Green initiatives, carbon reduction and sustainable development are buzzwords that have been bandied around frequently for the last few years. Green groups proliferate and, despite apologists, governments have increasingly made environmental policy standard from year to year.
Hong Kong has a tall order on its hands. The demand for housing and commercial space (because every district desperately needs a Gucci store) makes the policy and behaviour of the development industries crucial. More and more architects are making sustainable building standard — such as Ronald Lu & Partners and Make Architects — and developers like Swire Properties enforce strong sustainability policies. But they remain the minority and demand for property ensures developers prioritise profit over responsibility.
Time for Red Tape
This year’s Policy Address made noises about committees for studying the issues and stated the government was preparing a “road map” for broader environmental measures. According to Siemens’ Green Cities Index Hong Kong performs above average, but Singapore is the regional green leader. It begs the questions of what is taking Hong Kong so long to clean up its act and what’s holding it back.
There are plenty of advocacy groups in Hong Kong, among them the Green Building Council, Friends of the Earth and WWF, which was not pleased with the recent Policy Address’s lack of firm action on carbon reduction and climate change. Secretary for the Environment KS Wong did not respond to questions regarding policy but the Environmental Protection Department provided data through an anonymous spokesperson on its progress.
Critics and government agree on one thing: education is key to any long-term success. But is there a limit to what education can achieve? After an initial hue and cry most agree that mandatory motorcycle helmets and seatbelts are good things, and few would argue against minimum education standards. Australia is notorious for its mandatory building code, most obvious in the NABERS performance rating system, and Australian developers aren’t given a choice. Is it time to legislate here?
“The time for legislation was about 10 or 15 years ago,” says Dr Merrin Pearse of Lantau-based sustainability consultancy Coordinate4u. “Voluntary guidelines need to stop. They’re talking about voluntary guidelines for light pollution at the moment, and you know that’s going to go nowhere until it’s legislated. Look what happened with idling engines.” In March, Hong Kong was crowned world’s worst light polluter following an HKU study, identifying the SAR as 1,000 times brighter than any other city on the planet.
But the EPD says there is legislation on the books. Last September the Buildings Energy Efficiency Ordinance requiring mandatory compliance with efficiency standards was implemented, and the Mandatory Energy Efficiency Labelling Scheme for major appliances. There is also financial support for enhancing energy efficiency, the incentive-based private sector CarbonSmart programme and a major water-cooling system for efficient A/C in the Kai Tak district. Then there’s last year’s Energy Saving Charter. “We have … invited developers and management companies to pledge to maintain the average indoor temperature of their shopping malls between 24-26 degrees Celsius during the summer months,” the EPD spokesperson noted. Considering the number of shop workers wearing fleece indoors last year, participation would appear to be low.
“The environment department is challenged … [by] how a small department can take on the housing authority, the transport department, civil engineering, water services, which are massive and just want to continue doing things the same way without changing a thing,” says Pearse. “It’s great to have KS Wong and Christine Loh in there now but I think they’re only six people. The [EPD] has a very standard, ‘Tick this box’ government approach,” making bureaucratic inflexibility the biggest hurdle. “Developers and builders are not going to bring in new technology because they have to fight the system. We need to be knocking on the doors of other departments to bring awareness to them.”
Like the Development Bureau. Structures account for 90 percent of energy consumption and 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Hong Kong. The way the city builds needs to change and it hasn’t — but not for lack of committees and promotional efforts. “Relevant government bureaux” have begun work to make construction greener according to the EPD spokesperson. In addition to more revitalisation projects and ensuring government offices uphold its own standards, “[Measures] include developing sustainable design guidelines and tightening the granting of gross floor area concessions by, for instance, setting overall thermal transfer value requirements for reducing energy consumption on air-conditioning, requiring new buildings to undertake the BEAM Plus Assessment conferred by the Hong Kong Green Building Council as a pre-requisite for seeking GFA concessions for green and amenity features and non-mandatory/nonessential plant rooms and services.”
Contrary to popular belief, however, developers aren’t the bad guys according to Paul Zimmerman, CEO of the non-profit Designing Hong Kong. Developers are in it for short-term gain and will meet market demands. If blue chip tenants want green buildings they’ll get them. It’s government’s job to bite the bullet and pass green laws, complaints be damned.
“The government hasn’t really put its nose to it. In Australia you’ve got a more vocal populace that will reward government for taking such action. That reward doesn’t exist here,” theorises Zimmerman. Until 1997, Hong Kong was where people came to get rich and then leave for greener pastures. Environmentalism is new and will take time to gain more traction. But though KS Wong is sensitive to the issues, the government can be very insensitive to itself. “The Tamar building uses far more energy than the previous office space at LegCo,” Zimmerman points out, also remarking that Kai Tak’s efficient, cheaper, cleaner, central cooling system will be mandatory for the commercial buildings and MTR station, but won’t be included in the public housing the government is rushing through — even though it sits directly on the infrastructure. “[Government] is lazy in amending and adjusting its own specifications. The piping is right there,” he scoffs. “They talk a good game, but then don’t deliver internally and have massive amounts of excuses.”
Ultimately it comes down, once again, to consumers. Without pressure from the community nothing will change. Government is reluctant to legislate, and so its continued inactivity is on us. “Absolutely,” says Zimmerman. “Public gains that come from greener buildings and more sustainable design have to be safeguarded by the public for the government to act.”