Johnny Wei founded cross-border green group to get public involved in planning

Young activists say public participation in planning process is crucial for preserving the environment in the Pearl River Delta region

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 5:20am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 5:20am

Johnny Wei is on a green-hued mission. The 25-year-old Guangzhou native wants to improve the quality of life in the Pear River Delta by ensuring that governments and businesses conduct environmental impact assessments (EIAs) according to international standards, especially with regard to major construction and land reclamation projects.

In August, Wei and two friends set up a non-governmental organisation called the Cross-border Environment Concern Association (CECA) to promote public participation in the assessment process in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau . The Hong Kong-registered organisation, co-founded by Zhang Jiayue and Li Manling along with Wei, now boasts some 25 student members from universities in Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland.

CECA is particularly interested in seeing procedures for EIAs applied to a liquefied natural gas receiving terminal in Shenzhen, a Mirs Bay sea reclamation project, and protecting the marine life of Tung Ping Chau Marine Park and Mirs Bay.

Wei spoke to He Huifeng about CECA's mission.

What was your career path prior to establishing CECA?

I was born and raised in Guangzhou and have always had an understanding of civil society and the environment.

I was an undergraduate majoring in economics and finance at the University of Hong Kong from 2009 to 2012 and had participated in an exchange programme that gave me the chance to study in Switzerland. A major turning point occurred in 2009 when I had the opportunity to voice the environmental concerns of Chinese youth at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The conference gave me access to information about the green movement and inspired me to pursue a career in the sector. Since 2011, I've been a member of a mainland-based NGO called China Youth Climate Action Network, an action-oriented youth group focused on the issue of climate change.

(Editor's note: NGOs are referred to as "civil non-enterprise groups" in mainland China and up until recently required a state-owned sponsoring organisation.)

Why and how did you start the association in the delta?

Because I grew up in Guangzhou, studied in Hong Kong and have family in Macau, I am particularly sensitive to changes in the local environment. A large number of planned construction and land reclamation projects on the mainland side may have dire environmental consequences.

If we go by past experience, we can see that thousands of acres of mangroves have been damaged and wetlands degraded through reckless development. Local officials and residents in the region complain about a worsening environment, but seldom take action to protect pockets of nature in their communities. With the knowledge I gained about climate change on a global level, I began to ask myself what I could do to improve the environment in my own community. In the past couple of years, I have made friends with many young environmental advocates from Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau who are eager to raise environmental concerns and get the public to participate in consultations in EIAs - even though they are often kept out of the process.

What is CECA's core mission?

CECA is focused on increasing public awareness of environmental issues, with an emphasis on EIA methodology. We work around official restrictions to promote public consultation and public feedback before a project is approved, and transparency as a project moves from planning to implementation. EIA is a formal process used to predict the environmental consequences - positive or negative - of a plan, policy, programme or project prior to it being approved. It provides a sound basis for ensuring sustainable development.

The CECA will review and evaluate environmental impact statements on Pearl River Delta infrastructure and construction projects. As a third-party with no economic stake in the project, we will publish an independent report for the public good. If our findings differ from official ones, we hope we can galvanise the public to act.

Why focus on cross-border environmental concerns in particular?

Environmental protection is not thought of in terms of borders because the consequences of water and air pollution are global in nature. Hong Kong and Macau have more experience with environmental governance and policymaking than the mainland. But non-profit groups in Hong Kong are highly localised and insular, with limited interest in and understanding of what is going on outside their community. And a large number of construction projects under way on the mainland side lack proper and rigorous supervision.

Are you currently working on any important projects?

Since March , CECA has been studying the land reclamation project proposed by Petro China at Mirs Bay for the liquefied natural gas receiving terminal in Shenzhen. The LNG terminal will transmit one billion cubic metres of the super-cooled gas to Hong Kong each year for power productions. In addition to the LNG facility, a 39.7-hectare land reclamation project on the Dapeng peninsula in Shenzhen will likely be approved soon. The project is less than 5km from Hong Kong's Ping Chau island, which is part of Plover Cove Country Park and also part of the Tung Ping Chau Marine Park. The reclamation project, shipping to transport the LNG transportation and a potentially busy logistics corridor may pose an unacceptable threat to marine life on both sides of the border.

What are you plans for the coming years?

In the future, we will work toward promoting public participation in, and awareness of, the EIA process. For citizens on the mainland, we want to gradually establish a pattern where EIA is an accepted an integral part of the process - not something to be feared, but something to be embraced for the betterment of all our quality of life for all people living and working in the delta.

We want to be involved in the policymaking process as well, and make sure the decision-makers and politicians have all the information about any potential ecological risks posed by a project.