Recommendations for the October 2017 Policy Address

HONG KONG, September 2017 — Civic Exchange submitted the following recommendations to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who is expected to hold her first policy address in October.

We address nine areas of concern:

  • air pollution & greenhouse emissions
  • marine emissions
  • transportation
  • walkability
  • urban space & metropolitan growth
  • waste management
  • protection of natural areas
  • protection of endangered species
  • water


Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s maiden policy address will set the tone for the coming five years of her term. The new administration arrives with the opportunity to capitalise upon responses to various recent consultations in a conciliatory and egalitarian manner. If its responses are seen to lead to broader, efficient and transparent decision-making that improves the lives of the Hong Kong public, they may be a means to start closing the gap with various disenfranchised groups.

Based on our research and surveying of residents’ concerns, Civic Exchange urges the administration to prioritise environmental and livability concerns so that these will be at the heart of the next five years’ actions. The most disenfranchised group of Hong Kongers is those aged 18 to 29. Our research shows that these young adults are also the most concerned about environmental issues like country parks and wildlife preservation, and also the most likely to engage in behaviours like recycling. If the government wishes to speak to this generation in particular, it must emphasise sustainability and policies which will improve public health and well-being.

Yet environmental problems are inextricably tied to questions of land use, infrastructure, transportation, social attitudes and more. For example, the important issue of air pollution is tied to everything from the cars on our streets, to the ships in our harbour, to the power plants providing our electricity. Wide-reaching policies and a clear rationale for decision-making are needed to ensure that individual interests do not derail policies which have the potential to improve the wellbeing and satisfaction of the majority of Hong Kong residents. Recognising the cross-departmental and multi-faceted nature of many of the below issues, we urge the administration to adopt new and flexible approaches in tackling the below major concerns.

We recommend that the Government:

  • Increase alignment and involvement of different bureaux in joint government policy-making and delivery towards a clear, longer-term vision.
  • Enhance collaboration with think-tanks, green groups and other civil society organisations as a means to engage with, understand and inform the Hong Kong public.
  • Increase support – both financial and institutional – for the activities and research of think-tanks and green groups to support the administration’s policy-making processes.

Air Pollution & Greenhouse Emissions

On one exceptionally smoggy evening in July, 15 of the Environmental Protection Department’s 16 monitoring stations recorded the maximum Air Quality Health Index reading, indicating “very high” health risks. This is particularly alarming as Hong Kong’s definitions for pollution “health risks” are already more relaxed than those of international bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO).

To track individuals’ exposure to pollution, Civic Exchange and City University of Hong Kong had volunteers wear devices to measure their 24-hour exposure to PM 2.5, a particulate matter which is especially damaging to health because it is small enough to infiltrate the lungs. Our findings released in June showed that an individual’s exposure to PM 2.5 could be much higher than indicated by AQHI levels, which cover large neighbourhoods. In addition, there could be high levels of exposure in places most people do not think about – for example, in their homes.

We recommend that the Government:

  • Tighten its official Air Quality Objectives to meet WHO standards.
  • Support the development of new-generation sensors, or other systems complementary to the existing Air Quality Management System, to better evaluate individual pollution exposure and risk.
  • Heighten civic education on the forms and risks of air pollution, and empower the public to take individual actions to mitigate these risks as far as possible.
  • Resource, and promote the activities of, the Environmental Protection Department’s indoor air quality team as much as those dedicated to outdoor pollution.
  • Work towards the inclusion of indoor air quality levels as criteria for initiatives such as the Hong Kong Council of Social Service’s “Caring Company” scheme in order to promote private and corporate responsibility for this issue.
  • Require the implementation of measures such as electricity feed-in tariffs and renewable energy certificates, as well as optimising energy from waste facilities, to support a multi-pronged approach to reducing supply-side emissions.
  • Put in place annual targets – in terms of floor area or numbers of buildings – that align with the Climate Action Plan’s objectives of low-energy buildings by 2030 and beyond, ensuring that the new power company funds for energy efficiency are supported by government loans or grants in enabling retrofitting or other investment to this end.
  • Enable landlords to obtain recognition for improved efficiency buildings through an energy performance ratings scheme (like the Australian NABERS scheme, taking on broad Hong Kong initiatives like BESTOF) supported by the Government’s leasing policy and pricing arrangements.

 Marine Emissions

Air pollution is created not only on land, but substantially as a result of maritime activities. Civic Exchange has been instrumental in working with the government and business community to reduce ship emissions for the last decade, but we recognise that there is still more to be achieved.

We recommend that the Government:

  • Set a timeframe for the implementation of lower-emission and fuel-efficient technologies for ferries, harbour crafts and river vessels as part of a technology-neutral policy for cleaning up the maritime sector.
  • Further tighten the mandatory sulphur cap of marine fuel for ocean-going vessels when berthing in Hong Kong from 0.5% to 0.1%. As a minimum ensure that there are mechanisms in place, which will allow Hong Kong to match any future reductions in the cap. This might be introduced by the Pearl River Delta Emissions Control Area without requiring further time-consuming legislation or transition planning.
  • Push for the establishment of a ship emission inventory data platform for the whole Pearl River Delta, including Hong Kong, Macau and southern China.


In a congested city like Hong Kong, transportation policy should be based around two larger trends. The first is a shift away from motorised vehicles like cars, to non-motorised means like walking and cycling. The second is a shift from private transport, to mass public transport. Efforts should be made to preserve Hong Kong’s already high level of public transportation use, and to prevent the increase of private cars. A broad and sustainable transport policy – combined with the use of greener fuels and new smart-city technology – can efficiently cut down on roadside pollution.

Since 1997, the number of vehicles in Hong Kong has jumped from under 500,000 to more than 750,000. We now have more than 2,100 kilometres of road, as opposed to 1,800 before 1997. Hong Kong has responded admirably to transportation demand by building one of the world’s top public rail systems: since 1997, the number of MTR stations has grown from 38 to 93. Yet given the extent of the demand, the MTR is also beginning to suffer from increasing overcrowding and delays.

Other solutions must be found beyond extending our rail lines. Civic Exchange supports an increase in on-road public transportation like buses and minibuses. While electric vehicles are less polluting than traditional models, all cars clog up roads more, and cause more environmental damage, than mass transit. If a bus is just as convenient as a car, then there is less incentive for residents to buy those cars in the first place. These transport modes should therefore be the focus for improvement through cleaner vehicles, amenities like Wi-Fi, and faster service. All modes of public transportation should be made accessible to wheelchair users, the elderly and others.

In April, the Government raised taxes on electric cars, removing the price differential which encourages consumers to purchase greener models. Civic Exchange believes there should be no tax breaks on any cars, at a time when the city’s roads are getting more congested. However, raising levies on electric vehicles is only the first step, and should be paired with even higher increases on conventional car taxes to maintain a price gap with greener models, as well as to suppress demand for petrol and diesel cars.

The Government could also deter car ownership and promote green transport by raising the costs for fuel, implementing electronic road pricing, and limiting the number of licenses, on top of raising car registration tax.

It is important to control the use of private cars, which represent a significant minority of residents’ interests. In May, Civic Exchange spoke before the Legislative Council to support an increase in traffic fines, which had not been raised since 1994. Our goal was to fight violations like illegal parking and idling, which add to harmful roadside emissions and street obstruction. Unfortunately, these proposals were not passed as submitted.

The Government’s last Comprehensive Transportation Study dates back to 1999 and had a horizon which ends in 2016. We urge that a Fourth Comprehensive Transport Study be conducted soon.

We recommend that the Government:

  • Increase taxes on conventional cars, to maintain a price gap with electric cars, whose levies were increased in April.
  • Use car registration tax on diesel models to promote clean technology.
  • Discourage new car ownership by raising costs for fuel or limiting licenses.
  • Incentivise and promote low- or zero-emission buses and heavy-duty vehicles.
  • Increase the supply and quality of bus and minibus services, using this as a key extension of the “rail as backbone” development model.
  • Re-introduce increases in penalties for violations like illegal parking and idling, which add to both roadside emissions and traffic congestion.
  • Enhance vehicle inspection and maintenance programmes to ensure that emissions are suitably controlled at source.


In late 2016, Civic Exchange hosted Asia’s first Walk21 Conference, which drew 600 delegates, with the support of many departments of the Hong Kong Government. A few months later, we launched a major initiative on Walkability, relating to the daily experience of the city’s pedestrians. The Government also introduced its own Walkability initiative and taskforce in 2017, and we were heartened to hear former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying mention walkability specifically in his January 2017 policy address. We hope that Mrs Lam will continue in this direction.

About 90% of Hong Kongers use a combination of public transportation and walking on their daily commutes – far more than those who own or drive cars. And yet the pedestrian experience has become increasingly uncomfortable due to overcrowding, construction and roadside pollution. In addition, walking is not accessible to many residents who “walk with wheels” – whether that means disabled people in wheelchairs, the elderly, parents with baby strollers, or delivery people with carts.

Urban design solutions like widening sidewalks, using more trees for natural shade, and creating pedestrianised zones will improve the experience of walking, and may also lead to a decrease in air conditioning use.

We recommend that the Government:

  • Use urban design approaches to better connect and integrate pedestrian walkways.
  • Ensure that pedestrian routes and features are clearly and consistently marked, accessible to all, pleasant to use, and reflect the city’s diversity and vitality.
  • Design streets to a human scale, treating them as public spaces that require active management.
  • Establish an Energizing Central Office – similar to the efficient Energizing Kowloon East Office – to find solutions for the area from Tamar, to Western Market, to Tai Kung on Hollywood Road.
  • Allow for and support pedestrianisation schemes in areas like Des Voeux Road Central.

Urban Spaces & Metropolitan Growth

The government’s “2030+” plan includes proposed heavy development of East Lantau and New Territories North. The plan itself focuses mainly on physical infrastructure. But future growth planning must also take into consideration possible scenarios due to changes in immigration, climate, technology, the economy, the workforce and residents’ personal preferences. Moreover, it should not depend on the same planning paradigms that have been shown to fail the local populace in fundamental respects.

For example, Civic Exchange spent more than a year finding and crunching data on Hong Kong’s public open space (POS), an issue that had not been widely addressed. We found that the Government’s standard of 2 m2 POS per person (which has not been updated for 15 years) is too low. Hong Kongers have far less urban POS – meaning areas like city parks – than almost any other big-city residents. Similarly crowded Asian cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore have between 5.8 m2 and 7.6 m2 POS per person. Globally, only a few cities like Mumbai fare more poorly than we do. In many cases, residents of poorer, older neighbourhoods also get far less than even the Government minimum.

We recommend that the Government:

  • Increase the planning standard for POS per person from the current 2 m2 to at least 3 m2.
  • Create large urban parks in the last three remaining areas where this could realistically happen given land constraints: The Central-Wanchai reclamation, West Kowloon and Kai Tak.
  • Re-engage with designers to seek a better design for the Hong Kong waterfront that maximises the space available for public use.
  • Exclude the planning and responsibility for the East Lantau Metropolis from the remit of the Sustainable Lantau Office, so that this office can avoid the controversy of this initiative and focus on true sustainable planning for Lantau.
  • Lay out a clear overall strategy for identifying land for development and the relevant development needs across Hong Kong.
  • Proceed with plans for the East Lantau Metropolis only as a last resort, and only after arguments for it have been fully made.
  • Design new metropolitan areas and the revitalisation of old ones with sufficient POS, bike lanes and other amenities, coupled with measures to allow independent businesses to flourish.

Waste Management

Hong Kong generates 6 million tons of municipal solid waste a year – of which more than 30% is food, and more than 40% is paper or plastic. The government says our main landfills may overflow by the “late 2010s”, and more land may be needed to store our trash. Meanwhile, recycling rates are dropping when they should be rising, due partly to the commercial unviability of private recycling enterprises. There is also frustration among the public that their efforts at sorting waste do not actually lead to that waste being recycled in the end.

Civic Exchange has studied plastic water bottles in particular, because plastics are harmful to waterways, and can even enter seafood and our food chains. We found that most Hong Kong residents buy bottled water out of convenience or habit, and not because of concerns about the quality of tap water. While recycling is a positive step, it is also limited. Therefore, it is just as important to stop the consumption of plastic bottles to begin with.

We recommend that the Government:

  • Ban the sale of plastic bottled water at municipal properties like parks and sports centres, but only if high-quality water dispensers are also made available.
  • Promote well-designed, well-maintained and conveniently located water dispensers around the city.
  • Ban the use of plastic water bottles or even carboys at government meetings.
  • Encourage workplaces to provide high-quality sources of boiled or filtered tap water. Presently, for many blue-collar workers, their only options are water from a bathroom tap, or purchased bottled water.
  • Regulate beverage manufacturers to encourage use of recycled materials
  • Promote bottle “deposit and return” schemes.
  • Better educate the public about the harmful effects of plastic bottle waste.
  • Introduce a producer responsibility scheme for plastic bottle charging similar to the existing plastic bag levy scheme.

Protection of Natural Areas

In early August, a ship crash in mainland Chinese waters near Hong Kong led to a palm oil spill that caused the closure of 13 local beaches. Despite formal agreements between Guangdong and Hong Kong requiring environmental disaster alerts, there was a two-day delay before the situation was reported to Hong Kong. By then, large white blobs of congealed oil had washed up on our shores, clogging waterways, harming wildlife, and melting into the sand. Clean-up was still taking a place a week later.

Civic Exchange has long advocated for better and faster communication between the government and the public. Our polling shows that the public trusts and prefers universities or green groups for information about nature and wildlife – far more than official government sources.

Our polling also showed broad involvement with natural spaces: 68% of all Hong Kongers visited a country park, nature reserve or similar area over the past year, and 67% objected to opening up those spaces to development. Those numbers are higher for young adults.

The government is currently holding a controversial feasibility study on developing on the periphery of Hong Kong country parks. In May, green groups, plus Civic Exchange Board member Paul Zimmerman, petitioned Mrs Lam to withdraw plans for this study. In August, the Country and Marine Parks Board asked why it had not been consulted on the issue. There has been concern about how the Government deems certain protected lands to be of “low ecological value,” and whether that justifies development.

Civic Exchange recommends using an “ecosystem services” approach to environmental policy. This means that our natural resources should be assessed on their positive impacts – and on what “services” they provide to a community. There may be a view that “low ecological value” areas might not be attractive to visitors – but country parks play a larger role than simply being hiking trails.

We recommend that the Government:

  • Work with authorities across the Pearl River Delta to better share information, on disaster and other issues, which might affect our natural areas.
  • Establish a broad advisory committee on land supply with members including representatives from professional institutions and concern groups, in particular directly relevant stakeholders such as the Country and Marine Parks Board.
  • Work with them to look for other alternatives before proceeding with studies to develop on the perimeters or within country parks or other protected areas.
  • Increase communication with the public on these issues, potentially by partnering with outside academic or environmental sources. 

Protection of Endangered Species

With increasing recent scrutiny of the ivory trade and other endangered species, we recommend that the government:

  • Continue to press for the proposed ivory ban and an increase in penalties.
  • Reject claims for financial compensation from traders of ivory in particular, which may backfire by actually increasing ivory demand and prices in the short term.
  • Adopt a similar and consistent approach with regards to other controversial and endangered species trades, such as shark fin and illegal seafood.
  • Further strengthen controls on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishery activities through implementation of Port State Measures in line with the United Nations (FAO) Agreement on Port State Measures.


The Hong Kong Government is currently renegotiating a three-year deal with Guangdong, which supplies 80% of our freshwater at a cost of HK $4.2 billion per year. Government negotiators need to be fully aware of the complex issues concerning the city’s water supply – and it is not just the price tag.

Our May 2017 report, “The Illusion of Plenty,” showed multiple problems with the management of the city’s water supply. Government water mains lose about 15% of their water due to leaks. Potentially one-third of Hong Kong’s fresh water might be lost between leaky government mains, badly maintained private pipes, theft, poor metering and other reasons.

Few Hong Kong residents realize that their low monthly water bills are actually highly government subsidized, giving people little incentive to conserve water in their daily use. Water tariffs have not been raised since 1995.

A larger issue is that the Dongjiang (East River), which serves as Hong Kong’s main water source also services seven booming mainland cities. In the long run, it is not sustainable for Hong Kong to increasingly use more water and waste more water, which is ultimately a limited natural resource.

We recommend that the Government:

  • Crack down on leaky pipes, whether public or private.
  • Better promote water conservation to the public.
  • Support legislation to increase water tariffs so that high-volume and corporate users are paying, at minimum, the true cost of water. However, this legislation should be designed so that working- and middle-class families are not affected.
  • Formulate a broader water policy that ensures the integrity and resilience of Hong Kong’s entire water system, from source to tap.
  • Develop and align Hong Kong’s policies with Guangdong’s commitments to national water management, ensuring our contribution to water security within the Pearl River Delta.
  • Allow for greater use of reclaimed waste water.
  • Mandate the use of labelled, water-efficient appliances.