Christine Loh, Under Secretary for the Environment, Hong Kong: Exclusive Interview

By on 27/04/2017 | Updated on 27/07/2017
Christine Loh Kung-wai, under secretary for the environment, Hong Kong SAR (Image courtesy: Environment Bureau, HKSAR Government).

You might not expect to find a former environmental and democracy activist working as a senior adviser at the heart of the Hong Kong government – but Christine Loh has spent five years in the environment department, and made great strides in tackling the city’s smog problem. Liz Heron interviews her

Air pollution has increased dramatically in Hong Kong over recent decades, with smog blanketing the city for about four months of the year; up from a few weeks during the 1980s. And the impact on both residents’ health and the city’s competitiveness has been marked. Public health experts attribute thousands of deaths per year to roadside pollution, while financial bodies and trade chambers have warned that poor air quality is driving away skilled workers and investors. The Australian government has even issued a travel warning aimed at people with respiratory conditions.

The issue has tarnished Hong Kong’s image as an international centre for finance, business and trade, and the territory has slid inexorably down a ranking of cities considered the world’s best places to live by Asian expatriates. This year the survey’s publishers, ECA International, put the city in 29th place – a drop of 14 places since 2008. Announcing the results, ECA’s regional director Lee Quane declared: “Hong Kong is essentially a first-world city with third-world air quality levels.”

For a territory that styles itself  ‘Asia’s world city’, such unwelcome sobriquets have been a bitter blow. But observers were still surprised when, in 2012, pro-Beijing chief executive Leung Chun-ying grasped the nettle and appointed environmentalist and civil rights campaigner Christine Loh Kung-wai as Under Secretary for the Environment.

Inside government for the first time, and tasked with helping to lead a clean-up drive, Loh sought to adopt the evidence-led, rational and transparent approach to policy that she had for so long advocated from the outside. Within six months, she had published a comprehensive clean air policy plan designed to tackle the biggest cause of roadside pollutants: vehicle emissions. And that year marked a turning point in Hong Kong’s air quality: after years of flatlining, between 2013 and 2016 particulates and nitrogen dioxide levels – as measured at three key roadside sensors – fell by between 20 and 50%.

Enter the dragon

This was fast progress for someone new to the administrative side of government – particularly a democracy and environmental activist working alongside career civil servants in Hong Kong’s complex, semi-democratic system. As an under secretary, Loh was charged with implementing Leung’s policy agenda; rather like special advisers in the parliamentary democracies, Hong Kong’s under secretaries sit between appointed ministers and permanent civil servants, providing political and legislative advice and guiding policy development and implementation.

For Loh, Leung’s job offer represented a chance to complete her CV. “I’ve had long legislative experience and research policy experience, so for me the experience that I hadn’t had was on the executive side,” she says. Importantly, “there was no requirement that I would have to do everything that the chief executive wanted.” Loh assists the secretary for the environment across the policy brief, but she has specific responsibilities in air quality, energy, climate change, nature conservation, and relations with China and other countries.

Whilst she lacked executive experience when she first took the job, her previous career had left her well equipped both to address environmental policy issues, and to develop effective policies. A trained lawyer, Loh worked as a commodities trader before serving as an elected legislator from 1995 to 2000. She founded the pro-democracy Citizens Party, and was a founding member of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.

On the eve of the 1997 handover, Loh piloted the historic Protection of the Harbour Ordinance through the Legislative Council, effectively halting more than 500 hectares of proposed land reclamation. In 2000, she founded Civic Exchange to focus on identifying policy solutions – her core interest – and went on to become an author and writer. Her work includes one well-received history book on the history of the Communist Party in Hong Kong, which pointed out that this is the only place in the world where the ruling party is an underground organisation; indeed, part of the suspicion directed at chief executive Leung has its roots in fears that he is secretly a Party member.

“It seems every 10 years, I end up doing something quite different,” says Loh. “I’ve been interested in many issues: equal opportunities, urban planning, the environment, constitutional reform. But once I’m doing something, I tend to get really stuck in. I’m like a dog that won’t let go.”

Pushing through policy

Getting stuck into air quality, Loh set out a three-pronged strategy designed to reduce emissions from heavy goods vehicles, taxis and buses.

First, the government provided HK$11.5billion (€1.4bn/US$1.5bn) to help firms replace all HGVs failing Euro 4 particulate and NO2 standards by 2019. Some 80,000 vehicles – two thirds of the city’s fleet – are affected.

Second, it provided a HK$150 million (€18m/US$19m) one-off subsidy for the 18,000 taxis and 6,800 light buses running on liquid petroleum gas, sponsoring the replacement of their catalytic converters. Mobile sensors were installed around the city, and new regulations were introduced requiring any driver whose vehicle exceeds the emission limits to carry out repairs within 12 working days. Drivers who fail to pass the test after that time lose their licence.

Third, the government funded the retrofitting of selective catalytic reduction devices on the 4,749 franchised buses – 83 per cent of the city’s fleet – that did not meet the Euro 4 standard on NO2 emissions. It is also working with bus operators to help them replace their fleet with the cleanest available models, under the 18-year maximum lifespan rule for franchised buses.

Building support

In explaining how she won popular backing for these tough new policies, Loh highlights several key factors.

First, these policies were explicitly linked to issues that had a direct bearing on people’s daily lives – in this case, the quality of air they breathe. “We very explicitly put public health front and centre of what we are doing,” she says. “Because that is what the people want; what the people will support.”

Second, she gathered and published clear evidence showing both that the problem was amenable to action by the Hong Kong authorities, and that the proposed policies would be likely to prove effective in improving air quality.

“One of the questions that is always asked is: ‘How much pollution is coming across the border [from mainland China], and how much is Hong Kong’s own pollution?’,” Loh comments. “For a long time, people in Hong Kong just thought: ‘If it’s all coming across the border I don’t have control, so what can I do?’”

However, Loh could point to research findings by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which – acting on a commission from Loh’s own think tank the Civil Exchange – mapped air pollution figures against meteorological data on a daily basis. This data showed that regional sources were the predominant influence on Hong Kong’s air for a third of the time, with local sources proving crucial more than half of the time. “This piece of research also showed very clearly that the percentage that is generated in Hong Kong is actually the portion that has the greatest public health impact on Hong Kong people,” Loh adds.

So the solution lay in Hong Kong’s hands; the next challenge lay in identifying that solution.

Further research evidence showed that people were being exposed to the greatest levels of pollution at street level, where vehicle emissions were trapped by the ‘canyon effect’ created by the city’s skyscrapers. “Once you know that this is the greatest health risk, you have to focus on dealing with vehicles; and then you have to ask yourself: ‘Which ones are most polluting?’,” says Loh.

The clean-up

Again, Loh took a science-led approach to identifying the worst polluters, finding some surprising culprits. Older HGVs were an obvious problem. But research found that LPG taxis and buses – introduced under an earlier environmental scheme – were producing high levels of pollutants simply because their catalytic converters had worn out. The offer to these drivers, Loh explains, involved paying for a new converter – but with the proviso that it would be their responsibility thereafter. “They should replace the catalytic replace them. But once we have done that, we expect you to continue to maintain this practice of catalytic converter replacement”.

So far, about 60% of Hong Kong’s older HGVs have been replaced, and all three elements of the scheme have been up and running for over two years. NO2 levels have fallen at three central sensors by 20-30%, particulate matter of smaller than 10 micrometers by 30-50%, and particulates smaller than 2.5 micrometers by 20-35%. “We saw [pollution] levels coming down after the catalytic converters were replaced,” comments Loh. “The mobile sensing is now working on a day to day basis and we are not seeing those pollutants rising at street level, so we think the scheme has worked.”

Loh also turned her attention to shipping emissions – an important factor in a major port such as Hong Kong. Sulphur-rich fuel creates highly polluting smoke; and in July 2015, Hong Kong became the first jurisdiction outside Europe and North America to require ships berthing at its port to use diesel fuel with 0.5 per cent sulphur content or below. The penalty for breaking the rule, imposed on the vessels’ ‘owners and masters’, is a HK$200,000 (€24,000/US26,000) fine and six months in jail.

“I would say that this is our single biggest air pollution win, because we were able to influence national policy,” says Loh. “We went to China and asked if they wanted to do the same in [the neighbouring province] Guangdong. Our colleagues in China became more and more interested in this, because we could show with our research that by controlling shipping emissions we can really reduce a very significant source.”

Beijing followed suit in December 2015, creating new emission control areas covering China’s two largest ports as well as swathes of smaller ones: ships will be required to meet the 0.5 per cent sulphur benchmark in ports from January next year, and everywhere within the control areas from January 2019.

Working inside the system

Nearly five years since she joined the administration, Loh has clearly learned how to work within the system – encouraging collaboration between departments, and using her unusual role to broker agreement between the government’s various interest groups.

Her clean air plan, for example, rested on partnership working in a ‘3S Committee’ comprising the lead ministers for environment, development, and transport and housing. Along with emissions reduction, their integrated strategy involved better transport management and urban planning.

Since then, Loh has further developed the cross-departmental model in producing the Hong Kong Climate Action Plan 2030+: the city’s response to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The document begins with statements from 15 government ministers, explaining how they plan to combat climate change and cut greenhouse emissions within their policy areas. “As you look at the plan, you can see that all the ministers have signed,” she says. “It is building buy-in.”

Meanwhile, Loh has used her status as an appointed political adviser to introduce new perspectives into government – whilst working hard to demonstrate that advisers are expert within their fields, and competent in delivery. Above all, she’s tried to grease the gears of government, pushing people towards agreement when organisational interests or competing priorities threaten stalemate.

“I think it’s very important to talk, to try to talk, when it is most difficult to talk,” she says. “I personally have gone into meetings where I ask people: ‘Can you imagine a two-room scenario, Room A and Room B? Can we have an agreement that when we are in Room A, we can leave our weapons outside? When we are back in Room B, we can carry on asserting our positions and everything we stand for. But here in Room A, let’s talk about what it is we can do.”

After a very diverse career, Christine Loh has found a role that appears to call on many of the skills and techniques she’s learned over the years: she gets people to work out what can be done. Or, as she puts it: “I think political advisers can help with enabling Room A.”

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About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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