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Hong Kong in global context
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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).

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Ethics, fairness and environmental policy
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Drawing on practices and theories of environmental justice, ‘China’s responsibility for climate change’ describes China’s contribution to global warming and analyzes its policy responses. Contributors critically examine China’s practical and ethical responsibilities to climate change from a variety of perspectives. They explore policies that could mitigate China’s environmental impact while promoting its own interests and meeting the international community’s expectations. The book is accessible to a wide readership, including academics, policy makers and activists.

All royalties from sales of this book will be donated to Friends of the Earth.

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Since the 1980s, ‘sustainable development’ has become a watchword for governments, international organisations and businesses. Indeed, the concept has become so widespread as to constitute a ‘norm’—albeit one often honoured in the breach—that governments are expected to follow as they work toward enhancing the economic wellbeing of their citizens. At its core, sustainable development is about improving human welfare in ways that do not harm the environment, or more realistically it is about promoting economic development while using natural resources sustainably and minimising harm to ecological systems. Sustainable development was most famously defined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission after its chairperson, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987, 43). According to the Brundtland Commission, sustainable development is premised upon two key ideas: “the concept of ‘needs,’ in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment’s ability to meet present and future goals” (WCED 1987, 43). Sustainable development encompasses questions of human welfare and justice (domestic and international), economic development and environmental health. It cannot be achieved without all of these questions being addressed. In short, according to its advocates, for sustainable development to be realised, economic activity must be managed so as to advance environmental protection and social welfare.

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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.

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In the 1960s and 1970s increasing numbers of scientists and environmentalists began to argue that economic growth was imposing an unacceptable cost on the natural environment. They suggested that Western consumption habits, the rise in global population and economic growth should be constrained. At the same time, developing-world leaders were arguing that their countries should receive a better deal from international society. They argued that environmental concerns were less important than the goal of addressing poverty through economic development (UN 1997, 2). The Brundtland Commission and its report, Our common future (WCED 1987; see Chapter One) responded to these debates by arguing that sustainable development requires increased economic activity in order to promote human development that is not environmentally destructive. For those who held that industrial society was the cause of environmental problems, this argument was surprising and counterintuitive. This chapter looks back at these debates in order to understand why the concept of sustainable development seemed to be a breakthrough and why the goal—if not always the practice—of sustainable development was accepted by many governments. Debates over ‘limits to growth’ that were prompted by the early environmental movement are examined in this chapter, as are arguments between the developed and developing worlds about the appropriate balance between environmental protection and economic development. The chapter helps to expose the broader global context and shift toward sustainability and related environmental policies that have affected Hong Kong and China more generally. The ambivalence with which sustainable development is embraced in these places is, put simply, a reflection of a broader ambivalence revealed by the emergence of the concept over the last half century.

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As we saw in the previous chapter, Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay, ‘The tragedy of the commons’, describes how a village’s shared common land might be ruined because each villager has an individual incentive to overuse the commons for grazing his own animals (Hardin 1968). Hardin’s ‘tragedy’, which is the failure of a community to protect shared environmental resources, describes one common type of environmental problem that sustainable development policies are intended to avert. One important question is how to implement rules that protect and sustain shared resources. Even among those who agree that sustainable development is a desirable goal, there is considerable uncertainty and disagreement as to how this goal might be achieved. Different policy responses will be appropriate for different challenges. This chapter introduces some key policy measures that are commonly utilised for implementing sustainable development. It explores arguments for government regulation to monitor shared resources and to ensure that people preserve environmental goods, describes arguments in favour of using market mechanisms and private ownership to motivate environmental protection, and looks at the argument that sustainable development can best be achieved through community management.

Sustainable development is not just a matter of environmental protection; its implementation also involves addressing the social and economic dimensions of meeting the needs of present and future generations. To this end, policy makers have sought new ways to measure and enhance human development. Efforts to move beyond a narrow focus on gross domestic product and toward wider measurements of ‘human development’ are considered in this chapter, as are efforts to construct indicators of environmental wellbeing and to build social and environmental factors into development policies.

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Physical and human geography influence prospects for sustainable development almost everywhere. For example, in part due to varying geographic endowments and populations, there are dramatic differences between the levels of environmental quality in the developed North compared to the developing South. Rich countries are typically able to preserve a better local environment even as their consumption contributes to adverse environmental impacts in the developing world. Regionally, sustainability issues faced by communities in arid regions are different from those in mostly wet regions, with the former facing water shortages while the latter experience many more water-borne infectious diseases. Geographical location and climate, which are closely interlinked, also influence development. In places with favourable climatic conditions, settlements and populations typically keep expanding until they place stress on the local environment. Measures for increasing sustainability are additionally influenced by the opportunities afforded by local physical and urban environments. For example, the feasibility of using renewable wind power will likely differ between a coastal city and one located in an inland valley.

This chapter begins a closer examination of Hong Kong as a case study of contemporary challenges to sustainable development, especially in China but also in other places, particularly in other global cities. Hong Kong’s physical and urban settings are described in order to provide a local context for subsequent chapters’ examinations of specific sustainability issues in the territory.

Hong Kong is located on the South China Sea in the Pearl River (Zhujiang) delta region of China’s south (see Figure 5.1). The northern administrative border of the territory is adjacent to the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone of China’s Guangdong Province.

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After three decades of extraordinary economic growth in China, few would dispute that Hong Kong’s future is enmeshed with what happens there. Indeed, even in periods of history when China was weak, unstable or isolated, developments in China have shaped much of Hong Kong’s economic, social, political and even environmental developments. Key events in Chinese history—the nineteenth-century Opium Wars and the ceding of Hong Kong Island to the British, the Xinhai Revolution and the collapse of the Qing Dynasty quite early in the twentieth century, the Japanese invasion during World War II, the Communist victory in 1949 and the country’s economic opening starting in the late 1970s— have greatly influenced events in Hong Kong. Through a brief account of Hong Kong’s history, economy and culture, this chapter shows some of the ways in which these external events and forces have shaped life in the territory, including its halting progress toward sustainable development. Historically speaking, the goal of sustainability has not been very influential in Hong Kong; the concept of protecting natural capital was mostly absent during much of its history. What is more, the level of respect for different socio-economic classes and genders that is necessary for truly sustainable development to be realised has also been absent. While major events in Hong Kong’s history have often occurred in response to developments in China, it is also important to observe that Hong Kong has had a role in shaping modern Chinese history. Historians identify the important role played by Hong Kong in supporting the Qing Dynasty in the late nineteenth century by contributing to relief projects and by facilitating the translation and dispersal of Western knowledge in China (Fok 1990, 1–14; Carroll 2006, 523–8); in supporting opposition to the Qing Dynasty in the early twentieth century, particularly by serving as an operational base for revolutionaries (Fok 1990, 53–96); in providing financial support to villages in Guangdong Province; in supporting Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation during the 1930s and 1940s (Fok 1990, 118–35); and in acting as a gateway for investment and trade that facilitated China’s opening to the world from the mid-1970s.

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It goes without saying that government is vital to sustainable development. This is as at least as true in Hong Kong and the rest of China as it is in more democratic societies where nongovernmental actors have a bigger role. Progress toward sustainable development is certainly easier if there is good will from policy makers and expertise from officials concerned about promoting the public welfare. Equally important—arguably much more important in Hong Kong—is the nature of the political system. If the political system is designed to be deferential toward special interests, achieving sustainability, which by definition requires change, becomes very difficult. Regardless of which sustainability issue we consider, policy making can only be explained if we can consider vested interests that influence the government’s behaviour. For example, measures to improve Hong Kong’s air quality might require the use of more expensive fuels, thereby increasing costs for commercial operators of buses, trucks and ships. Once we understand that transportation companies and operators control the Transport ‘functional constituency’ seat in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Legco), we begin to see why it is so hard for the Hong Kong government to adopt measures requiring commercial vehicles to pollute less. Businesses’ influence on government also stifles environmental policies in other areas.

The type of political system is important for the quality of governance. A government in which officials typically believe that they should minimise community involvement in decision making and keep information from public scrutiny is likely to make quite different decisions to those made by one that believes in transparency, accountability and genuine consultation.

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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).

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