Speech by SPEL on Budget for 1999/2000

The following is the speech by the Secretary for Planning, Environment and Lands, Mr. Gordon Siu, on the Budget for the year 1999/2000 in the Legislative Council today (Wednesday):

Madam Chairman,

The resources that are being given to improve Hong Kong's environment were a matter raised by many Honourable members during their debate. The Government shares the concern of this Council and the community that more needs to be done to improve Hong Kong's environmental performance, but the adequacy of resources is not the main issue we have to address. I would like to discuss two more issues: the price and responsibility for improving the environment.

What matters in environmental protection work is how well we make use of all of our resources, and how each and every one of us take responsibility for upgrading the environment in which we live. Hong Kong already has extensive environmental improvement programmes. Over the last decade there has been a massive upgrading of waste disposal facilities. Vehicle emission and fuel standards have been raised. Industrial emission, chemical waste and livestock waste control schemes have been put in place. Together with upgrading of the sewerage infrastructure, these have brought about continuing improvement in river water quality. The investments in the strategic sewage treatment system will be repaid in improving sea water quality in the next decade.

But more needs to be done in improving the environment. Even if individual factories, vehicles or households are becoming cleaner, increase in population and economic activity of Hong Kong and the South China region, increase the pressures on our environment. Much effort has been put into raising awareness of that pressure, and it is encouraging to see that understanding being translated into calls for action. However, some of these calls still appear to stay at the level of asking the Government to do more or the Legislative Council to allocate more funds. The concept of "Environmental Protection starts with Me" is still not deeply entrenched in our minds.

What is essential now is understanding that action can't just be something for Government, the Legislative Council, or for somebody else. Whether Hong Kong can improve its environment depends upon the actions and choices of every citizen.

There is always a price to pay for environmental performance. The question is, who pays?

Take air pollution. If a driver doesn't pay to maintain his engine properly, other people - children and old people in particular - pay through poor health caused by the vehicle emissions, and the taxpayers pay for medical treatment. Already Hong Kong pays about $4 billion a year in medical costs and productivity lost because of air pollution related illness. It makes sense for the community to expect vehicle owners to pay to maintain their engines, and to pay a fine if they fail to do so.

Another example. When we go to the supermarket, if we don't take a bag, the supermarket pays forthe cost of the plastic bags for us, and then through rates or taxes we pay for it to be thrown away in a landfill. And the way we are producing and managing waste at the moment, we will need a valley the size of Shatin to hold it all by the middle of the next century.

And what about our sea and our harbour? If we want to be able to swim in water that is clean and safe - if perhaps one day, when the harbour waterfront has been improved, if we want to be able to start the annual swim across the harbour again - every citizen must pay the charges needed to operate and maintain the sewerage infrastructure that is now being built. We've funded the construction of sewerage infrastructure. Billions more will be needed over the next decade. That investment can't be maintained unless this Council is prepared to accept a few dollars being added to everyone's sewage charge.

The costs of a bad environment fall not just on individuals or at local level. They affect the whole society. Bad air quality, polluted seas and litter on the streets are damaging our reputation as a world class city. If that damage continues, it will hurt everyone in Hong Kong as business potential is reduced and the costs of cleaning up continue to increase.

If we want sustained change for the better, then giving the right message to people about the costs and benefits of certain behaviour and practices is essential. Without those signals in prices, fines or charges, one of the strongest and most cost effective influences on human behaviour will be absent.

Within the administration, we recognize that we can't ask other people to pay a price or make changes that we are not prepared to meet ourselves. The public service recognizes that it has to set a good example through its own environmental performance.

Every department is now examining the environmental impacts of its programmes and performance. All will be preparing environmental reports in the coming year. We will be reviewing our energy use, the waste we produce, the way we use vehicles and the way we encourage staff to try to achieve the best possible environmental performance rather than the minimum acceptable standard.

We are also developing new partnerships with business, with transport operators, with professional institutes and with NGOs. We must continue to search for new approaches to improve our environment. As far as possible we will try to find means that do not involve increased economic costs, whether by improving our own efficiency in delivery of services, by modernizing legislation, or by identifying efficient and effective measures that will offset particular costs.

Substantial resources have been given directly for environmental protection purposes in the 1999 Budget. To those resources are added all those that we gain through integration of approach within the administration, and through partnership between Government, business and the community. For example, all that my colleague, the Secretary for Transport, will be putting towards railway development doesn't just help mobility, it contributes to more energy efficient, less polluting transport patterns for the future, and opens up opportunity for new forms of urban design.

There is another very important aspect of environmental improvement. Throughout the older parts of the urban area, dilapidated buildings, traffic congestion, conflicts between vehicles and pedestrians and poor environmental conditions pervade. Such conditions do not meet the demand and expectation of today's society. We must increase the scale and speed of urban renewal in order to tackle the problem of these ageing urban areas. The objective of urban renewal is not just about demolishing dilapidated buildings and replacing them with new ones; an important objective is to plan more comprehensively and improve the overall environment of the old areas.

To meet this objective, we may need to consider steering away from the past approach in which urban renewal had been conducted in a piecemeal manner. Instead, we will plan urban renewal and rehabilitation more comprehensively for larger areas, with a view to more effectively restructuring and re-planning the old urban areas, re-designing a more effective and environmentally friendly transport and road network, replacing incompatible land uses, adding open space, and designing buildings which meet the demands of modern living. We are now formulating an urban renewal strategy which takes us in that direction. We plan to consult the public on these proposals in the near future and introduce the Urban Renewal Authority Bill into the Legislative Council within this year.

So far I have spoken about actions to be taken within Hong Kong. Those actions are important, but they don't address all the issues. Let me illustrate that point with regard to air pollution.

We face three problems with air pollution. The first is at street level. There, 90% of the problem is with emissions from Hong Kong's vehicle fleet. The second is with ambient air. Besides emissions from vehicles, power stations, industry and construction sites all add to the cocktail. Third is a regional problem with air quality because of economic development across South China.

For the moment, our actions are being focussed on the problem of street level pollution in Hong Kong, since this is apparent to the public. But while this will make our streets more pleasant, it will not have a visible effect on our ambient air pollution. Our own efforts to clear the air will be helped if Guangdong is addressing the problem in concert with us.

So, while we do more to put our own house in order, we are also working closely with our neighbours in Shenzhen and Guangdong to tackle the pollution problems that we both share. We are trying to develop a regional approach to sustainable development. We aim to ensure that, as the various administrations work to provide for the economic and social needs of the population of this region, individually we don't carry out development in ways that undermine our common environment or damage the prospects for our children.

Madam Chairman and Honourable Members, improving the quality of our city and our local environment is vital to the health of the community and the prospects for the economy. I hope that in the coming year, this Council will also help us to find more ways to engage every citizen to play their part in making this city of ours a better home. We have a great deal to do, and we need to do it together. Substantial resources are already made available in the 1999 Budget for this work. In the months ahead, I will not hesitate to seek your support for new measures, for legislative changes, and, if need be, for additional resources.

End/Wednesday, March 31, 1999