When we pointed out Hong Kong’s lack of an integrated sustainability strategy, we may be accused of speaking loosely. Technically, Hong Kong does have a “first sustainable development strategy” published in 2004 under the Sustainable Development Unit, under then Chief Secretary Donald Tsang’s office.
The document, put together after input by key government departments and a range of “advisors” defined a broad-based sustainability strategy as comprising just three areas of action: solid waste management, renewable energy development, and urban living space. Even within this narrow scope, the strategy failed to define more than a few short-term moving targets. The SDU was then re-cast as the Council for Sustainable Development, which has, since then, published reports on “progress” on the three areas and conducted numerous public engagement exercises.
For all the good intentions, nearly 7 years on, we’re basically back where we started, although we have many more studies to tell us where that is.
That you may have trouble placing these groups is not surprising. Indeed public policy that challenges vested interests in Hong Kong is subject to the same marginalisation. By putting all the sustainability concerns into one committee, the government has effectively gotten them out of the way: the Council can come up with ideas that can be ignored.
In the same way, mandating that the EPD advocate single-handedly for environmental concerns is also fruitless because it gives other departments the go-ahead to ignore these issues in their work. The EPD operates at the fringes of policy whereas the other bureaus — Transport, Home Affairs, even the URA — have concrete (!) agendas, power and resources.
Those active in business will tell you corporate sustainability will fail unless the concern is embedded across and within a company’s operations – particularly at the level of strategy and design. If sustainability remains in the “CSR” department, it will languish as a fringe concern. The government needs the same treatment, and it must be led from the top.
As a side point, we can look at Singapore’s Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development (IMCSD), which published Singapore’s sustainable development blueprint in 2009, a substantive, comprehensive document for the short and long term.
The IMCSD is co-chaired by the Minister for National Development and the Minister of Environment and Water, and although it has just three other members, they are all “heavy hitters”: finance, transport, and trade and industry. Clearly, Singapore understands that sustainability is about competitiveness and requires policy with teeth and environmental leadership. Further, the committee’s compact structure mitigates against free-riding and compels each of the members to commitment and action.
Singapore is not perfect, but on sustainability, there’s no contest. How will this affect our future?