Little to celebrate on World Environment Day as Hong Kong scraps waste charging

(5 June 2024 SCMP)
For over half a century, World Environment Day, marked on June 5, has aimed to throw a spotlight on environmental problems every year since its inception by the UN Environment Programme in 1973.
But in recent years, there seems little to celebrate. The world faces greater risks and threats amid wars and growing challenges instead of improvements in the tackling of climate change, other environmental problems and poverty.
One might ask how well we are doing in sustainable development – or how badly. In 2015, all 193 United Nations members adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, a road map for peace and prosperity for humanity and the planet.
The 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) at the core of the 2030 agenda comprise 169 targets for developing and developed economies to achieve by 2030.
But last year, a progress report found only 15 per cent of the targets on track. This suggests world leaders are not treating seriously most of the targets they are committed to achieving – that they are simply not doing enough to protect the environment and people from pollution, hunger, war and disaster.
World leaders must stop offering empty rhetoric and step up sustainability efforts.
According to UN data, there are 3.3-3.6 billion people living in highly climate-vulnerable regions. Between 2010 and 2020, these billions were 15 times more likely to die because of extreme weather, compared to regions of very low climate vulnerability.
Our oceans, an important source of food, are increasingly under threat from plastic pollution. In 2021, our oceans contained 17 million tonnes of plastic, a figure expected to double or triple by 2040.
In 20 years, the world has lost 100 million hectares of forest area, threatening 1 million species with extinction. We will need to restore 1.5 billion hectares of forest by 2030 to have any hope of merely reversing the damage.
These are challenges that all nations need to address and urgently. With six years left to 2030, we must channel our resources into turning the deteriorating trends around.
Sadly, there is no sign of an end to the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, and those nations deeply involved are likely to devote very limited resources and attention to resolving sustainability crises. Yet if there is to be any genuine attempt to drive sustainable development, nations need to stop fighting one another immediately.
Compared to some of the most vulnerable places on earth, Hong Kong faces nowhere near the same magnitude of threats or environmental degradation.
But if our leaders truly care about the city’s sustainable development, we must work much harder to achieve our SDGs by 2030, alongside our pledges of carbon neutrality by 2050 and zero landfills by 2035.
Last week, Hong Kong shelved a long-overdue plan to charge for waste disposal that was meant to address the city’s acute waste problem. No timeline for a relaunch has been announced.
This was a setback, not least because the city’s officials are keen to find good stories to tell about Hong Kong. If the scheme, originally set to kick in from August 1, could still go ahead, might that not be a better Hong Kong story to tell, while giving the city an achievement to celebrate?
Amid the recent heated debate over Hong Kong’s waste-charging scheme, one suggestion raised by the authorities was to send the city’s waste to neighbouring Greater Bay Area cities for incineration. How can such an unethical idea be raised?
Shockingly, the authorities appear to harbour a “not in my backyard” mindset. Put another way, if a mainland city proposed sending its waste to Hong Kong, how would our government and public feel about that?
Hong Kong can and should collaborate with the mainland on projects that bring mutual environmental, social and economic benefits, but it should not resort to dumping its problems on others.
The legislators who approved the waste-charging scheme in 2021 when the pandemic was taking a toll on our economy should have foreseen the economic factors and pain points being discussed today.
Their shockingly quick U-turn in suggesting and supporting a suspension of the scheme is a disappointment, especially as so many organisations and places have invested in their waste reduction journey in full support of the scheme.
Getting the law approved took 16 years. It seems undue haste that our lawmakers have reversed the decision so swiftly.
Edwin Lau Che-feng is executive director of The Green Earth.