In 1972, world leaders from 113 nations were confronted with a serious challenge at the United Nations Conference on Human Environment at Stockholm : how to reconcile the conflicts between environmental protection and economic development. Could the deadlock be untied?
When the Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, 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.”.
Empty talk for Hong Kong it may be. But for world leaders in 1972, they established the United Nations Environment Programme and began to search for an answer. It was not until 15 years later that they found one from the Bruntland Report – the concept and practice of sustainable development, a kind of development that "meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
From then on, environmental quality, social well-being and economic prosperity are no longer 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 only happen where there is city vision and good governance.
The Chief Executive’s world view was more clearly exposed when he debated with Legislative Councillors on the next day. He regarded public calls for better environment and heritage conservation as the root cause for slowing down development, offering examples in West Kowloon , Kai Tak and Central-Wanchai harbour-front development. Delaying development means less revenue for the public coffer; hence the “progressive goals” for a quality environment must wait until money can be found.
Barely a week before the Policy Address, the Mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, delivered the world’s first city-wide sustainability report to a global conference attended by over 1,100 participants in the Dutch capital. The report espouses the aim of turning Amsterdam into a livable 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 high towards a clear vision, the city, its boroughs, departments and enterprises share an ambition to do more than is required or expected. In waste management, its waste-to-energy plant handles 900,000 tons of waste and sewage slurry annually with raw materials reclaimed in the process. It is also constructing a new high-yield waste-fired power plant with an electrical efficiency of 30%.
As a response to the challenge of global warming, the city’s power company has just completed the world’s first district cooling system by utilizing the temperature difference between the bottom and the top of a deep water lake near the city. New businesses are attracted to the district because of this innovative supply of energy which reduces greenhouse gas emission by over 60% compared to conventional air-conditioning.
Quite simply, environmental concerns are being turned into Amsterdam ’s competitive edge. The quest for a better environment is an engine for growth, not an obstacle.
There may not be deep water lakes in Hong Kong . But what about finding an innovative transport solution for the over-built Central-Wanchai harbour-front, or an emission-free people-mover system in the long strip of land in Kai Tak? In our drive to clean up the harbour, should we not turn the space constraint in the Stonecutter’s Sewage Treatment Plant into an opportunity for developing the most land-efficient technology and speed up the stage two development of the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme?
Officials looking for easy solutions may find a thousand reasons to brand the many concerned groups and citizens who made similar suggestions as luddites with an anti-development agenda. But in the end who will suffer the consequences?
The Italian film director Federico Fellini once said: “the visionary is the only true realist”. Many in Hong Kong would perhaps agree.
If Hong Kong is embroiled in “practical politics” under the guidance of an outdated development philosophy, we can hardly lead – in innovation and in governance. We must move quickly from a three-decade old ideology to a 21st century vision. The public has moved; what about our leaders?
Albert Lai is the Chairman of Hong Kong People’s Council for Sustainable Development and the Vice-chairman of the Civic Party