SPECIAL REPORT: Hong Kong Chief Exec calls for HK$30 billion investment in sustainable development over 10 years

"A real change in the quality of Hong Kong's environment needs more than just cleaning up litter and enforcing environmental laws, it requires a fundamental change of mindset. Every citizen, every business, every government department and bureau needs to start working in partnership to achieve what is known as sustainable development". Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said this Wednesday, in his third annual policy address since the former British colony reverted to Chinese sovereignty.

Tung stressed the importance of finding ways to increase prosperity and quality of life while reducing overall pollution and waste; meeting the island’s needs and aspirations without doing damage to the prospects of future generations; and reducing the environmental burden Hong Kong puts on its neighbours and helping to preserve common resources.

Hong Kong’s environment has been deteriorating due to rapid population growth and economic development, the community’s lack of environmental awareness, and the fact that its commitment and long-term planning for environmental protection have not kept pace with changing circumstances, said Tung. “Pollution has not only tarnished Hong Kong’s image as an international city, but also greatly affected our health. It is high time we faced up to the problem, and do all we can to improve our living environment”.

The three major problems highlighted by the Chief Executive were air pollution, water pollution and solid waste.

Air pollution

Tung drew attention to respirable particulates as the greatest threat to human health. The average level of respirable particulates in Hong Kong, as recorded at most of the air quality monitoring stations is nearly 50% greater than New York, and consistently approaches or exceeds the maximum level laid down in its objectives. Nitrogen oxide levels are on the rise and often approach or exceed the maximum levels. Ozone levels, which were relatively low in the past, have increased significantly in recent years.

The Hong Kong government has drawn up a series of new measures aiming to reduce the total emissions of respirable particulates emitted from vehicles by 60% by the end of 2003, and 80% by end 2005, by which time nitrogen oxide emissions should also be reduced by 30%. According to Tung, this would bring it in line with major cities in developed countries such as New York and London, and produce substantial gains in the respiratory health of Hong Kong citizens.

Diesel crackdown

Deteriorating air quality in Hong Kong is largely due to pollution at street level caused by vehicle emissions and regional air pollution caused by economic activities throughout the Pearl River Delta region including Hong Kong.

The average road utilisation rate is about four or five times higher than that in Japan or the UK. Significantly, 135,000 – nearly 30% – of Hong Kong’s half a million vehicles are diesel-powered, compared with only 17% in Singapore and 10% in the UK. Diesel vehicles account for nearly 70% of the total distance travelled on its roads.

Diesel vehicles account for 98% of the respirable particulates and 85% of the nitrogen oxide emitted by vehicles. Overall, they are responsible for 52% of the respirable particulates in the air throughout the urban area, and for 60% of ambient nitrogen oxide. Hence the Government’s priority is to control the use of, improve and replace diesel vehicles.

There are currently 18 000 diesel taxis in Hong Kong. The Government will prevent imports of diesel taxis from 2001. To encourage early replacement of the existing taxis, it will be providing grants to assist owners to switch to LPG vehicles. It is proposing to the taxi trade that all diesel taxis over seven years old be taken off the road by 2003 and that no diesel taxis will be allowed after 2006.

There are currently some 6 000 diesel light buses in Hong Kong. Starting in April next year, the Government will launch a six-month trial scheme for LPG light buses. If the results are satisfactory, it intends to provide financial assistance similar to that for the taxi trade to encourage operators to switch over to LPG light buses from 2001. To encourage development of adequate infrastructure, the Government is offering LPG suppliers incentives to construct a network of LPG filling stations and is organising training courses for LPG vehicle mechanics

Hong Kong has another 70 000 diesel light vehicles, 50 000 of which are of pre-Euro standard. On a trial basis, particulate traps will be installed in these pre-Euro-standard vehicles to reduce pollution. If this is successful, grants will be provided to owners in 2001 for the installation of these devices with a view, in the longer term, to replace all diesel light vehicles.

A total of HK$1.4 billion has been set aside as grants to owners of taxis, light buses and other pre-Euro standard diesel vehicles for the purpose of switching over to LPG, installation of particulate traps and the fitting of catalytic converters.

The Environmental Protection Department is also expanding its ‘smoky vehicle spotter programme’ and has been using more sophisticated testing equipment for smoky vehicles since last month. Starting from next year, all commercial vehicles will be required to have their emission control equipment tested every year. Meanwhile, the Police have stepped up enforcement action against smoky vehicles. Later this month, an increase in the fixed penalty for smoky vehicles to HK$1,000 will be proposed.

Other air pollution control measure will include increased use of pedestrian zones, development of environment-friendly modes of transport, more stringent control over pollutants contained in petrol

longer term measures under examination include feasibility studies on an electric trolley bus system and other electrically powered vehicles, and increasing the use of natural gas to partly replace other fuels for vehicles and power-generating.

Water Pollution

The waterways in the New Territories used to be heavily polluted by livestock waste. As a result of the Government’s efforts over the past decade, Tung says the rivers now generally flow smoothly and have good water quality. However, there is still pollution of rivers and streams by disposal of untreated wastes from scattered villages not covered by the sewerage network and from other sources.

The situation in the new towns is better as most of them are served by advanced sewage treatment facilities. Water pollution arising from the older urban areas on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon is much more serious – 75% of the sewage produced by the some 5 million urban residents is discharged into the Harbour after coarse screening only.

To address this the Government is implementing the first stage of an estimated HK$18 billion 4-phase ‘Strategic Sewage Disposal Scheme’.This includes a large-scale network of tunnels 150 metres below the surface of the Kowloon peninsula; a sewage treatment works on Stonecutters Island and a submarine pipeline to carry treated sewage to the western seabed of the Victoria Harbour for discharge. On completion (expected in 2001), the network will collect all the sewage from Chai Wan, Tseung Kwan O, Kowloon, Tsuen Wan, Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi, which will then be carried to Stonecutters Island for treatment. At present, these districts account for 70% of the effluents discharged into the inner harbour.

The remaining stages plan to build collection tunnels on Hong Kong Island, a tunnel from Hong Kong Island to the treatment plant on Stonecutters Island, upgrading of the treatment system to include disinfection, and building a longer tunnel that will discharge treated sewage outside the harbour area. Although these plans will be reviewed, as they are expected to be delayed and run over budget.

Solid Waste

Last year, despite the economic downturn, Hong Kong produced some 45,000 tonnes of solid waste every day, of which 10 000 tonnes were municipal waste and over 32 000 tonnes were construction and demolition materials. After recycling, there were still over 8 000 tonnes of municipal waste and 7 000 tonnes of construction and demolition materials dumped at the landfills each day, which are filling them up much faster than expected.

A Waste Reduction Committee was established earlier this year. Its target is to double the overall rate of municipal waste reduction and recycling by 2007. Waste separation facilities are now available in all public housing estates and many private residential developments. In addition, the Government has also provided land to facilitate the operation of the waste collection and recycling industry. Tung said that the Government will put forward a landfill charging fee shortly, but that controls on packaging of consumer goods are difficult to implement as most of these are imported.

In Hong Kong last year, 78% of the construction and demolition materials were recycled. As for municipal waste, 80% of metals, 35% of plastics and 53% of paper products were recovered for recycling. While these figures are not low by world standards, they do not reflect the fact that only 8% of recoverable domestic waste was recycled in Hong Kong. Tung said the Government will seek funding in the coming year to construct new waste separation facilities, and will also encourage the new District Councils to explore ways to increase the recovery rate of reusable materials in collaboration with the business sector and local communities.

Co-operation with the Mainland

Tung announced an agreement for Hong Kong and Guangdong to co-operate in six areas of environmental protection. First, to complete a joint study on regional air quality by early 2001 and to formulate long-term preventive measures as soon as possible. Second, to study the feasibility of adopting common standards for diesel fuels in both Guangdong and Hong Kong, and to draw up an implementation plan. Third, to co-operate in forestry conservation by exchanging relevant information and technical knowledge. Fourth, to reinforce co-operation on controlling pollution of Dongjiang as well as improving its water quality. Fifth, to enhance the exchange of data on the water quality in the Pearl River Delta Region, so as to formulate a management plan to improve the water quality around the Pearl River estuary. Sixth, to pay close attention to the environmental impact of town planning and development, and to strengthen co-operation and liaison in these two aspects.

To implement the various programmes outlined, the Government will need to spend over $30 billion in the next ten years. “This is without doubt an enormous sum, but as we all know, these infrastructural facilities are vital to the protection of public health,” said Tung. “They are as indispensable as well-equipped hospitals, good schools and decent housing to a modern city. If we are reluctant to pay the cost today, we will have to pay more in future when the pollution problem gets worse. There can be no greater folly than this”.

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