Restructuring the Bureaucracy to Achieve Sustainable Development and Carbon Neutrality

Prof. Christine LOH, Chief Development Strategist, Institute for the Environment, HKUST
Ms. Olivia TO, Institute for the Environment, HKUST


The current Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region proposed a plan to restructure the government bureaucracy for consideration by the next administration that will begin its term on 1 July 2022. The proposed plan states it has been designed “to enhance the effectiveness of governance” and “meet social expectations”. The plan contains many useful ideas although it will be up to the new administration to decide whether to accept them. What needs to be discussed alongside the renaming and redistribution of responsibilities for efficiency is the crucial factor of how the bureaucracy will gel itself to work across Bureaux and Department as many issues are cross-disciplinary. This paper provides additional perspectives for the political establishment to consider as deliberation begins within the Legislative Council on the proposals.


Proposed guiding reference

The proposal sets out “principles” in considering the restructuring of Bureaux and Departments, the most important of which is that:

“it should complement the major policy work of the HKSAR in the foreseeable future, including the development of Hong Kong as centres/hubs in various sectors as supporting in the National 14th Five-Year Plan and livelihood issues of public concern such as housing and healthcare”.

The National 14th Five Year Plan envisages Hong Kong to serve as an international finance centre, transportation centre, trade centre, and centre for legal and dispute resolution services. The national plan supports Hong Kong to enhance, establish and develop four emerging centres – as an international aviation hub, an international innovation and technology centre, a regional intellectual property trading hub, as well as a hub for arts and cultural exchanges between China and the world. The national plan also includes a role for Hong Kong to develop a high-quality Greater Bay Area (GBA) together with Shenzhen, Guangdong, and Macao. The plan also calls upon the Hong Kong administration to solve livelihood issues, in particular providing housing and healthcare.

Under the current and proposed structure, the Chief Executive serves as the head of government, with three Secretaries – Chief Secretary, Financial Secretary, and Secretary of Justice – playing a supervisory role over their respective Bureaux and Departments. The challenge facing them is cooperating effectively, and it is especially important when transformation is required. Obvious areas of major change that affects not just Hong Kong, but the nation and the world is achieving carbon neutrality. This requires a total transformation of how society operates.


Achieving sustainable development, carbon neutrality & biodiversity

In considering the major policy work of the HKSAR in the foreseeable future, the achievement of sustainable development and carbon neutrality by 2050 needs to be seen as an overarching goal for other developments, including housing and healthcare, since they all involve the building, retrofitting, maintenance, and use of infrastructure. This is the case for existing and new housing, hospitals, courts, arts and cultural venues, and government offices. Hence, the design and construction of all types of facilities, including those dedicated for use for Hong Kong to serve as centres/hubs, such as sites for ‘I&T’ and reindustrialisation, must take carbon neutrality and long-term sustainability into consideration. Cross-boundary transport infrastructure, including vehicles, vessels, airport, and maritime facilities, must aim for carbon neutrality and sustainability too.

The national government is instituting massive changes to its industries and economy to become carbon neutral by 2060. Shenzhen and Guangdong are bound by this national target. Moreover, the national government also has massive nature conservation and biodiversity plans to implement because only by making ecosystems resilient could China stand a better chance to deal with the risks of a changing climate. Achieving carbon neutrality and biodiversity goals are the two sides of the same coin in the pursuit of ‘ecological civilization’ – a key development principle for the mainland. It is in Hong Kong’s interest to consider the national context in shaping its own policies and to dovetail with them since China’s efforts are among the largest and most significant in the world and will transform economies and lifestyles.


Aligning restructuring with goals

Hong Kong’s commitment to achieving sustainable development and carbon neutrality by 2050 should be an overarching goal for the government to guide thinking on restructuring the bureaucracy because it is through long-term policy prioritisation and alignment of responsibilities among Bureaux and Departments that the city can become carbon neutral and sustainable.

Moreover, to be successful as the centres/hubs for finance, transportation, trade, innovation and technology, intellectual property, and dispute resolution, an essential aspect is the international influence arising from countries implementing the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity. As such, Hong Kong’s political leadership needs to ensure the decisions made by Bureaux and Departments will help Hong Kong to be at the forefront of these issues, firstly, by using local infrastructure development and socio-economic activities to increase Hong Kong’s own capabilities and capacities to innovate, and secondly, to ensure its officers participate in relevant national, regional, and international institutions so that they are at the forefront of such matters.

Take the example of Hong Kong as an international finance centre, which includes playing a role in international asset management, risk management, and green finance. Firstly, Hong Kong’s own infrastructure development must be designed to achieve carbon neutrality, as well as in adapting to climate change. Sea level rise presents risks for all coastal cities and regions. Government is largely responsible for adaptation infrastructure, which affects property risk. As such, the Development Bureau, which is in charge of planning and infrastructure, has the responsibility for ensuring all design and construction standards reflect the latest science on extreme weather, including the anticipated rise in sea level, as well as consider how best to cooperate with Environment Bureau to plan for biodiversity. Development Bureau and all departments under its supervision should have climate change and biodiversity as their key working principle. It would be helpful for the restructuring proposal to make it clear to ensure desired outcomes.

The functions and power of Environment Bureau would be expanded to be in charge of the Hong Kong Observatory, Agriculture, Fisheries and Conversation Department and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, which would strengthen the co-operation between departments to oversee policies of driving climate action, promoting ecological conservation and enhancing waste management and recycling of city’s resources.

The revamped Environment and Ecology Bureau would need to work closely with Health Bureau since knowledge arising from severe weather-induced health risks for the population, such as heat strokes, and infectious diseases, rest with medical health professionals. The Health Bureau plays a role in policies on the provision of hospitals and health facilities, all of which should be designed or retrofitted for greater environmental performance, which requires in-put from the Environment and Ecology Bureau and Development Bureau.

The Chief Secretary and Financial Secretary have a direct interest in climate change and biodiversity, improving digital capabilities quickly, and also climate security that should involve Security Bureau. International and national financial regulations are evolving rules to include climate and sustainability risks assessments for companies that will affect their ability to raise capital. Digital competence needs to be interwoven into every aspect of government, business, and society to improve governance, city planning and infrastructure, environmental protection, health, industry, competitiveness, productivity, education, social communication and more. There are risks to be considered from climate change, such as food and water, as well as resilience against extreme weather disasters.

The better that Development Bureau, and the reconfigured Environment and Ecology Bureau, Transport and Logistic Bureau, and Financial Services and Treasury Bureau are able to push Hong Kong’s green and digital credentials, the better it is for the economy. Reindustrialisation requires the green-low-and-zero-carbon and digital components to be strong, which will necessarily involve both the Innovation, Technology and Industry Bureau and Commerce and Economic Development Bureau.

Beyond infrastructure, the mainland is developing increasingly sophisticated ways to manage carbon, such as using trading mechanisms, as well as trialling new methods of accounting for its economy with green GDP. For Hong Kong to be a future-forward finance centre, Bureaux and Departments can no longer ignore such developments on the mainland and internationally. Without clear top-level direction from the Chief Executive, Chief Secretary and Financial Secretary for cross-disciplinary cooperation, these new and challenging endeavours will continue to fall between bureaucratic gaps.

Likewise, the mainland is slated to pass climate legislation – a topic Hong Kong has yet to focus on. The Secretary for Justice should give this matter consideration as to what Hong Kong may need. Beyond considering an overarching climate law for Hong Kong to achieve carbon neutrality, legal services must step-up to expand its competence in the relevant areas noted above.


Northern Metropolis

The Northern Metropolis connects with Shenzhen, thus there are opportunities for the whole GBA to plan for clean energy, carbon neutrality, rich biodiversity, and resilient to severe weather and sea level rise, which are also relevant to reindustrialization in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s industry will have to adopt ‘circular economy’ in production, since larger scale manufacturing will be done on the mainland side, and circular economy is now a national policy direction. Policies should also assist businesses to be more competitive through being low carbon and digitally advanced, which will in turn attract international investment into the Hong Kong economy and attract global talent. Buildings, including housing, must be green and designed to help lower city heat, which will reduce health risks to the aging population. Indeed, buildings that are designed with environmental, climate change, and biodiversity in mind will help to improve human and ecological health (such as through cleaner indoor air quality, better ventilation, lower noise, better temperature and light control, reduce water wastage, maximise recycling of waste, appropriate landscaping etc).

To take onboard the proposed new government structure, a new post of the Deputy Secretary of Department would be created to enhance the high-level coordination of large scale regional development plans, including the Northern Metropolis. This role would be critical for working closely with the Shenzhen Municipal Government to take the plans forward, as well as providing steer across bureaux and departments with a view to achieve better results on land and housing supply.

Deliberation along multiple fronts can help Hong Kong see more clearly what it needs to do, as it requires going from ideas to solid plans. The Northern Metropolis provides an excellent opportunity for Hong Kong to consider its climate change and biodiversity policies and goals alongside how to pursue I&T and reindustrialisation, use green and sustainable finance to fund infrastructure, as well as revamping of the bureaucracy to deliver integrated, multidisciplinary outcomes through aligning responsibilities.

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