Advisory Council on the Environment

HEADING TOWARDS SUSTAINABILITY? (Under HK$ 1.5 million from the Environment & Conservation Fund)


(ACE Paper 9/99)
for information


This project identifies a set of initial indicators of environmental sustainability for Hong Kong. While it may not be possible to comprehensively define 'sustainable development', one can identify a number of necessary conditions which must be met in order for a development path to be considered sustainable. One such condition is that, over the long term, the quality of the air, water, and land should not pose a serious health risk to a significant portion of the population. In other words, it is not sustainable over the longer term to continue to give such priority to economic or other goals to the point where environmental quality is allowed to fall below minimally safe levels. Admittedly, this is a very low standard for sustainability. Yet, even so, Hong Kong is beginning to fail by this standard and is likely to see far worse problems in the coming two decades unless serious action is undertaken now.

Seven initial indicators of environmental sustainability were selected: four for air, two for marine water, and one for solid wastes. The form for most of these indicators is illustrated by that for Respirable Suspended Particulates (RSP). The indicator is the average annual level of RSP at all monitoring stations as a ratio to the AQO (in this case 55 mg/m3). Overall, Hong Kong marginally fails to meet this objective. However, when viewed at street level, the minimally safe level is greatly exceeded. Our projections show this indicator dropping somewhat in the next few years if EPD is successful in the diesel to LPG switch and in imposing higher engine standards for large vehicles. However, such gains will be quickly offset by projected increases in transport and cross border pollution. If these pressures continue as expected, under business as usual approaches (i.e., build more roads to stay ahead of projected demand, rather channelling and managing it) RSP levels will become very unhealthy. Hence, if Hong Kong is to avoid being grouped with Bangkok, Taipei and various Chinese Mainland cities as being among Asia's unhealthy places to live, far more fundamental solutions are required. For most of our indicators, Hong Kong is already or will relatively soon be 'unsustainable' in so far as the quality of the environment will soon pose a serious health threat to much of the population.

In the past Hong Kong has added roughly a million people a decade and despite inadequate investment in such infrastructure as sewage treatment and clean transport, living conditions improved in many respects. Hopefully, the HKSAR will once again successfully meet its current challenges. Yet, now we must do so in a context of little or no unused capacity for the water currents and winds to dilute pollutant emissions to the point were they pose no more than an acceptable level of risk. A further change is that Hong Kong no longer has the local environmental absorptive capacity largely to itself. Our neighbours are now claiming an increasing share of it and returning the pollution 'exports' Hong Kong has long sent to them.

Hong Kong's environment is severely stressed and faces mounting pressures which will make it increasingly difficult to maintain a level of quality which the people of Hong Kong deserve and the international business community and tourists demand. The underlying pressures are twofold. First, the projected baseline population increases (which are on top of those related to the 1999 right of abode case) inexorably add to demands for such services as transport, electric power, sewage treatment, etc. In today's Hong Kong some of these services, especially road transport, are -- despite being relatively efficient in energy terms -- highly polluting. If, as projected, the population rises to 8.1 million 12 years from now, that 20% population increase over the 1998 level must be offset by a 20% improvement in the cleanliness of the average transport journey -- simply to avoid going backwards.

The second underlying pressure is, of course, the increasing level of air pollutant 'imports' into Hong Kong from Mainland China. Such increases are likely to continue for some time and will gradually appropriate an increasing proportion of the absorptive capacity of the regional air systems. If, as seems likely, such pressures are roughly equivalent to those from the SAR's population increase, then the average transport journey in the SAR would have to become perhaps 30%-40% cleaner within 12 years just for air quality to not become worse. Clearly, this is a daunting challenge, requiring truly fundamental shifts in the way transport and some other services (e.g., sewage treatment and electric power generation) are provided.

Government is making efforts to deal with certain aspects of environmental degradation. The diesel to LPG switch will help, as will the SSDS and the injections of funding for West Rail and a few other rail extensions. Yet, as this report suggests, these measures, while commendable, are far from sufficient. The shortfall is only partly a matter of the scale of the needed effort. Until now, environmental protection has been seen as being largely the responsibility of the EPD. This is an outdated notion which must be changed. The types of changes needed go well beyond the purview of EPD. As reflected in the conclusions and recommendations listed below, the active participation of such departments and bureaus as Transport, Planning, Housing, EMSD and others in addressing Hong Kong's environmental problems is absolutely essential.

The major CONCLUSIONS of this report are:

  1. The twin driving forces of continuing population growth and increasing cross-border pollution imports will more than offset expected gains from currently announced government policies with respect to air pollution, and in some respects with regard to marine water pollution.

    --  Effective responses are possible but these must go well beyond the largely end of pipe solution being pursued today.

  2. Solution of the problems, especially for air pollution, lies well beyond the scope of EPD. Truly integrated planning, especially for transport, is needed.

    --  The business as usual approaches by the Transport Department with respect to such matters as the high priority given to new highways, lack of meaningful support for electric road transport and pedestrianization make transport planning in Hong Kong a major part of the problem.


    --  fuel choice for electric power systems is an important part of integrated environmental planning for Hong Kong as more of transport is electrified.

The major RECOMMENDATIONS of this report are:

A More Sustainable Transport System for Hong Kong

  1. The greatest potential for environmental improvements lies in a strong shift toward rail-based transport and tethered electric road transport where feasible, followed by much cleaner internal combustion engine and fuel systems.

    i)    Currently rail and other electric systems (e.g., trams) carry about one third of all passengers. This level is high by international standards, but is not high enough given our environmental needs and considering the potentials offered by high densities. A goal of having at least half of all passenger journeys being by electric systems by 2011 seems appropriate, with the level rising to perhaps two thirds by 2020.

    ii)    To accomplish this will require more than the current ad hoc approach to rail funding. What is urgently needed is a thorough re-evaluation of the way the MTRC and KCRC are funded and how fares are set.
        ---    Explicit credit should be given where a new rail line may make it possible to postpone construction of news roads (e.g., if the MTRC comes to Aberdeen soon, Rt. 7 might be put on hold)

    iii)    In addition, the Transport Department and other relevant departments (e.g., Fire Services, the Police) must begin to facilitate rather than frustrate efforts to assess the feasibility of electric road systems such as trolley buses, and modern trams. Further, transport planners must begin to take seriously their responsibility towards pedestrians, including permitting creation of far more part-time vehicle-free zones and use of traffic calming measures, rather than simply fencing-in pedestrians. A city where virtually everyone is a pedestrian several times every day should be pedestrian-friendly, not pedestrian-hostile as much of Hong Kong is today and becoming more so.

  2. Where the internal combustion engine vehicles is essential, the search for cleaner fuel systems (e.g., natural gas) should proceed along with efforts to make Hong Kong's diesel fleets less polluting.
  3. With regard to taxis, non-franchised light buses and goods vehicles, these should be subject to relatively simple to enforce controls such as mandatory switching to cleaner fuels; as interim measures, much higher fines for emitting black smoke as well as more frequent vehicle inspections.
  4. With regard to electronic road pricing, goods vehicles, taxis and non-franchised buses should be subject to fees along with private cars to maximize its potential for traffic management.
  5. Goods vehicles should also be subject to time of day restrictions to lessen congestion in the most polluted urban areas.

A Greater Role For Natural Gas

  1. The use of natural gas should be promoted in the power sector due to its significant environment and energy efficiency benefits. If natural gas supplies become available in Guangdong, Hong Kong should seek to purchase such fuel for fleet transport (including heavy vehicles) as well as for town gas replacement.

Keeping Sewage Treatment In Step With Population Increases

  1. It is essential that the SSDS go forward as soon as possible and that supplemental sewage treatment systems in the Northeast and the Northwest new territories at least match the pace of population growth in these areas.

Managing Disposal of Solid Waste In Landfills

  1. The major issue with Hong Kong's present landfills, is whether construction and demolition wastes will continue to take up such large share of the landfill space (far exceeding municipal wastes).
  2. Rather than look for another mega landfill within Hong Kong, government should begin discussions and site search now in Guangdong (including possibly off shore islands) for the site of safe disposal of the SAR's solid wastes once the present landfill capacity is exhausted within the next 8 to 15 years.

Other Concerns: future indicators

  1. Present data are inadequate to develop truly meaningful indicators in such areas of concerns as nature conservation, widespread chronic exposure to excessive noise, and access to local open space. It is important that data collection and analysis systems be developed so that we may track developments in these areas over time.



Centre For Urban Planning & Environmental Management
The University of Hong Kong
February 1999

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