Are Hong Kong’s environmental policies actually doing more harm than good?
- Alice Wu says with two of environment minister Wong Kam-sing’s projects proving hard to implement, he needs to craft policies that are as well thought out as they are well-intended
Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung recently said that the government will be splitting up the Transport and Housing Bureau, and that’s certainly music to all our ears. Transport and Housing Secretary Frank Chan Fan has been under a lot of fire for what seemed to be a never-ending run of crises, and there have been times when I genuinely felt sorry for him, not only for the imbalance in the division of work among bureaus, but more so for the imbalance of political heat among bureaus. The heat in the kitchen isn’t evenly distributed.
If we continue with the hot kitchen metaphor for a minute, we know where Fan will be found – he’s the guy putting out the stove-top fire while the turkey burns in his oven. But where is Secretary for Environment Wong Kam-sing? He’s the one standing in front of the open refrigerator, inspecting the LED lighting.
Wong has introduced a number of “policy blueprints” to address the city’s long-standing air quality, waste management, energy and nature conservation problems. They are sensible and necessary. Climate change demands that steps are taken to rein in on our wasteful practices. And perhaps that is why Wong doesn’t have to face the political pressures his other colleagues have to. All policies coming out of Wong’s bureau will be well-intended, and its “purview”, morally superior.
Indeed, it is hard to take issue with cleaner air and spaces, and reducing our waste and carbon footprint. But thinking up ideas are only half of Wong’s job. When it comes to protecting the environment, it’s not the “what”, but the “how” that we struggle with. The other – and more important – half of his job is coming up with good public policies. By good, we do not only mean well-intended policies, but practical and implementable ones.
Remember the Producer Responsibility Scheme for electrical and electronic equipment waste? Not only did the government concede that the cost could eventually be passed onto the consumer, instead of being shouldered by the producer, but the scheme is almost impossible to implement – the old items are “in theory” to be collected on the same day as the new purchase is delivered, but this cannot be done in practice.
In general, people have grown to accept that the cost of protecting the environment will come with a price tag and a level of inconvenience. The inconvenience of having a reusable shopping bag with us is reasonable and acceptable; so is taking along our own mugs and cutlery. It’s conducive to forming good habits. But making the collection of old appliances a logistical nightmare, simply because the government didn’t allow enough operators to do the work, is bad public policy.
And now, as the municipal solid waste charging scheme is rolled out, we must question whether it has been sufficiently well thought out. In fact, environmental groups have already raised concerns about it, one being that a pirated version of the designated trash bags could be made available. While rule breakers are to be expected for every initiative, and hence these policies come with fines and/or other penalties for non-compliance, it is quite another thing to burden trash collectors with having to check the authenticity of the designated bags.
It is inconceivable that – even before the scheme has become reality – the bureau has admitted it will be hard to monitor the city’s waste collections points. Whether it is God or the devil that is in the detail, details are important. And unimplementable public policies are bad policies.
Wong has often defended his policies by preaching from a pulpit shored up by his moral high horse. For the electrical and electronic waste recovery scheme, he said people must, “in making decisions, think about whether you’re causing any harm”. Wong needs to ask himself the same question – whether his policies are as well thought out as they are well-intended, and whether bad policies are in fact harming the good cause.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA