A Chat With Undersecretary For The EnvironmentFor several years running, we’ve recognised Earth Day with a story on the continuing deterioration of Hong Kong’s physical environment, how the air is hampering business competitiveness and what an abject failure the government has been when measured on most environmental metrics. And while many of the criticisms laid at LegCo’s feet are valid, more than a few of us would be surprised at the actual work that’s been done in cleaning up this town.

Since she took up her position as Undersecretary for the Environment in September 2012, Christine Loh has been busy. Despite John Q Public’s perception of government as a lumbering sloth, Loh and her boss, KS Wong, have a fair amount to show for a paltry two years. A few of their greatest hits: replacing 82,000 commercial diesel vehicles, implementing the Building Energy Efficiency Ordinance, which should reduce carbon emission by two million tonnes within a decade, tightening the overall thermal transfer value on new buildings by 20 percent for up to 4.4 percent energy savings and active recycling in public works (such as waste glass in road maintenance) in addition to readying a forthcoming comprehensive waste management programme and cementing an aggressive air quality strategy.

“I think what’s important is that we live in a very high density high-rise environment. Hong Kong hasn’t done such a bad job otherwise we wouldn’t be able to live here at all,” begins Loh of her task for the next four years. Loh doesn’t lounge in a plush armchair. Cradling her life-giving tea mug in one hand, she settles in at a conference table, welcoming but all business. “In terms of air quality for example, we do live in a regionally high emission area. There are things we have to do in collaboration with Guangdong to clean up. Nobody disputes that. In Hong Kong itself we have an obligation to do what we can, and we know what we need to do. We’re catching up where we’ve been slow and in some areas we’re a leader.” Loh has a long history in environmental policy, from her time at Civic Exchange to her work with Friends of the Earth. “If I had a magic wand and I could wish away the pollution I would do it. But I’m not a fairy … It’s a very different kind of economy, it’s a very different kind of lifestyle. For an extreme example of a high density lifestyle Hong Kong actually works quite efficiently. That’s not an excuse for the pollution; I think we need to work doubly hard precisely because of the particular conditions.”

One thing Loh, and anyone in public service, must contend with is an impatient public and intangible results. The media is full of reports of failures or legislative gridlock, but she rejects the idea that nothing is getting done. “When you look at it that way we’ve accomplished a lot on air quality because the community was ready,” she says, adding a dedicated chief executive willing to flex financial muscle helped get the ordinance passed in around a year—warp speed by government standards. The waste management issue is in the “argument” stage and Loh suggests checking back in a year to see where the programme stands.

Another debate often raised is when more real legislation is going to happen. Critics often point to regional vanguards like Singapore and world leaders like Australia and their strident legislative measures in creating more sustainable, energy efficient environments and wonder where Hong Kong’s laws are. Australia in particular has long been considered an icon of tough medicine, but “I wonder if that’s true,” says Loh. “If you look at it and wonder when they proposed the legislation, what was the debate like, when did it actually pass, when did it come into effect, were there amendments? I don’t think it was just like that,” she says with a snap. “They had a carbon tax in Australia and after a change of government, they took it away.” Legislation is tricky business under any circumstances, and Loh is also quick to shoot down the idea that developers and big business are the major obstacles to action, no more so than in any other part of the world. Loh launches into a story about a man she met that wanted an elite electric car, but ultimately had to pass because the private building he was renting in lacked the infrastructure for the technology. “What do I do? Mandate all buildings should put in [that] infrastructure? Is there something else I should mandate first? Who’s going to pay? Should it be all parking spaces? Half? These are real decisions that have to be made.” Very often something has to suffer, and the criticisms begin anew.

One criticism that is valid is Hong Kong’s lack of departmental consensus. Round up a group of architects or interior designers and half will tell stories of progressive technologies they advocated — and clients accepted — others rejected by one of the SAR’s various governing bodies (the EMSD, Buildings, Lands) because it was unknown and unapproved. Loh concedes the point. “In areas where we have to bring different departments together and smooth out the decision-making I think sometimes we can do better. I also think it’s important that senior people in government take it upon themselves to make sure we have better cross-departmental coordination.” Again she refers to personal experience of building a grey water system in a home in the United States where a similar story unfolded. “Bureaucracies can often be difficult everywhere. When you’re trying to get stuff done it can be frustrating.”

For all the challenges she faces, Loh is fundamentally an optimist. Ask her whether the balancing act between policy and our collective behaviour (lazy, convenience-fixated, cheap) is a hard one to strike and you get a shake of the head. “I disagree with the premise of that question … I’ve been in politics for a long time and I find where there are issues that the community is [concerned with] you get to a stage where people say ‘I get it, and now who’s going to do something?’” Loh is also quick to point out that while government should lead by example, the private sector isn’t the unmoving monolith it can appear to be, citing the industry-led Fair Winds Charter (which stipulates ships in port in Hong Kong use low-sulphur fuel) as an example of business-driven initiatives. It’s the government’s job first, but “anybody can choose to lead by example. We think there’s a case to be made for electric vehicles in Hong Kong so the government went first. Our police force is the biggest buyer of electric motorbikes.” Fifty percent of the cycles have been replaced, and on an ecological front shark fin and blue fin tuna are not recommended for use – as host or guest – for all official Hong Kong entertainment functions. And at a recent municipal leaders’ convention in South Africa Hong Kong was one of the stars that was held up as a beacon of environmental policy.

“We’re not at the forefront of everything, but we’re not a complete laggard.” So give it a year or two.