Preserve HK's natural treasures

By Hong Liang (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-10-21 05:32

Columnists love to write about the environment because it is such a safe topic. Having read countless columns on global warming, air pollution and toxic waste, I have come to the conclusion that you don't really need to know too much about the environment to produce a perfectly readable column on the subject.

To rouse readers' interest, all the writer needs to do is to fret about the foul air we breathe or the murky waters in our streams, then follow with a tirade on the irresponsibility of big business and the inadequacy of the government.

Feel free to borrow this formula if you want to try your hand at column writing. I can't guarantee people will read it, but I am quite sure that nobody is going to bother to challenge you.

Unless you happen to be picking on Hong Kong, my hometown. Having lived in Beijing and Shanghai alternately over the past two years, I believe that Hong Kong is the least polluted city of the three.

This is my personal feeling, and I am sure that many people in Beijing and Shanghai are going to vehemently disagree with me on this.

But it's this feeling that has kept me wondering, with some annoyance, about the deluge of news reports and commentaries about worsening pollution, particularly the deteriorating air quality, in Hong Kong.

Accompanying these warnings were strong criticisms that the government has not taken effective actions to adequately protect the environment.

As a common citizen with hardly any scientific or medical knowledge, I care less about the general environment than such mundane matters as the cleanliness of public toilets that we must use on occasion and the condition of the pavements we walk on everyday. On this front, I can report with confidence that great improvements have been made in the past several years, thanks partly to government efforts and partly to common people's increased awareness of their civic responsibility.

The results of efforts to combat pollution on a broader front may not be that obvious. "As in all big cities, combating the environmental pollution that results from economic activities is a long-term undertaking requires good strategies, perseverance and public support," wrote Sarah Liao, the government's secretary for the environment, transport and works, in a recent newspaper column.

Ms Liao explained in her column that the government must take into consideration "the need to strike a balance between protecting the environment and sustaining economic development" in formulating its environment policies.

Some environmentalists may, from time to time, disagree with the "balance" struck by the government. But they should recognize the soundness of the guiding principle, which, as professed by Ms Liao, is effectively simple and equitable: let the polluters pay.

This, according to Ms Liao, has the effect of lessening social costs and encouraging people to pollute less.

The principle is most obvious in the government's sewage treatment and solid-waste disposal schemes. It is also applied to power companies in the form of heavy fines for exceeding the pollution emission limits.

Separately, Hong Kong reached an agreement with the Guangdong provincial government in 2003 on a regional air quality management plan for the Pearl River Delta. In Ms Liao's words, this agreement aims by 2010 to reduce sulphur dioxide by 40 per cent, nitrogen oxides by 20 per cent, suspended particulates by 55 per cent and volatile organic compounds by 55 per cent from 1997 levels.

The government's market-based approach to environmental issues seems most appropriate in a city where pragmatism is a virtue. But there are some natural treasures that many Hong Kong people are keen on preserving at any economic cost.

Paramount among these treasures is the spectacular harbour that lies between the main island and the Kowloon Peninsula. Others include a long stretch of the coastline on the south side of the main island and the pristine hills on the sparsely populated Lantao Island.

Not only should we preserve such treasures, we should constantly seek to improve them. "Did you know that we (the government) have planted 7.3 million trees over the past three years, and that the programme will continue?" asked Ms Liao.

Maybe we don't know the figures. But we'd certainly be happy to see more trees.


(China Daily 10/21/2006 page4)