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A man for all reasons: Meet sustainability advocate Merrin Pearse

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Sustainability advocate Merrin Pearse continues to fight the good fight for Lantau’s green soul. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

Dr Merrin Pearse is sitting at Caffe Paradiso near Mui Wo’s ferry pier. It’s just like Merrin to opt for the more neighbourhood-friendly independent café than the noisier pub around the corner. He’s been a regular long enough to have a chat with the owner, who at one point abandons the counter for a few quiet minutes on an errand. It’s okay. Merrin is here to play Batman in the event someone decides not to leave a few bucks on said counter for a muffin.

Not to be flip, but Merrin is doing a fine job of being something of an urban vigilante for Hong Kong sustainability – without the billions of dollars and secret lair full of gadgets. Now in Hong Kong for 10 years and on the verge of permanent residency, the native New Zealander is juggling work at his own corporate consultant advisory, Coordinate4u (focused on environmental sustainability), with community-based groups doing much the same thing.

Merrin’s the new chair of the Living Islands Movement (LIM), an RTHK regular on Morning Brew, and was recently asked to join the reviled Lantau Development Advisory Committee (LanDAC) sustainability committee. The LIM gig was fortuitous: “One of those things where the previous chair had been four years in the role and was looking for a change,” says Merrin, admitting he’s at his best flitting around Lantau between village chiefs and district councillors.

“Connecting sectors of the community is what I like to do and I’m glad to help with. ‘It sounds like it has a plant or an animal involved, Merrin must know about that,’” he cracks. “It’s that connector hub space that I enjoy being a part of, being more involved with a wide range of discussions makes life fun and enjoyable.”

Faced by bureaucratic deafness

Good thing too, because things are getting busy on Hong Kong’s sustainability front. There’s a shiny new chief executive on the scene – Carrie Lam, formerly Secretary for Development and so possibly chummy with developers – and a string of public policy and works failures (the triumph of the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator, a toothless and vision-free Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (BSAP). Add to this list the seeming full-steam-ahead nature of the Tung Chung Central Business District development and it’s clear that the SAR’s policy-makers are giving Merrin and his activist peers more work as time moves forward, not less.

Take for example that BSAP the government is so pleased with itself for, as well as its big 2030+ plan. Merrin points out that over 100 experts in various fields, from business to community to academia, contributed to the BSAP and every single one of their ideas was rejected. (The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department did not respond to requests for comment.) “2030+ isn’t a visionary document. It just says we’re going to pour concrete,” Merrin says, adding that one of the biggest struggles the city faces right now is a lack of communication. (The Development Bureau did not respond to requests for comment.)

Merrin isn’t alone with his frustration over bureaucratic deafness and a seeming inability to court community input. An allegedly public consultation in March was devoid of green groups’ input because no one hosting the consultation – the government – bothered to notify them. “Asia’s World City,” Merrin says with an eye-roll. “Have you not heard of the telephone to ring up just one of the groups? How about email?”

It’s that kind of neglect, or disregard, that keeps LIM and others on their toes, and even though they can’t stop things like the Home Ownership Scheme project in Mui Wo (700 homes will be built), the argument is that they should at least be invited to offer insight.

Of the Mui Wo project, Merrin says: “It’s no different to anything that’s been built anywhere in Hong Kong in the last 30 or 40 years. We went to the Town Planning Board at the approval stage with a couple of issues, and of all the really different schemes we suggested – about waste management, efficiency, community gardens, anything – the only thing they asked about was the idea for low-energy LED-type lighting that could have been turned on at night. The project was approved. Nothing changed. And this is the Town Planning Board.” Merrin’s only response is a disbelieving shake of the head.

Upcoming policy tussles

It’s easy to harp on the negative, but Merrin is happy to point out even baby steps in the right direction. “The Hong Kong Stock Exchange is asking companies to comply with or explain more of their environmental, social and governance activities as part of the listing requirements, so that’s a good thing,” he begins. China dragged Hong Kong into the Convention of Biological Diversity, with which compliance is not an option, and a recent meeting with the MTR Corporation indicated one of the city’s biggest developers is taking a long view of sustainability. With this, Merrin has gone “from being the outside advocate to sitting around the table, where you get to put ideas into conversations”.

And as contentious as the whole thing remains, Merrin was pleased with 2014’s Umbrella Revolution, which most of us forget went beyond left-right politics to address a raft of issues facing Hong Kong. “It showed the level of interest in sustainability, and creativity among young people – interest in being involved and understanding the issues. What other protest movement in the world offered recycling? It also showed what city living could mean with sensible transport and not using cars. The city didn’t stop working. The MTR was full, but it worked,” Merrin concedes with a knowing laugh.

In the immediate future, potential policy tussles will be over the power scheme, which is up for renegotiation, and waste disposal and management charging. Both are likely to cause consumer uproar but both desperately need reform. As with many poor habits that could be policed out of existence (remember when SARS practically killed spitting on the street?) laws to protect the environment are on the books.

“The issue here, now, is enforcement of laws and some strengthening of laws to protect the environment,” says Merrin. The idling vehicle law sees few penalties actually doled out, “and the plastic bag levy goes to the shopkeeper – it’s not being channelled into environmental projects or waste management”. Goals higher than 1% of electricity from renewables (with real consumer incentives) and fines for grave sweeping-based fires are useless if “people don’t see consequences for doing damage to the environment”.

LIM’s plans for the next year were set down at its last AGM, and many of the same issues remain: the incinerator fight goes on, as does the battle for the water around Tung Chung. Too many of us would argue you can’t fight city hall, but Merrin remains optimistic.

“If you’re interested in trying to understand what’s going on, and want to share ideas about keeping South Lantau what it is – whether you live here or not – sign up to LIM,” he pitches shamelessly, because bungling Hong Kong’s ‘living city’ status has to stop. “Now’s always the right time to change and learn from our past mistakes.”


• Living Islands Movement, www.livingislands.org.hk

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