(Originally published in South China Morning Post, 2006-10-30 , p. A13)
In 1972, world leaders from 113 nations were confronted with a serious challenge at the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm : how to reconcile the conflicts between environmental protection and economic development. Could the knot be untied?
When Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen delivered his policy address last week, he sounded dangerously close to one of those troubled world leaders 34 years ago. He mused about the public aspiration for a better environment: To attain these progressive goals, however, we must keep up the momentum of economic growth, otherwise this is all empty talk and we shall lack the resources to make things happen.
This may be empty talk for Hong Kong . But for world leaders in 1972, it was different: they established the UN Environment Programme and began to search for an answer. It was not until 15 years later that they found one. It came from the Bruntland Report - the concept and practice of sustainable development, that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Since then, environmental quality, social well-being and economic prosperity have no longer been seen as inevitable conflicts. With innovation, good science and community efforts, these objectives can become mutually reinforcing. The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 vastly expanded the body of knowledge in putting theory into practice.
But there is one catch - sustainable development can happen only where there is vision and good governance.
Mr Tsang's world view was more clearly exposed when he debated with legislators the day after his address. He regarded public calls for a better environment and heritage conservation as the root cause for slowing development, offering the examples of the West Kowloon , Kai Tak and Central-Wan Chai harbourfront developments. That is, delaying development means less revenue for the public coffers; hence the progressive goals for a quality environment must wait until money can be found.
Barely a week before the policy address, Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen delivered the world's first city-wide sustainability report to a global conference of more than 1,100 people in the Dutch city. The report espouses the aim of turning Amsterdam into a liveable city by proclaiming that investments in our existing living environment are contributing significantly to the sustainable development of Amsterdam .
Not only does the Amsterdam government not shy away from investing for the future, it also acknowledges that by accepting our social responsibility in proper environmental care, biodiversity and sustainable poverty alleviation, we also expand our own knowledge.
By aiming towards a clear vision, the city, its boroughs, departments and enterprises share an ambition to do more than is required or expected. The city's power company has just completed a world-first in using the temperature differences in a deep-water lake for a district cooling system, for example. New businesses are attracted by this sort of innovative project, which cuts greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 60 per cent when compared with using air conditioning.
In such cases, environmental concerns become a competitive edge and the quest for a better environment is a growth engine.
Officials looking for easy solutions may find a thousand reasons to brand the many concerned groups and citizens who make similar suggestions as Luddites with an anti-development agenda. But, in the end, who will suffer?
If Hong Kong is embroiled in practical politics under the guidance of an outdated development philosophy, we can hardly lead in innovation and governance.
We must move quickly from a three-decade old ideology to a 21st-century vision. The public has moved forward; what about our leaders?
Albert Lai is chairman of the Hong Kong People's Council for Sustainable Development and the Civic Party's vice-chairman.