Environment chief's dual role makes it very difficult to criticise government

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2012, 12:00am


The Environmental Protection Department's press release of April 26, announcing the air quality figures for the Pearl River Delta in 2011, was, as usual, relentlessly upbeat.

It said: 'Overall, the average annual concentration levels of most pollutants had decreased, reflecting continuous improvement of regional air quality.'

The figures for Hong Kong, however, tell a different story. Transport-related air pollution in Hong Kong increased once again last year. These days, the department's main output is political spin. This is to be expected when the permanent secretary responsible for implementing the administration's environmental policies also holds the position of director of environmental protection, Hong Kong's chief environmental regulator. This dual role threatens to prejudice the department's position as environmental regulator.

In December 2011, a senior department official told the Advisory Council on the Environment (ACE) that the prediction in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report for the waste incinerator that nitrogen oxide emissions from road traffic in North Lantau would fall by 40per cent between 2015 and 2030 was correct, even though the EIA report for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge had predicted traffic emissions would double over the same period.

The official said the incinerator report was based on an updated traffic forecast showing a reduction in the number of heavy goods vehicles in North Lantau after the bridge opens. This new prediction, he said, in no way undermined the conclusions of the bridge study's air quality assessment.

This was untrue. The traffic forecast used in the bridge study was critical to the selection of the correct 'year of assessment', an issue that was raised in the bridge judicial review. The department had staunchly defended its choice of 2031 based on the prediction showing steadily rising traffic emissions. It failed to mention the new forecast showing falling emissions, which supported the applicant's case that the correct year of assessment for the bridge study should have been 2015.

In being less than candid with the courts and the ACE, the department has put its trustworthiness as an environmental regulator in serious doubt. We need a director of environmental protection who is not constrained by civil service rules from openly criticising government projects and policies when necessary. I hope the new chief executive will split the roles of director and permanent secretary.

David Renton, Repulse Bay