設立郊野公園,是另一項與造林息息相關的發展。香港現時的陸地面積中有四成納入郊野公園範圍,比例之高據稱冠絕全球。郊野公園不但有助食水供應,也幫助保護物種多樣性、為香港市民帶來休憩空間。

 但繼郊野公園之後,香港還有什麼別具創意的可持續發展舉措?我們曾有減低污染的措施,例如消滅養豬業以潔淨河流;實施空氣污染管制後,部份工廠變得更清潔,但有更多選擇結業北上;還有關閉焚化爐。

我認為香港的可持續發展並不創新,甚至落後於世界各地。例如歐洲引入巴士排放標準,我們便跟著採用。事實上,我城的空氣污染政策大都只以緩速追隨國際標準,「亞洲國際都會」的空氣也因而污濁難耐。

香港的人均廢物數字也異常驚人,現已居全球棄置最多垃圾社會的榜首。垃圾焚化爐關閉,大眾自然會討論如何解決廢物的問題。曾班子想出的主要方案,是在人工島上興建另一巨型焚化爐,選址卻在全球瀕危的江豚聚居之處:石鼓洲旁。

事實上,人們不會因為可持續發展而想起曾蔭權。正如我也曾在此寫道,曾先生似乎特別喜愛大興土木。添馬艦的立法會大樓本應是綠色建築,但新址每平方米的耗電量卻比舊址高出四倍。

我很希望,也估計新建的九龍灣零碳天地有較佳效能,畢竟新任環境局局長黃景星也是設計團隊的成員。然而大廈連同地庫只有三層高,應難成可持續發展的摩天大廈。

摩天大廈象徵著不可持續的發展,而香港這方面的例子更俯拾皆是:官方沒有大力支持在屯門設立生態園、市民濫用報紙和麵包膠袋,還有大幅填海的規劃、侵佔農地的新市鎮發展、龍尾的人工海灘……加上我們嚴重依賴進口,令情況雪上加霜。

儘管香港的發展與很多城市一樣,在事實上並不可持續,但希望卻在人間。近年環保意識日高,越來越多市民對傷害環境的工程做好反對準備,更樂意攜手把香港推往可持續發展的方向。我相信在曾蔭權離任前,政府和大部份商界人士,都與這種抱負完全脫節。環境局的人事轉變等種種跡象,顯示我們正向好的方向改變。

我們需要更多改變。如果環境局有意著重真正的保護發展,便必需在局內發起重大的方向重組。我們有能力做得更好,香港亦可引入更多可持續發展的點子,超越以往造林計劃的成果。

 

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