09/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hong Kong Journal

This is my second dispatch from Hong Kong, where I am helping City University of Hong Kong develop a new Energy and Environment program. Hong Kong is known as a place plagued by pollution. That may be true, but the times they may be a changing. ...

Hong Kong is a city of contradictions. Its distinct western sensibility is a result of a century and a half of British influence, but its deep roots in Chinese traditions show it's a vital part of the People's Republic of China. Hong Kong is set in a magnificent landscape -- the view out my hotel window reveals a harbor with boats moving to and fro and sharply peaked mountains beyond. But the landscape is marred by air and water pollution -- obscuring my view is billowing black smoke from a ferry chugging between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

Hong Kong is one of the world's great megacities. It consists of more than 250 islands clustered at the Pearl River's mouth to the south of mainland China. Most of the 7 million people live on Kowloon, Lanteau, and Hong Kong Island, as well as the New Territories, leaving most of Hong Kong sparsely populated and quite rural. Its islands are replete with lush mountainous forests and spectacular views.

Hong Kong has its share of urban pollution problems, but the citizens have made a strong commitment to reclaiming their environment through strong partnerships between the local government and business community. For example, to improve air quality they have converted all their taxicabs to compressed natural gas; for improving water quality, they now treat all sewage before it empties into Victoria Harbor and the South China Sea.

Dealing with 'Imported Pollution'

But Hong Kong has a long way to go -- in part because of what the Hong Kong people refer to as "imported pollution."

To the north of Hong Kong are Guandong Province and the Peal River Delta (PRD). The PRD is the globe's most rapidly developing region with an estimated 80,000 factories, none of which reportedly meet even minimal environmental standards. Air and water pollution from these factories flows and blows down the Pearl River and, depending upon conditions, can have a huge impact on Hong Kong's environment.

For many years Hong Kong would simply point at this pollution and claim that the resultant environmental problems were insoluble since the factories were outside its jurisdiction. End of story, end of environmental progress. But Hong Kong's government officials and businessmen have arrived at a new paradigm -- one that will make environmental progress possible for both Hong Kong and the PRD, whose economies are intertwined. Many PRD factories are financed by Hong Kong investors and many of the goods produced there go through Hong Kong's harbor en route to the global economy. In a sense both the goods and pollution are shared.

Hong Kong's government and businesses have begun working with the PRD to clean up the factories -- largely through efficiency measures and effective pollution controls. An interesting example is the Federation of Hong Kong Industries' "one-one-one" program. The idea is to get each factory to undertake one project to improve its environmental performance in one year. Acceptable projects range from energy conservation and reducing air emissions to waste discharge reduction and green management. For me the really interesting aspect of this is that it is a private-sector initiative.

Cleaning up your environment is great. Recognizing that the global economy links us all together, thereby making us all responsible to some extent for each other's pollution, and then acting on that recognition -- that is truly remarkable. Something to keep in mind the next time you hear some politician complaining about China's pollution and why we can't act on climate change without the Chinese matching our actions step for step. As long as we continue buying their products as fast as they can produce them, their pollution is our pollution.

Dr. Bill Chameides is the dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. He blogs regularly at