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Hong Kong suffers from very substantial air pollution or, using the government’s more common lexicon, poor ‘air quality’. This pollution harms the health and quality of life of every person who is exposed to it—almost every person in Hong Kong. In recent years, roadside levels of respirable suspended particles (RSPs)—tiny particles of pollution that can be inhaled into the lungs, reducing lung function and increasing the risk of asthma and cardiovascular illnesses—have been so high that on most days air pollution in Hong Kong exceeds World Health Organisation (WHO) standards and outdoor exercise involves health risks (Hong Kong University School of Public Health 2010). The impact of air pollution on people who suffer asthma, shortness of breath or emphysema, and of course on those who die prematurely from respiratory and heart illness as a result of exposure to air pollution, is greater still (Hong Kong University School of Public Health 2010). In 2010, Hong Kong’s roadside air pollution was the highest since 1999, when recordkeeping began, and official government health warnings were in place 12.6% of the time (Duce 2010).
Hong Kong’s air pollution problem is also something of a puzzle. Air quality is generally much better in affluent countries. As their economies have become richer, most governments have responded to public demands for cleaner air. Hong Kong has defied this tendency. Although average income in the territory is high, in 2010 Hong Kong people expressed the highest level of dissatisfaction with air quality anywhere in the world (English 2010). Hong Kong’s air pollution is far worse than that of most American or European cities, and its roadside air quality continues to deteriorate (Duce 2010).
As noted in the previous chapter, sustainable development is often understood in terms of the Brundtland Commission’s definition of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987, 43). A sceptic might respond to Brundtland’s argument for sustainable development by observing that human welfare in Hong Kong and China has improved rapidly in recent decades despite environmentally unsustainable practices. One widely accepted idea, articulated by the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, attributes this apparent progress to market forces that act as an ‘invisible hand’ to allocate resources efficiently (Smith 2000). According to this liberal economic idea, a community will achieve ideal collective outcomes if people pursue their individual economic interests, even if they do so without thinking about the greater good. Armed with the theory that self-interest benefits everyone, the sceptic might ask why we need to become ‘sustainable’ if old-fashioned (unsustainable) development appears to be working. In contrast, advocates of sustainable development point out that the most threatened resources are those that are not connected to markets. Natural services provided by the atmosphere, oceans, forests and biological diversity are prominent examples (Pearce 1993, 5). According to this view, the natural environment needs better protection than an unregulated market can provide, and adopting sustainable development as a goal will help us to achieve a society that is more secure, healthy and just. The advocates of sustainable development point to environmental hazards—such as the health impacts of Hong Kong’s polluted air and the greater long-term threat posed by climate change—and argue that economic development should be guided by principles other than short-term economic self-interest.
Philosophers have long debated the question of what constitutes a ‘good life’. Debates about sustainable development also fundamentally concern this same question, putting it in the context of ecological limits. As the Brundtland Commission noted in the 1980s, ecological limits are not necessarily absolute; they are “limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities” (WCED 1987, 8). Recognition of ecological limits implies awareness of the interconnection between communities, which in turn raises questions of justice. Recognition that humanity is approaching planetary ecological limits—and will inevitably exceed them if the world continues to consume and pollute at anything like present rates—suggests that the decisions made by each person and each community will have implications for the capacity of people in other places and other times to meet their needs. A good life, however characterised, must be a life that is lived in a way that does not undermine the ability of others also to live a good life. In short, a good life must be one that is environmentally sustainable—one that is lived without undermining or overwhelming the ecological limits of the earth. Sustainable development is therefore vital to achieving the good life for all.
What does this book tell us about how to find and follow this path toward the good life? To answer this question, it is helpful to review the pieces of the book’s ‘sustainability puzzle’—to think about what the preceding chapters tell us about the relationships and connections between: (1) how sustainable development has been and is conceived; (2) the contexts for sustainable development in Hong Kong that evolve from its history and its circumstances; and (3) the challenges of sustainable development that the territory faces.
Consumption has an important role in the social lives and identity of most people. This has been true in Hong Kong for many decades, and is increasingly the case throughout China as more people achieve a level of affluence that enables them to consume more than they require. In Hong Kong, people gather in shopping malls to spend time together purchasing clothes and products; the features of the latest models of cameras and mobile phones are common topics of conversation; many people, both young and not-so-young, update their wardrobes frequently to include the current fashion trends. This consumerist culture is pervasive, but it has major environmental consequences and raises questions about whether constant consumption of material things makes for a satisfying life. For example, when ordering beef in a restaurant, few people pause to think of the forest or scrubland that may have been cleared of native vegetation to allow its production. When purchasing a new mobile phone few people will consider the long and often toxic chain of resource extraction and manufacturing that produced it. When disposing of material possessions, few people take the time to ensure that they are recycled. The lead, mercury and other pollutants that come from the production of electronic goods often end up polluting soil, water and air. But understanding these and other environmental impacts of lifestyles in Hong Kong, least of all the rest of China, is difficult because we rarely see them.
Hong Kong produces ever-greater quantities of waste. According to a survey undertaken by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2009 Hong Kong’s per capita waste production was the highest of any place in the world, totalling 6.45 million metric tonnes, a figure that had more than doubled over the preceding two decades (cited in Cheung 2010a, 1).
This chapter considers the nature of global climate change, the threat it poses to Hong Kong, the contribution that Hong Kong and China make to the problem, and some of the implications of these factors for sustainable development, and especially sustainable energy, in Hong Kong (see Harris, Chow and Symons 2010). There is no doubt that China plays a vital role in the context of climate change. China’s energy demand has increased rapidly over the last three decades. As a consequence, it has become the largest national source of greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution, which causes global warming and the resulting climate change (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency 2007). What is more, due to its enormous population and degraded landscapes, China is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, especially droughts and extreme weather (Harris 2011c). Because Hong Kong’s population is small compared to the total number of people on earth, the territory’s contribution to global GHG emissions is also comparatively small. However, on a per capita basis Hong Kong people’s contribution to climate change from consumption is among the highest in the world (Hertwich and Peters 2009).
Hong Kong has historically regulated its energy market in a way that promotes economic competitiveness through reliable and low-cost power supplies. However, the environmental costs of energy production and use are becoming more apparent. The threat posed by global climate change is beginning to prompt a rethink of energy policies. Hong Kong imports almost all of its energy, making the territory’s energy security vulnerable to what happens in other places.
Drawing on practices and theories of sustainability, Environmental policy and sustainable development in China explores the prospects for achieving environmentally benign economic and social development in China and beyond. Using the Chinese ‘world city’ of Hong Kong as a backdrop and case study, it introduces major conceptions of sustainability, describes historical and political contexts for environmental policymaking, and analyses key challenges related to sustainable development, including air pollution, water quality, waste, transport and climate change. The book will be a valuable and unique resource for students, teachers and readers interested in environmental policy, sustainable development and ecological governance, especially in China and Hong Kong.
All of the author’s royalties from sales of this book will be donated by Policy Press to Friends of the Earth (Hong Kong) and WWF (Hong Kong).
Hong Kong is a place of physical contrasts (see Chapter Five). It contains some exceptionally dense urban environments. Too often these environments have been poorly planned, and residents are bombarded by noise and light pollution. People living in urban areas may also feel disconnected from the natural world. This sense of disconnection may be one of the reasons why Hong Kong produces more rubbish per capita than almost anywhere else on earth (Cheung 2010a). At the same time, however, Hong Kong’s extensive country parks and rural village environments are valuable natural areas with substantial biological diversity. Development is constantly encroaching on green spaces and threatening valuable habitats, but many areas of natural beauty remain largely undeveloped, having been protected by Hong Kong’s generally rugged topography. Wild deer, Burmese pythons, rare birds and even natural waterfalls lie within a few miles of the city’s central business district.
This chapter describes the rural and urban spaces in which humans and other species live in Hong Kong. It looks at the way in which these spaces are managed, degraded and sometimes protected, and it examines how material waste is managed and dealt with. While there are some clear failings in Hong Kong’s approach to land management and nature conservation, it is important to recognise that this is a complex policy area. It may be assumed that a balance must be struck between environmental conservation and human utility—although some might argue that such a balance is not required, and that the environment is too important to be ‘balanced’ against meeting human desires, especially when it is often vital to meeting human needs.