Will Hong Kong's environment be better in 2003? The government seems to be cautiously optimistic. There is progress in controlling vehicle emission and sewage discharged into the harbour. Yet, there is still room for improvement. With increasing integration with the Pearl River Delta, cross-border problems like air quality, water conservation and marine pollution are topping the environmental agenda. Waste disposal is a problem of growing importance in Hong Kong, and to meet it the SAR will step into a new age of polluters-pay principle this year, with the likely introduction of landfill charges. The plan has been shelved since 1995, but the authorities have vowed to push it forward this year. The charges will not immediately help relieve pressure on the landfills, which are expected to be filled up in 10 to 15 years. Nor will this help to clean up streets and beaches in Hong Kong, which is all about civic awareness. But they will set the precedent and deliver the message that you have to pay for the waste you generate. Construction companies will be the first to be hit by the charges, while there is no set timetable for domestic waste. There is bound to be resistance. When the charges were first proposed, landfills were blocked by dump truck drivers and rubbish was piled up for days at housing estates. Such unpleasant scenes might recur this year. Of more concern than waste to the public at large is the quality of the air we breathe. Due to the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) conversion scheme for taxis and minibuses, air quality is expected to get better this year. By year's end, you might not be able to get a taxi driven by diesel, while more minibuses will become LPG-powered. But this does not necessarily mean that the air we breathe is safe from contamination. Cross-border air pollution will remain part of our lives in 2003. Winds will continue to bring pollutants generated from the Pearl River Delta hinterland although Guangdong authorities have given a pledge to close substandard plants. Tung Chung new town has for the past two years broken pollution reading records. It seems that another record is likely this year. The environment secretary has raised our hope that emission trading is the key to improving regional pollution. But it is not likely to happen in 2003. As she says, air quality management is a decade-long business. After air, water quality is high on the public's list of concerns. The quality of drinking water can be expected to improve with the completion of an 83km-long closed aqueduct transferring water from the Dongjiang river to the SAR. It has yet to be seen if official estimates that the aqueduct will remove 70 per cent of the pollution load are accurate, but Hong Kong taxpayers have already footed the bill for the aqueduct's construction. Despite this achievement in the water supply history of Hong Kong, price talks with Guangdong show no sign of progress following three years of negotiation. As to our fragrant Victoria Harbour, we cannot expect a quick return of the dolphins just yet. Dramatic progress in treating the daily sewage pumped into the harbour has been made. But future directions of sewage treatment are still being worked out. So a cross-harbour swimming race is not likely to happen this year. Back on land, the HK$2 billion rail tunnel under the Long Valley will be drilled this year. Birdlovers will be anxiously following construction work on the tunnel, hoping that while the valled is saved from destruction, there be no drying up of the wetlands made famous following a Greens victory over a KCRC rail plan that would have cut across the valley. A conservation policy document is likely to be issued this year. But with a huge budget deficit, there is virtually no hope that land of high ecological value like Sha Lo Tung and Luk Keng will be bought out. These sites are likely to remain unmanaged and exposed to potential eco-vandalism or over-ecotourism. Overall, we cannot expect much change in the environment this year. There are signs that a better environment may be on the horizon, but there are bound to be fluctuations in its quality. You might still have to bear the choky air in the street sometimes and be a loyal customer of bottled water. Perhaps waste separation will become a trend this year. But there is no free lunch in this free-market society. Our once-rich government is counting every penny, so be prepared to embrace a polluter-pay culture this year.