Christine Loh on Hong Kong environmental concerns

Dr. Christine Loh is Adjunct Professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She was the Under Secretary for the Environment in Hong Kong (2012-2017) and was a member of the legislature there (1992-1997 and 1998-2000). She established Civic Exchange, a non-profit public policy think tank in 2000 and was its CEO till 2012. Loh has a long track record in public policy and politics in Hong Kong, and is a published author of both academic and non-academic works on a variety of subjects. She is a lawyer by training and a commodities by profession. Her personal interests are in the arts.
In October 2017, she talked with Julie Tran CMC '20. Image courtesy of Christine Loh.

Can you please describe the concept of ecological civilization? What exactly does it mean in practical and policy terms and what does it mean for China and also the special administrative region of Hong Kong?

The Chinese leadership acknowledges China’s growth and development is unbalanced and unsustainable. Ecological civilization is a concept that was first articulated as a solution to the problem in 2007. I also see the term as an expression of a new development philosophy because it is stated in terms of a civilization that respects ecology. By combining ‘ecology’ and ‘civilization’, the term embodies a higher goal than the more familiar concept of ‘sustainable development’, which has been widely used around the world since 1992, as it was coined by a UN summit on environment and development.

As a political and policy term, China’s leadership has declared it will pursue ecological civilization in future development plans. Ecological civilization requires that development respect ecological capacities. It is a concept that is rooted in the capacities of particular regions. For example, water usage should stay within the limits of a particular water basin. China is looking at what it needs for its natural ecology to be sustained without being damaged, overused, or killed off. Ecological civilization has the potential to go far.

China also accept the term sustainable development, which calls for development to have regard to economic success, achieving social equity, as well as being environmentally-sound. China’s concept of ecological civilization is rooted in its own ecological capacities and what needs to be done to integrate environmental protection into economic, social, cultural and political progress.

Hong Kong adopted sustainable development as the yardstick to consider development after 1992. At this stage, there has not yet been much discussion about what ecological civilization means for Hong Kong.

Two of Hong Kong’s major environmental challenges are high water usage and air pollution. How have these challenges affected the quality of life and the economy in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is a small place with one of the highest population densities in the world. There was rapid industrialization and urbanization in the 1960s and 1970s. From the 1980s, Hong Kong factories begun to manufacture consumer goods in an area called the Pearl River Delta (PRD) in Guangdong Province in South China. Since the 1980s, industrialization and urbanization in the PRD was large and fast, which affected the environment. Water pollution and over usage of water, as well as air pollution are major problems for Hong Kong and the cities of the PRD.

The development experience of Hong Kong and PRD are being repeated in many other places in China and elsewhere. No matter where you are located, you are affected by your region – pollution flows and blows. When you look at the environment, look at where you are in the context of your region, and then you can see where the pollution is coming from.

The growing number of vehicles causes pollution and congestion. You can identify the power plants. Do you have major industries that are major emitters? What in your region are major polluters? Do you have a lot of factories that are dumping dirty water into your rivers and surrounding seas? It is very important to have a map of where your pollution is coming from and assess the impact.

Air pollution is damaging the natural ecology and people’s health. Water pollution is damaging the ecology and our drinking water. When you map this out you can see what are your problems and what you need to do to reduce pollution.

The air quality in the PRD and Hong Kong deteriorated as a result of rapid industrialization and urbanization. The good news is a lot has been done to clean-up. In comparison to North and Central China, air quality in the PRD-Hong Kong region in South China is much better. But when you compare its air quality to what you have in Claremont or even Los Angeles, the PRD-Hong Kong region is much worse. This means the health of our people are affected much more. We still have a long way to go to clean-up.

What has the Hong Kong government done to address these environmental challenges?

Cleaning the air is front and center of Hong Kong’s environmental policy. After all, people may have a choice to buy bottled water and eat imported foods, but for air, they have no choice. We all have to breathe many times every minute.

We did many things in the past 5 years in my term as Undersecretary of Environment that were successful. For example, shipping emissions was a neglected area – I must say not just in Hong Kong and Mainland China but throughout the world. We have mandated ships to burn a cleaner fuel while at berth in Hong Kong, and Mainland China has also changed its policies. In Hong Kong, since 2015, we have reduced sulfur dioxide from ships by more than 50%, which has a direct impact on public health. We also put forward a scheme to replace 82,000 diesel commercial vehicles, since these are major polluters. We put US$1.5 billion on the table to subsidize owners to replace their vehicles. This is a large sum of money and not every city can afford it, but we bit the bullet because the health gains are so substantial.

How is climate change affecting Hong Kong? What is Hong Kong specifically doing to meet the climate change threat?

Climate change affects everybody, and people in specific locations need to understand what their greatest climate risks are. We all need to reduce carbon, but it is also really important for different cities and regions to understand how they must adapt to the changing climate. For example, Hong Kong is a coastal, subtropical city. We are in the typhoon zone. Rain will come in much larger dumps, meaning floods, landslides, and wind intensities will be magnified. Our infrastructure have to withstand severe weather events. Because Hong Kong has always had to deal with storms, we have already invested a lot of time and money in our infrastructure to protect lives and property – and we have done quite well. In carbon mitigation, we are switching away from coal to generate electricity and using more natural gas. Natural gas is a cleaner fuel but it is still a fossil fuel. We still need to do more to reduce carbon, do more with renewables, improve energy efficiency etc.

How does the China factor influence Hong Kong’s environmental protection efforts? Can you describe the collaboration between Hong Kong and the mainland?

Pollution and biodiversity do not observe political boundaries. For example, Hong Kong shares a border with Shenzhen in the PRD. There are shared wetlands, forests, and water bodies that are managed separately. We have lots of dialogue and there are some joint projects, but we can still do better in the future. Another example are ships, which sail to and from Hong Kong, Shenzhen and other ports in the PRD, so it is important that we develop similar control strategies. Hong Kong is a small city with an important port. Our neighborhood has two major ports in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Physically, this area is only the size of the Bay Area in northern California, but Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou together handle more than 10% of the world’s container traffic, which is huge in global terms.

There has been good collaboration to deal with shipping emissions since 2013 when Hong Kong declared that it would mandate large ships to switch to a cleaner fuel when they are at berth. We were the first port in Asia to do so. Hong Kong suggested to the national government and neighboring ports to consider doing the same. Moreover, if China could create marine emissions controlled zone in the waters of the PRD, it could require ships to switch fuels some distance away in China’s territorial waters. The health impact would be even greater. China declared such a policy in December 2015 and it will be implemented by 2019 in stages not only for the waters of the PRD but also for the waters in the Yangtze River Delta and in the Bohai region further north. My view is Hong Kong can trigger a new idea, which could lead to a change in national policy and once China changes it policy, the total impact would be enormous.

Based on your experience dealing with the Chinese government, what are the most noteworthy efforts China has undertaken on the environmental front in recent years?

China has done many good things – to long to list – and controlling shipping emissions is definitely one of them. It’s not very often that you have something start in a little corner of the country that led to changes in national policy.

You have worked on campaigns to save Hong Kong's harbor from excessive land reclamation and over-development before you joined the government. Can you describe the role of civil society in Hong Kong’s environmental protection efforts?

This is an old but very successful campaign. When I was young, it was always said that Hong Kong had a lot of people but very little land - reclamation was a way to create new land. While it is true that the population is large and land scarce but it is arguable whether reclamation is the most appropriate solution. Moreover, if you shrink the harbor, you would be turning a magnificent natural asset into a river! Why would you want to do that?

We helped people visualize the extensiveness of the government’s proposed reclamation plans and we pointed out other solutions, such as developing land in an area of called New Territories and also by improving urban regeneration. We pointed out that the harbor is a part of the ‘heart and soul’ of Hong Kong. The juxtaposition of mountains and water is what makes Hong Kong so dramatic and beautiful. If you mess around with the harbor, you change that. The harbor is also a part of our history as a port; and it also acts as a natural lung for Hong Kong. The more that you fill up the harbor and put buildings on it, the more you change the airflow of the city.

Julie Tran CMC '20Student Journalist

Featured Image by McKay Savage from London, UK – China – Hong Kong 4 – view from Victoria peak, CC BY 2.0,

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