Desire for greener HK must be addressed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2009, 12:00am

Expectations for Hong Kong to be a more liveable city are continually evolving. The government will always have a challenging job satisfying demands. Policies cannot be rushed, and need time to take shape and be implemented. It is therefore essential that any new approach is guided by a clear vision that, at the least, meets immediate wishes.

The government has for a decade promised a greener, more pleasant, environment in which to live and work. Its success has been mixed. A policy implemented eight years ago offering developers incentives to include features like parks, gardens and balconies in projects seemed to meet that objective, but proved to be flawed. More greenery was provided, although not as much as was envisaged due to loopholes that some firms were quick to exploit.

A new approach is needed. The Council for Sustainable Development next month launches a consultation process that will help the government set a better course. Authorities most want to know whether property developers should still be given incentives such as added gross floor area in return for providing so-called green features. Views will be sought on design proposals including ensuring a gap of at least 60 metres between buildings to improve air flow and setting them back a minimum of 15 metres from the road. Greenery of between 20 and 30 per cent of a site area will be suggested. Opinions on how energy efficiency should be dealt with will be canvassed.

That such questions are being raised is obviously good. Posing the possibility that developers should include such features without receiving incentives sets a tone that has to be applauded. Worryingly, though, throughout the consultation document, the council is at pains to repeatedly point out that such a policy would mean lower government revenue and the possibility of a reduction in housing supply. Companies would most likely charge more for flats.

The idea of green features has to be put in perspective. Those proposed would certainly add to developers' costs, but only by a few per cent. The reality is that construction accounts for only one-quarter of the final price of a flat; the high land value constitutes the balance. Appropriate adjustments to the government's land policy will ultimately be necessary if sustainable development is to be effectively embraced.

Environmentally sustainable features in buildings have immeasurable and wide community benefits. Urban Renewal Authority officials have laid out plans for using rainwater to flush toilets and solar energy for heating. Such schemes cost more, but we all gain through less pollution and better air quality.

Creating a market for green buildings has to be the government's overarching priority. The experience elsewhere is that demand will naturally lower costs. Tax incentives and a mandatory green labelling scheme - not even mentioned in the paper, but widely in use elsewhere - could be considered.

The objectives of any green policy have to be to make Hong Kong a more pleasant and attractive place. Our desires and expectations have to be addressed. A vision for sustainable and green living has to emerge from the consultation process.