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Capacity building is Asia's main challenge: Christine Loh

Christine Loh, Under-Secretary for the Environment at Hong Kong’s Environment Bureau, believes that while great strides have been made in Asia to institutionalise the concept of "green growth", lack of local capacity remains the biggest hurdle to long-term sustainable development.

A pioneer in environmental advocacy in Asia, Christine Loh has seen the concept of sustainable development gradually take its rightful place in public policy over the decades. While the notion is now accepted and understood in most international and regional policy-making circles, Asian economies still have a long way to go in developing their own regulations, she said.

Since the 1980s, Loh has been an active campaigner for the environment, serving on the boards of a wide range of Hong Kong and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). She was also a Hong Kong politician and member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong for close to a decade before founding Civic Exchange, a non-profit, non-partisan, public policy think tank in 2000.

Development, the environment and conservation are core areas of interest for Civic Exchange, and Loh’s work in helping the public make sense of related policies and finding better solutions to problems convinced her that the idea of “green development” is crucial to long term sustainability.

In September 2012, Loh left Civic Exchange to become Under-Secretary for the Environment at the Environment Bureau. She says she joined the Bureau because she believes that the government of Hong Kong is serious in its efforts to improve the environment, and also because she wants to influence the policy-making process that she spent 12 years researching.

Working closely with Hong Kong’s Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing, Loh will focus on policies concerning air quality, waste management and nature conservation. She speaks to Eco-Business about the challenges that developing Asian countries must overcome to grow more sustainably, particularly the urgent need to build local capacity and expertise, and shares what Hong Kong will be doing in the next five years to move in the right direction.

As we look back on the year, what do you think were the biggest headlines that had a significant impact on business and sustainability?

In 2014, the major sustainability issue for business that will have resonance is the dramatic drop in the price of oil. In the short-term, this is helping a lot of businesses lower their costs, and it is also helping consumers directly by keeping energy costs down. However, we have to wait and see how this will affect the energy sector in the longer-term. For example, how might it affect the relative costs of other fossil fuels and also the further development of renewables.

Another issue is the re-emergence of interest in climate change in light of the run-up to COP21 (21st Conference of the Parties) in Paris in 2015. Last year, 2014, was an important stepping stone to COP21, which is why we saw China and the US – the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters – agreeing at the November APEC meeting in Beijing to rein in their emissions by 2030, followed by hectic attempts by many countries at COP20 at Lima to keep things on course for 2015. The future of the energy sector and climate change will no doubt continue to be a major discussion point throughout 2015.

What do you think are the key themes that will dominate the corporate agenda as we go into 2015?

Obviously, energy prices affect all businesses, thus energy will be an important theme for many companies and industries. As many of the leading companies around the world are now doing Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting, they are gaining new insights into their own operations, and with heightened awareness about energy and COP21 around the corner, leaders in the corporate sector will be more interested in sustainability issues.

For example, the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited (HKEx) published in 2012 a recommended ESG Reporting Guide to promote voluntary ESG reporting. HKEx will be doing a second round of consultation on ESG reporting in the first half of 2015 to raise the obligation level of recommended disclosures in the ESG Guide to “comply or explain”.

I also understand that corporate social responsibility (CSR), which includes ESG issues, is becoming an important theme in the business community. Another driver for adopting ESG practices and reporting is the growth of responsible investment as more investors have started incorporating ESG criteria into their valuations and investment strategies.

What is your outlook on the progress of sustainable development specifically in Asia?

Many Asian economies are developing rapidly, but they still face many challenges with regards to sustainable development. It is certainly good that in policy-making circles at the global and regional level (such as the UN, APEC, Asean), the concept of sustainable development is now accepted, but Asian economies still need to develop their own policies in areas such as energy, air quality, greenhouse gas reduction and biodiversity protection.

In many developing Asian countries, there is a lack of data, such as good emissions inventories, and information on pollution impact and biodiversity. Many of these countries don’t have enough scientists, or the capabilities of their scientists are lacking. There is also a lack of local expertise in law-drafting and developing, promoting and enforcing new policies.

I was at Copenhagen in 2009, and watched how despite the high level attention and attendance of world leaders, the talks still broke down. I hope world leaders will not let that happen again.

Money can also be a challenge – with so many development priorities, it is not easy to find sufficient financial resources to build the necessary hard and soft infrastructure to improve environmental governance. The concept of green development is the right way forward with resource efficiency at its core. Indeed, this needs to be a global revolution for all economies. 

What are your hopes for the coming year as we approach the December deadline for a global agreement on climate change in Paris?

There is a lot of expectation riding on COP21 that the governments of the world will agree on a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. I was at Copenhagen in 2009, and watched how despite the high level attention and attendance of world leaders, the talks still broke down. I hope world leaders will not let that happen again.

While a lot of work is going into the climate negotiations, we should not under-estimate the remaining difficulties underlying the arguments between developed and developing countries. Developed countries are not decarbonising fast enough; developing economies have a requirement for a lot more energy, which essentially still means they use a lot more fossil fuel; and global progress at becoming more energy efficient is still slow.

The international politics of decarbonisation and the financial implications are not easy to circumvent. On top of dealing with mitigating climate change, there is already enough greenhouse gas in the atmosphere to fuel global warming for years to come. This calls for everyone to consider the climate risks they are going to face, and to be ready to adapt to them. This will of course require investment and action.

The joint announcement of climate goals by China and the US at APEC was encouraging. I hope in the run-up to COP21, the other major emitters around the world will join them to play a leadership role; and that business leaders too will drive change through reducing their own carbon footprint. I know the scientific community will continue to voice its concerns that the world must act with great determination, and that the NGO community will continue to raise global awareness of the need to act.

What will you and your organisation be working on this year?

Hong Kong’s target is to reduce our carbon intensity by 50 to 60 per cent by 2020. This will be achieved by a number of measures, including adopting a cleaner fuel mix for electricity generation, maximising energy efficiency and “greening” our road transport. Going beyond 2020, we also have plans to promote energy saving in the building and transportation sectors between 2015 and 2025, setting the stage for further improvements by 2035. We will be releasing specific plans in the near future.

This year, we will release a new climate change document in time for COP21 to explain Hong Kong’s efforts on both mitigation and adaptation. We will also be releasing our city-level biodiversity strategy and action plan, as part of Hong Kong’s contribution to meeting the targets of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

We also have an enormous waste-to-resources plan for the city that includes dealing with food waste, mandating municipal waste charging, improving recycling with a HK$1 billion fund to help the recycling sector, returning restored landfills for community usage, and building new waste-to-energy facilities. Our air quality efforts are also substantial. Our major measures include meeting air quality targets by 2020, replacing 82,000 pre-Euro 4 diesel commercial vehicles by the end of 2019, and mandating ocean-going vessels to switch to a much cleaner fuel while at berth in Hong Kong.

This interview is part of the “15 on 15” series by Eco-Business where we interview 15 global and Asian leaders on their thoughts on the year ahead. Read all the interviews in the latest issue of the Eco-Business magazine here.

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