Editor’s note: Authorities have made great strides in green policies and legislation, an area where rapid progress is difficult, Christine Loh writes on the eve of the first anniversary of the Carrie Lam administration.
Hong Kong’s significant environmental achievements in the past year include conservation, air quality, renewable energy and in some areas of waste management.
On January 31 legislators passed a law to phase out commercial elephant-ivory sales, a victory for elephant protection. The central government had shut down Chinese mainland ivory markets a month before. The combined action of the mainland and Hong Kong is essential to stop trafficking, as the mainland was believed to be the largest import market.
The new law has already banned elephant hunting trophies. The ban on import and re-export of older ivory before the international ban is still permitted but will stop from August 1 this year under the new legislation. The local trading of ivory done under a system of five-year licensing will end on Dec 31, 2021, as licenses expire. At the same time, the new law dramatically increased the maximum penalties for smuggling and illegal trading of endangered species, and the government has beefed up enforcement capabilities.
Air quality has improved over the past five years as a result of effective local and regional action. From 2013-17, the concentration of major air pollutants in the ambient air has declined 11 percent to 38 percent, while at the roadside, the improvement ranged from 20 percent to 36 percent. The pollutant that remains most problematic is ozone.
The success was brought about by phasing down coal usage in favor of natural gas in local power generation; focussing on reducing vehicular emissions, including phasing out Hong Kong’s 82,000-strong old diesel commercial fleet — to date nearly 80 percent of targeted trucks and vans are gone; and mandating ocean-going vessels to switch to cleaner fuel while at berth.
With respect to phasing out old clunkers, the government provided more than HK$11 billion to do it and this is probably the largest diesel vehicle phasing-out scheme in the world. With controlling shipping emissions, Hong Kong’s leadership helped to convince the mainland to adopt less-polluting fuel for ocean-going vessels too.
Indeed, collaboration between Hong Kong and Shenzhen on marine emissions reduction is a highlight of regional collaboration. With Shenzhen and Hong Kong being the two large container ports in South China, their on-going collaboration is essential when the mainland domestic emissions control area comes into force on January 1 next year. Ships entering a defined body of Chinese waters in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) will have to switch to low-sulfur fuels. One thing Hong Kong should do as soon as possible is upgrade the local marine light diesel standard from 0.05 to 0.001 percent sulfur as the mainland has already done. Marine fuel standards harmonization is essential and will help all vessels plying the waters of Hong Kong and the PRD to deal with one fuel type.
The Hong Kong authorities are also exploring green ferries using electric and hybrid technologies. Trials will take a few years to complete but it is possible that in the foreseeable future ferries operating in regional waters may be among the cleanest in the world.
Ozone remains a thorny problem for the whole of China, however. Ozone is a secondary pollutant; it is not directly emitted from a source but is formed by photochemical reaction of pollutants under sunlight. More sunny days bring higher ozone levels. A quick solution is not on the table but Hong Kong and Guangdong are joining forces to reduce ozone precursors (volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides), which is the right way to go.
Hong Kong has finally taken a decisive step forward on promoting renewable energy through new agreements with the two local power companies. The new feed-in-tariff scheme lets people who install solar panels or wind devices sell the power they generate at an attractively high price (about five times differential) to the power companies and at the same time buy electricity at the current tariff. Thus, there is an incentive for them to spend the upfront, higher cost of installation. News reports indicate there is good demand from the public.
Moreover, the government is also using its own assets to develop renewable energy. For example, the two pilot projects of installing solar panels on reservoirs are showing good results, which will spur consideration as to how they can be expanded.
Waste is the area where the public has the biggest complaints as progress seems so slow. In fact, there are significant advances. The truth is, building infrastructure and changing practices takes considerable time.
New disposal requirements for electronic and electrical waste will come into effect later this year and the new treatment and recycling facility is already operating. A 200-tonnes per day food waste-to-energy treatment plant will be commissioned later this year; and the scheme for collecting glass beverage bottles is coming “live” with regional collection and treatment contractors appointed. These initiatives have been in gestation for years. Moreover, the contract for the construction of the 3,000 tonnes per day waste-to-energy plant has been awarded although it won’t be in place till 2024. This was a project that was in discussion for more than a decade and it was delayed again and again due to misunderstanding in the community about whether this is the right technology for Hong Kong.
As for recycling, the truth is not everything can be recycled at this stage. The mainland has caused a “crisis” worldwide by restricting the recyclables it imports. It is right that other countries should no longer use China as the dumping ground of their waste. It will now only take the cleanest, highest-value recyclables. As far as Hong Kong is concerned, this means paper cardboard, newsprint and office paper, and plastic beverage and personal-care bottles.
This means Hong Kong must do much better at separating out higher quantities of uncontaminated paper and plastic recyclables, and accept that for the foreseeable future, the rest will be landfilled. Buildings and districts can find ways to cooperate to see how to scale-up collection and the government needs to see how it can help. Meanwhile, the government is scheduled to put municipal-waste charging legislation to the legislature before the end of the year but it will take time for it to be scrutinized and passed since waste charging is new and still controversial locally but its passage is critical for better waste management in Hong Kong.
The author is chief development strategist at the Institute for the Environment at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a former undersecretary for the environment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.