Interview with Christine Loh: Former Hong Kong Politician and Environmental Activist

Conducted by John Nikolaou CMC ’19, Digital Content Editor and Stanley Fan CMC ’20, Staff Writer

Christine Loh is a former Hong King Legislative Councilor and Under Secretary for the Environment. Through her distinguished career, she has held roles in the business world as a commodities trader, government as a legislator, and the NGO sector as the founder of Civic Exchange, a public policy think tank. In this interview, the CJLPP had the opportunity to ask her about her unique career path and what she has learned about the challenges of legislating environmental policies.


CJLPP: You have certainly had an interesting career path. How did a commodity trader become a policymaker in the Hong Kong government?

Loh: I do have a checkered past! I studied law thinking I was going to become a lawyer, but that did not happen. I was offered a short term job as a commodity trader and I ended up doing that for 12 years. During that time I had a secret life of sorts—everybody has their passions beyond their main job, it’s part of being multidimensional. Mine happened to be being part of an armchair group of diverse professionals who liked to meet and talk about Hong Kong affairs. For me it was an introduction to social policy questions that I had never thought of before, I never knew that it would end up being my longer term career. While I was still in my commercial career, I was actually known more for being a member of this group rather than being a trader.

In 1992, when Chris Patten came to Hong Kong looking for younger people who were passionate about politics, I was invited to join the legislature. In those days I was in my mid-30s and I was appointed to the government by nature of me being in those circles. In the end, me and another person from my group were invited to be part of the government. This launched us into many years of direct political engagement.

Then after 10 years I thought, we have to vote on a lot of issues but we seldom have enough time to gather knowledge about these great big subjects that we have to vote on. So I decided not to stand for re-election and founded a non-profit think tank to try and consider solutions. I did that for 12 years.

CJLPP: What do you think is the best relationship between business, government, and civil society?

Loh: We need to have cross-sector discussion. One of the things I ended up doing a lot of was leading cross-sector discussions. I think people, deep inside, know that we have to talk to each other but there is a lot of what I call “assertion of position”. In the end if you want to find a solution you have to work across sectors. We don’t have to agree on everything, we don’t have to change people’s ideologies, but can we agree on something that we can work together on? I believe in that. And having different backgrounds that we can draw from is really helpful. I think I was one of the only politicians in Hong Kong that came from a legal background, having had substantial work in the business world before I became a politician. And during this time I was also a founder of a variety of NGOs, so I was not afraid of that community either.

One issue where all of this was useful was in addressing discrimination in Hong Kong. We did not have anti-discrimination laws. Me and another colleague tried to pass a lot of social legislation to address this and it was helpful to have a broad view on these issues and work with different groups.

CJLPP: Regarding the environmental policies you worked on, improving air pollution in Hong Kong must have required great coordination with the Chinese government.  What is the key to effective collaboration between two governments that in many ways are quite different?

Loh: Well, I always believe in people. Systems are always different, but we first need to agree that there is a common problem and that by cooperating we will be able to solve the problem in a better way than if we were to just do our own thing. I think your own demeanor and enthusiasm for cooperation is the first important thing. Secondly, today in China, as in Hong Kong, if you want to deal with a problem your first question is “what data do we have? How are we justifying addressing this problem?”.

CJLPP: What is an example of an issue that required great collaboration?

Loh: Shipping pollution was not even measured when I began working on it. Even more recently, research has been done to study the public health impacts of shipping pollution here in California. Unsurprisingly, it was very bad because big ships burn bunker fuel, which is the dregs of the oil refining process. It’s thick, dark, and heavy so it has a lot of emissions. NGOs here raised the issue that the Long Beach port was polluting heavily and thus they threatened to sue the port. This stimulated the development of a comprehensive plan to deal with pollution. This made California the first state to call for these changes.

In Hong Kong, I read this research and these developments, and I was intrigued because we have a bigger port and a lot more people living around the port. Comparatively, there are no people living near the Long Beach port! So we did research for Hong Kong, articulated the problem in a similar way that California did, and argued that if North America was working on these issues, we need to catch up because these ships are coming to us and polluting here rather than in California. When we showed the data and the argument, it was all very compelling to the head of the Hong Kong government. In our first policy iteration, we made it a front and center issue. For our colleagues on the Chinese side, it showed them that we were serious about changing our policies and law. After two and half years, we successfully made the permanent policy changes.

CJLPP: About successful environmental policies, what were the guiding normative principles you followed when making environmental policy? Did you focus on rights or value maximization, for example?

 Loh: In Hong Kong it is really important for us to be evidence based. If we can show that, “this is the magnitude of reduction you can get using this measure” based on science, and at what cost to what benefit, that speaks for itself. In the American system you try and find the least cost way to achieve an outcome. From our point of view, we want to look at that too, but it also depends on what gains we are looking at.

Public health gains are always significant. We need to invest more research into determining public health benefits. Working with the World Health Organization on air pollution, for example, is helping us determine the risks air pollution poses to public health. This is helping the public feel confident that even a small reduction in air pollution would produce benefits for the entire population. Then it is very hard to argue that it’s not worthwhile.

CJLPP: What can other countries learn from Hong Kong’s success in environmental policies? Are there any general suggestions you can offer to other countries?

 Loh: One of the things that I feel we can go on to do is that [the shipping emission problem]. In the U.S. and Canada, there’s now quite good control of shipping emissions along the coast for the big ships. Then, if you look at Europe, especially in northern Europe, there’s similar control of shipping emissions. The next part of the world where control measurements like these are implemented is along the cost of China. If you look at global terms, there are so many parts of the world with a lot of shipping that are not doing it yet. My own sense is the global control of shipping could really spread to other parts of the world. This could bring measurable public health benefits to all of the people along the coast, as well as, to countries like China and us with major inland ports. Once we finish fixing the coastal policies, we should focus on inland ports.

CJLPP: How far off is Hong Kong from creating its ideal energy mix?

 Loh: Hong Kong used to use a lot of coal. In 1997 we had already made the decision not to make any new coal plants. However, the thing about energy sources is that Hong Kong is a small space. In contrast, China, 20 years ago, was a large country with few energy options. So they started to build up energy systems and are now catching up fast. Now considering Hong Kong’s status quo, we can take the U.S. or even Claremont, and ask how are we going to build energy sources? How much energy do we use? Do we have the right condition to use reusable energy?  Your answer may be to use solar–we have the sun. The question would be how much energy does Claremont need to go off grid. So every city can ask themselves this same question: what can they do?

In Hong Kong, if we look at what we can do in terms of reusable energy, we can’t use wind farms because we don’t have much space and we can’t use water because the water around us is not ideal. Today we can’t go from coal to renewable energy because those renewable energy sources don’t have the capabilities and Hong Kong needs a lot of power. Today the technology is just not there for us to have such renewable energy, so the only viable lower carbon replacement for power is natural gas. We’re switching to gas to replace coal plants now in Hong Kong.

 CJLPP: How do you perceive Hong Kong as a purchaser of energy in a global market? Could the U.S. be a source of energy for Hong Kong?

 Loh: The first question is going to be big—that Hong Kong is going to be a big market with high energy demand. Always remember that we all live in high rises, so our energy source is really important to feed the power plants so we don’t brown out, which would affect lots of people. This is just so important. As we switch from coal to gas, Hong Kong needs long term supplies, and right now we have supplies from various parts of the world. In the future, as gas becomes available in the U.S., I don’t see why we can’t bring in U.S. natural gas to Hong Kong, for example.

 CJLPP: Another option for clean energy would be nuclear energy. In the U.S., however, there are massive problems concerning the over regulation of nuclear energy and nuclear waste. What’s your opinion on the feasibility of nuclear energy and dealing with nuclear waste?

 Loh: Nuclear is an unsettled problem. The essential technology is there, but we have witnessed bad incidents like the Chernobyl disaster and Fukushima nuclear disaster that still scare people nowadays. Now, the nuclear waste is probably buried deep down somewhere, and countries like the U.S., France and China are all dealing with this problem. But I can step back and just talk about China, because our nuclear resources come from China, and the first commercial plant that was built in China is called Daya Bay and was built with Hong Kong money.

When China thinks about energy, it needs so much: 20 years ago, it didn’t have that much, but when a country is under the process of industrialization, it needs so much energy. People all remember brown outs in China’s past. China also didn’t put all its eggs in one basket; it didn’t say it’s only going to do nuclear power or only something else. Their thinking was that they need a lot of power and they need to be the energy leader worldwide. China has a lot of coal, and it can’t just say goodbye to it. Therefore, their thinking was, since China needs to be a leader in energy, it can be in the coal energy field. Questions arose on how to use coal more efficiently so that emissions decrease. That’s their aim. Secondly there is gas as transition fuel, since it can bring down emissions sooner. Renewable energy? China definitely needs it. China doesn’t want to give up on nuclear, so you can see, for China, we try everything since the need is great.

We can see now that China is going through a new phase where they are going to be more open about nuclear power. They understand that like France, they need people to feel safe, so they need to open up and have people come into the nuclear plants. In France, it’s interesting because 70 percent of the power comes from nuclear and they need to bring the community along to continue to support nuclear power. For Hong Kong, 23 percent of power comes from nuclear power, we are a nuclear city.

CJLPP: Two Democratic senators in the U.S. just proposed an “environmental justice” bill to give communities more power to sue companies for pollution. Do you think Hong Kong’s laws and regulations provide for enough environmental justice?

 Loh: In other parts of the world including Hong Kong, we don’t have the traditional system of publicly suing the government or businesses on a particular issue. Also, the issue of the language of environmental justice is not part of the legal discourse in places like Hong Kong. Therefore, I don’t see Hong Kong necessarily adopting the U.S. way of looking at things. This does not mean that if there’s a case, that a certain business or plant has caused harm, that there couldn’t be a legal case built.

Maybe it’s more useful to look at China: in the future, how would the Chinese government deal with cases where a certain area has been destroyed? If it’s a state-owned enterprise, there’s rectification costs and there is compensation given to people who were harmed. I think these places are different from the U.S. and they don’t necessarily have to follow the U.S. tradition. The U.S. system involves litigation to solve environmental issues, but this doesn’t mean other counties have the same method in solving such issues. A bi-cultural discuss of how one would solve these questions would be great.

CJLPP: What are your thoughts on international environmental agreements like the Paris Climate Accord? Do you think their success is dependent on support of large countries like the U.S.?

Loh: I think the Paris agreement is very successful since so many countries are willing to put their names on it. It is successful because it solves so many problems. It allows a bottom up approach that allows countries to say, “I’m willing to do this” and once a country is committed to this, it is allowed to sign up for what they think they can do. Allowing a lot of previous arguments about environmental justice, in a way, to be settled.

The gesture of countries willing to sign on seems to be that people are willing to abide by it. For example, in Hong Kong, we’re taking the agreement seriously since it requires Hong Kong to have reporting periods and it requires to review what Hong Kong said it’s going to do every five years in order to do more. So that means if you take Paris Agreement seriously, you report every five years and you need to put new stuff on the table. The idea of the Paris Agreement is that maybe people would then go faster and faster. We now have a transparent reporting process, so you need to report, and you need to say what the next step of fixing the environment is.

CJLPP: What advice would you give students who want to influence environmental policies? Which sector do you think will be the most effective for them to do that in? NGOs? Government?

Loh: The first thing I always say is that it doesn’t matter if you’re an undergraduate student or someone with a higher education level, focus on what you’re interested in. If you say you’re interested in some potential area, then understand the issue. If the issue is not understood, you will not be able to lead and think through it. When you think you’re onto something, the general test is to ask yourself how you want to change your own action. I do find that people who are more conscious and change their lifestyle and so on are more successful at influencing their environments.

Secondly, there are many ways for you to make a difference. You can do it directly, meaning you can go to graduate schools studying something related to environments and start from there to law, engineering and many different areas that have an environmental aspect to them. You could already be joining NGOs, think tanks, courses, and go on to listen to other people. Later in life, sometimes when you’re really busy with other things, do whatever you have to do to spend time on what you are interested in. If the environment is something that’s really interesting to you, you will always come back to it. The environment itself will be a hot topic in the future, but the angle from which you approach it, whether it’s law, technology, architecture, biology or another developmental area, can be very unique. While some may be more profitable, they all can have an impact. For example, even if you’re an artist, you can use your art to conceptualize things and help to articulate certain themes you’re interested in.

CJLPP: That is all the time we have. Thank you so much for your time and expertise.

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