Toxic policy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 September, 2011, 12:00am


The crescendo of negative public opinion focused on Hong Kong's most recent large infrastructure projects - the court case over the bridge to Macau and Zhuhai, and the ongoing public consultation on the proposed development of a third runway at the airport - is a warning signal that our environmental policymaking requires an urgent, wholesale overhaul.

In fact, these latest projects, arguably among the greenest, most modern and efficient in the world, are being unfairly penalised by the shortcomings of an environmental policymaking process which has, until now, permitted the degradation of the environment with only minimal brakes - a system of rubber-stamping environmental impact assessments, outdated air quality objectives and public consultations that are often just charades. Consequently, the 'bucket' of pollution in our environment is almost full, to use the apt terminology employed by Mr Justice Joseph Fok in the High Court's decision on the bridge's environmental impact assessment.

Amid an atmosphere of heightened public awareness about the dangers to our health of environmental toxicity, wholesale denial of the city's deteriorating environment is no longer an option for the government. Instead, in advance of this year's policy address, the government must acknowledge the magnitude of the problem and lay the foundation of Hong Kong's sustainable future. Specifically, the government must pass new air quality standards. Not only are these maximum guidelines for air pollutants two years overdue, but they will ensure a compulsory, if not immediate, transition to cleaner energy production and transport technologies, both in the public and private sectors.

Next, in light of increased knowledge about environmental toxicity and its effect on child development, mortality, female health and the elderly, the government should set up a special unit or task force for environmental health, jointly overseen by the environment and health bureaus.

The need to create such a task force goes beyond the public health concerns surrounding air pollution and extends to other worries such as, for example, unacceptably high levels of lead and cadmium in Hong Kong's vegetables.

In short, environmental health is increasingly a source of alarm in all urbanised societies. The increasing rate of birth defects on the mainland caused by various environmental factors makes the point resoundingly.

All too often, we forget that we should care about the environment, primarily because it can affect our health and livelihoods. It is therefore high time the government involved medical professionals in the formulation of environmental policy.

Finally, as a buttress to new air quality standards, the government should take a leaf out of the mainland's book and announce cuts in carbon intensity as soon as possible. Since one of the key contributors to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is vehicles' use of fossil fuels, stated intensity cuts specific to the transport sector would give the government additional political capital with which to drive the greening of our transport fleets. Among all environmental culprits, these remain the biggest offender to public health.

Joanne Ooi is chief executive officer of Clean Air Network