Green concerns need to be part of development from the start

Trevor Yang says a ‘plan first, consult later’ approach to development belongs in the past as Hongkongers increasingly demand growth that doesn’t come at the expense of nature and people’s quality of life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 February, 2013, 2:48am

The main aim of environmental protection is to protect human beings by ensuring the health and integrity of the natural environment that surrounds us and sustains us.

The power of human beings is immense. We can, if we so choose, radically alter the natural landscape to further our own interests. But such alterations are often a one-way track, and leave us with no way to restore the damage done to the landscape and environment. The past has taught us that developing without taking the environment into account can end in disaster, with tragedy or appalling living conditions being the result.

The lessons of the past and the science of the future have placed today's generation in an enviable position. We no longer need to develop our cities and infrastructure thoughtlessly. We no longer have to allow the motivation for profit to govern the shape and structure of our surroundings. We now have the tools and the ability to develop our world sustainably, and meet the needs of the present without sacrificing the quality of life of our future generations.

Hong Kong is moving towards embracing this concept of sustainable development. The recent policy address, by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, announced the government's commitment to a significant number of environmental policies, designed to create "a green, healthy and liveable city". This included the fact that the city is jump-starting the process of developing biodiversity strategies and action plans under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The fact that the government is addressing such issues implies Hong Kong citizens are beginning to place serious value on the natural environment.

The link between nature and people's well-being is becoming increasingly recognised and cherished by the Hong Kong community. Despite its dense urban population, Hong Kong has incredible natural assets, including our world-class system of country parks. Annual visitor numbers have climbed steadily each year, reaching 13.4 million in 2011.

Undeniably, there are also great pressures on land resources in the city. Housing and infrastructure projects are putting increasing strain on our natural assets.

Some people consistently see this in black and white, "us versus them", terms. This mindset stems from Hong Kong's outdated planning process, and belongs in the past. This old planning process sees stakeholders in development projects consulted at a late stage and with a "semi-sealed deal", giving them a choice: either a "yes" or a "definite no go". This process has, and continues to, set developers and environmental groups at opposite poles, leaving green groups with no choice but to oppose projects that may result in large-scale environmental damage.

This does not need to be the case. With proactive planning and forward-looking strategies, an open and participatory planning approach can engage all relevant stakeholders at an early stage, with a view to obtaining a consensus with everyone's benefit or concern being considered, and avoid polarising the discussion on conservation and development.

For instance, WWF recently proposed a holistic planning tool which would allow Hong Kong to better utilise our marine environment and resources: marine spatial planning. Implementation of this planning tool would not only reduce conflicts between human activities and the marine environment, and reduce fragmentation of marine habitats by identifying areas of higher and lower ecological value - it would also help sectors develop synergy and encourage stakeholders to actively take part during all stages of the planning process.

This type of holistic approach is the way of the future. Project proponents, government departments, environmental groups and the public can work together to make informed and well-rounded development decisions. With early engagement, the "us versus them" situation no longer exists, and it is only "us".

Like it or not, we are part of the environment and part of nature. Hongkongers are beginning to understand that, to protect ourselves, we must also protect nature. To believe otherwise does a great disservice to the natural world, to future generations and to human beings in general.

Trevor Yang is chairman of WWF-Hong Kong


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