Environmental justice has gained momentum in recent months across the globe. In January, the Biden-Harris Administration announced that its climate plan would focus on environmental justice, committing to develop policies to address the disproportionate health, economic, and environmental impacts of climate change on disadvantaged communities. More recently at the end of March, the UN Environmental Programme released a report on the ‘Environmental Justice Impacts of Plastic Pollution’, demonstrating how vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by plastic pollution, from the displacement of indigenous peoples to conduct oil drilling to make plastics, to the occupation risks faced by plastic waste pickers in India. COVID-19 has highlighted that low-income and minority communities are more vulnerable to environmental hazards; analysis by the New Policy Institute in the UK found that the five most crowded areas, primarily occupied by poor homeowners living in small houses, had a 70% higher rate of coronavirus cases than the five least crowded areas. All this buzz around environmental justice prompts us to ask: What exactly is environmental justice and where did the movement originate? And perhaps most pertinently, what does environmental justice mean for Hong Kong?
Defining Environmental Justice
Environmental justice is a response to environmental racism, which refers to the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on low-income and minority communities. The environmental justice movement demands the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws and policies, regardless of race, colour, national origin or income. It aspires for everyone to enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards.
The reality is that lower-wealth, minority, communities of colour often face environmental racism and injustice, which is linked to a long and oppressive history of racial discrimination, colonialism, and slavery. In the US, Jim Crow laws and redlining – the systematic denial of mortgages and loans to people of colour – have prevented Black communities from purchasing property in specific neighbourhoods, leading to housing segregation and economic disinvestment in certain areas. These communities continue to lack the political and economic power to prevent environmental degradation – for instance, the placement of a new hazardous waste facility or dumpsite – in their backyards, becoming what Sacoby Wilson, an environmental health scientist at the University of Maryland calls ‘sacrifice zones’ and ‘dumping grounds’ for polluting facilities.
Origins of the Environmental Justice Movement
The racist distribution of environmental hazards led to the birth of the environmental justice movement in 1982, when protests erupted in Warren County – a predominantly Black community in North Carolina – over a plan to place a hazardous waste landfill for contaminated soil in their community. Despite a massive protest staged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where more than 500 protesters were arrested, toxic waste was eventually deposited in the Warren County landfill. The Warren County protests ignited a spark in poor, minority communities across the US to create community groups to fight for environmental justice. It also served as an impetus for a number of studies on environmental racism, including the Toxic Waste and Race study, conducted in 1987 by the United Church of Christ, which found that race was the most significant factor in siting hazardous waste facilities.
The Federal Government eventually responded in 1992, when President Bush Sr. established the Environmental Equity Working Group and initiated meetings on environmental justice with community leaders. In 1994, President Clinton issued an executive order calling all government agencies to include environmental justice in their decision-making. More recently in the Biden-Harris administration, environmental justice has been revived, with a recent proposal of a $1.4 billion environmental justice investment in President Biden’s 2022 budget plan, which includes the creation of an Accelerating Environmental and Economic Justice initiative within the Environmental Protection Agency and a community air quality monitoring program. This is in addition to Biden’s $2 Trillion ‘American Jobs’ Infrastructure Plan, which also contains significant environmental justice provisions, including upgrading indoor air quality and ventilation in public schools and creating jobs to conserve public lands and waters in historically underserved communities.
Despite environmental justice’s compelling history and rhetoric, Paul Mohai, environmental justice expert at the University of Michigan, questions whether environmental justice policies can be anything more than ‘window dressing’, seeing as – at least in the US – no policies have produced measurable changes on the ground. However, environmental justice continues to be important, not least because it acknowledges the racist origins and impacts of climate change that are so often forgotten, but also because it recognises that the right to a safe environment is a fundamental human right that should be guaranteed for all people.
What Does Environmental Justice Mean for Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is no different from the US or UK when it comes to environmental injustice; low-income communities – including ethnic minority communities – are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards. A study conducted in 2018 by a team of University of Hong Kong (HKU) researchers found that social deprivation is positively correlated with poor air quality and higher-than-average air pollution levels, leading to higher death rates from pollution. Since 2015, excessive lead has been found in water in 11 public housing estates around Hong Kong, in Sham Shui Po, Ngau Tau Kok, and Shep Kip Mei among others. Certain poorer districts like Tuen Mun are also more susceptible to offensive facilities like landfills, with the Environmental Bureau proposing to extend the landfill in Tuen Mun in 2013, because residents were perceived to be less enraged than their Tseung Kwan O counterparts.
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Coal mine railway in Sandoaling, China (Image by: Flickr)
The Government has taken action to address these problems. To ensure water safety, the Government implemented the Action Plan for Enhancing Drinking Water Safety in Hong Kong, which randomly samples drinking taps to monitor for metals. However, Hong Kong’s waste problem remains largely unsolved: The Government has added 13 new hectares of land to one of three landfills in Tseung Kwan O and is actively pushing forward proposals to expand the Tuen Mun landfill as well.
As such, environmental justice is ever as important for Hong Kong – a city already well-known for its vast and gaping inequality. One potential solution proposed in the 2018 HKU study is to engage socially deprived communities in environmental efforts, like air pollution monitoring or tree-planting. This grassroots mobilisation could empower communities to equip themselves with knowledge about environmental degradation and build their capacity to solve environmental problems. A good example of a successful community-based project is the Clean Air Neighborhood Project, initiated by the Clean Air Network (CAN) in partnership with the Institute for the Environment of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. CAN worked with students from the Church of Christ in China Tam Lee Lai Fun Memorial Secondary School in Tuen Mun to identify air pollution problems within a 1.5km radius of the school, building the students’ environmental and scientific skills, while identifying air pollution hot-spots. At the same time, the Hong Kong government could place a greater focus on environmental justice in its policy-making – ensuring that poor communities do not become ‘sacrifice zones’ for environmental waste in the future.
Environmental justice is something that we can all participate in – from educating ourselves about the links between structural racism and the environmental burdens faced by underprivileged communities, to asking whether new proposed environmental policies are equitable and uphold everyone’s right to a safe environment. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and consider what a ‘green recovery’ looks like, we have an opportunity to recenter environmental justice in our daily conversations and our advocacy to ensure that environmental policies benefit low-income communities and repair any disproportionate harms that they face.