Don’t just protest; act

December 1st, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, Food | No Comments »

The climate change counter on this blog started, if I remember correctly, with more than 80 months before it’d be too late to do something to save the earth. Now it’s down to 12 months.

So, will they strike a meaningful deal in Paris this week? Don’t hold your hopes up. For as long as the big corporations that profit from globalisation hold sway while paying lip service to climate change, the planet will go to the dogs. For as long as we buy the argument that the world economy is more important than the planet, and that stimulating consumption is the only way to revive the economy, the planet will go to the dogs.

If we truly care about climate change, if we really want those who are still kids today to enjoy a beautiful countryside that changes with the seasons, clement weather that doesn’t flood, blow away or bury homes, and a decent, healthy and secure life, then we ourselves must take action. The most important things we can do are:

  • Eat less meat. Livestock generate huge amounts of emissions and take up huge amounts of land that can be used to grow food to feed many more people instead.
  • Travel less. Aviation emissions are particularly bad because of the altitude at which they are generated. Anyway, do you really want to go through increasingly tiresome airport security and delays, for the privilege of taking pictures at tourist sights that do not remotely reflect the way locals really live?
  • Spend less. Retail therapy is not really therapy; you end up more stressed staring at the credit card bill and wondering whether to rent a mini-warehouse to put all your stuff, and whether to throw a lot of it into the landfill.

These are not sacrifices; these are ways towards a healthier, less stressful life. And it also helps the planet. Time to act.

Trees have no money or lobbying power

November 11th, 2015 atam Posted in Building, Earth, General | No Comments »

Listening to ex-Hong Kong CE Tung Chee-hwa talk about how sad he was to hear about a family having to pay HK$3 million for a 170-square feet flat and his think tank’s idea of chopping down trees to provide enough land to build housing for everyone, a tree may groan.

“Sigh, I clean the polluted air and provide a home for different species of animals that keep the environment healthy. My roots hold the soil together so it doesn’t slide away when there’s heavy rail, and I help filter the rain so what goes into the reservoirs is fairly clean. And yet, all Hong Kong people can think of is cut me down.”

The tree may have added that, right next to the country park where it stands, a sprawling village has just sprawled further with new three-storey village houses built to be sold to outsiders for a profit, or former farmland deliberately ruined as the owner awaits the knock of a developer. The tree may have one or two NGOs with no official position and zero financial clout arguing on its behalf, but they’re hardly a match for the wealth and power of village chiefs, which have successfully put a stop to all conversation about the unsustainable small house policy. So while there’s endless talk of a shortage of land to meet Hong Kong’s housing needs, no one dare suggest the land’s right there, occupied by three-storey high village houses rather than the 50-storey high housing estates that could accommodate thousands more people.

There are villages where the occupants genuinely care about maintaining their rural way of life, but those who have clamoured against any encroachment on their turf are doing so purely for profit. So while their chiefs rub shoulders with the high and mighty, the poor trees can only sigh and hope for the best. After all, the way things are going, climate change may claim them if the chairsaw doesn’t, right?

Signs of age

September 11th, 2015 atam Posted in General | No Comments »

Ever wonder how a sufferer of Parkinson’s disease would cope with a smartphone? How long would it take for the sufferer to hit the right virtual buttons and successfully make a call?

Tremors are not restricted to those with Parkinson’s disease; many elderly people suffer tremors too. Even the perfectly healthy ones with a pair of steady hands often don’t know what to do with a smartphone.

Sitting at a table with friends who have elderly parents or grandparents, I heard so many tales of frustration that were amusing to us, but not at all amusing to the old people who have to put up with them. One recalled his mother gleefully replying to Whatsapp messages – without realising that they were never actually sent. Another realised why he’d been having difficulty contacting his parents after giving his mother a smartphone, when he watched her attempt to answer a call but not quite getting which virtual button to press, despite his having explained it all to her before. I once saw an elderly gentleman, stopping in the middle of his morning exercise to pull out an iPhone to make a call, then fumbling in his breast pocket for slips of paper with the names and numbers of those he wanted to call.

Aware of these pitfalls, I hunted high and low for a mobile suitable for my own aged parent, with no luck. The one and only model ever available in Hong Kong, provided by the social services to the elderly in need, was discontinued a few years ago. There are several good models available on the internet, but as they would have to be shipped from Europe or the US, they’re only available in English/Russian or English/Spanish only. That left just one option, the iNo Mobile Simple 3G from Singapore, which comes with English/Malay/simplified Chinese. Why do I have to go to such lengths to find a mobile for the elderly? Because they’re designed with the elderly’s needs in mind: big, actual buttons, a torch, an SOS button at the back and high volume for the hard of hearing.

Isn’t it funny that a place that’s constantly fretting over its ageing population should offer so little to an ever-growing demographic? The assistants in every phone shop shook their heads with disdain when I approached about a mobile with good old actual buttons; they wanted to make big money selling expensive smartphones, not cheap basic phones for the elderly. Whilst Japan has long spotted the business opportunities offered by ageing customers, in Hong Kong they’re still considered nothing more than an inconvenience, it seems.

Oh, if you have an elderly parent, hold off giving the iNo Mobile Simple 3G a try: it’s already broken down, after barely ten days’ use.

What’s Hong Kong’s transport policy?

August 25th, 2015 atam Posted in General | No Comments »

When I first heard about Google’s driverless car, my heart sank: here was another example of the way technology was writing mankind out of a meaningful future. From a human behaviour point of view, it was a good idea to invent a car that would make road rage impossible; sensors would ensure the driverless vehicles maintain a safe distance from other cars. Considering people’s attachment to their own motor pods have much to do with their being able to drive their own ‘baby’, driverless vehicle could possibly also put them off the auto obsession and make public transport more attractive.

But what about the commercial drivers who rely on taking goods and passengers from A to B to make a living? Driveless vehicles would make them redundant. In an overpopulated world, isn’t it ridiculous to introduce a technology that removes an employment opportunity just when there are more and more people looking for jobs?

However, this doesn’t apply to Hong Kong. Forget about the taxi vs Uber debate; let’s have a fleet of electrically-powered, driverless taxis ASAP. No cheating, no speeding, no roadside pollution, no prolonged queueing during shift changes. People can simply log a call and the nearest available taxi will be automatically assigned to pick them up.

All the commercial establishments, from printers to food suppliers who are now short of drivers to deliver their products because the filthy rich are paying them top dollars to be their chauffeurs will then be able recruit the younger members of the taxi trade. Meanwhile, the older drivers who now have passengers fearing for their health and eyesight can switch to safer occupations as building caretakers or restaurant staff. Unemployment may be a concern in many places, but here in Hong Kong, the job market is so tight many a construction worker is well over 50 and still in high demand.

If the taxi fleet is automated, the roads will be much clearer because there won’t be empty taxis constantly cruising for customers, wasting loads of energy in the process. The current problem, of course, is not so much a new service competing against the taxi trade, but the government’s unwillingness to lose the support of the many cast-iron votes it gets from the taxi component of the transport constituency.

Hong Kong has no sensible transport policy because it is under the pressure of cast-iron votes to protect their interests. Hence the construction of more new roads and the failure to introduce electronic road pricing. The push to extend the MTR network is all well and good, but officials who are chauffeured around town have no idea of the human congestion on MTR trains and don’t appreciate urban planning that will disperse employment opportunities so half the population aren’t jammed in train carriages at peak hours heading in the same direction.

If there were a sensible transport policy, there wouldn’t be any need to fret over spending billions of dollars to build an underground car park at West Kowloon Cultural District. Instead, we have a former government planner who thinks it’s better to scrap the low-carbon trams so more space would be available for gas-guzzling, polluting cars.

Said planner now heads a ‘think tank’. What does that say about Hong Kong?

The assault on trees

August 11th, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, General | No Comments »

Have you ever seen trees walk? No, not like those in “Lord of the Rings”, wading through a flood, but real ones that, over years, even decades, grow new branches and drop new roots into the ground.

I’ve seen one such, on a slope. Over time it has ‘walked’ as it grows, supporting new branches with new roots so no typhoon can topple it. Whenever its branches overhangs nearby buildings, they get trimmed off, so over time it has learned which way it can ‘walk’, and has kept within the slope. The authorities did a good job here, using wire mesh and retaining walls to stabilise the slope without strangling the trees, so now the trees help stabilise the slope with their roots too.

Many of Hong Kong’s oldest retaining walls would have collapsed long ago but for the extensive roots of old trees holding them together. Now the West Island Line’s open, go take a look at the one on Forbes Street in Kennedy Town. Or the one in …. oh, I’d better not tell you where the others are in case the government’s ‘Tree Management Office’ takes a saw to them as well. RIP, Sai Ying Pun tree wall.

The safety of pedestrians is important, yes, but does that justify chopping down trees whose stability has been compromised by a comprehensive failure to take them into account in a city’s development? At a time when the urban heat island effect has exacerbated climate change to such an extent that Hong Kong experienced the hottest day in 130 years, we can ill afford the callous approach towards ‘tree management’, which, basically, is to chop down any tree that might give the government bad press should they topple during bouts of heavy rain or a typhoon.

Trim them, fine, but how ’bout allowing them room to grow healthily too? What’s the point of all the so-called greening when saplings are literally imprisoned in railings over tiny patches of soil? Go take a look at the pavement outside the Jockey Club’s headquarters on Morrison Hill Road (considering the power that institution wields, maybe those trees are safe). Yes, they’re confined to their little holes, but they’ve also been allowed to grow under the brick pavement, which has now become wavy terrain as the roots push up from underneath. Those trees are now providing healthy cover for passers-by.

You can have concrete solutions to clearing heavy rain, by shotcreting slopes and diverting runoff into huge drainage tunnels, but these solutions don’t give you the oxygen this city badly needs.

Ah, but why all this moaning? Perhaps the latest episode of tree slaughter is just a warning from the government: criticise us for letting trees topple in heavy rain, and we’ll chop them all down to shut you up.

Quote of the day

August 3rd, 2015 atam Posted in Quote of the day | No Comments »

“The Leisure and Cultural Services Department has no culture.”

Michael Lynch
Departing CE of West Kowloon Cultural District

Paying the price for a concrete jungle

July 23rd, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth | No Comments »

Remember the days when the government simply sprayed shotcrete over dangerous slopes to prevent them from collapsing?

I even remember an interlude, after one too many protests over the ugly grey shotcrete all over what are supposed to be green areas, they started adding purple to their shotcrete mix. At least, that must have been what happened given the interesting colour scheme of some slopes that were repaired during that time.

And then, finally, the government moved on. They started to invest in more aesthetically pleasing and plant-friendly methods of slope stabilisation, building retaining walls with planters and using wire meshes along with soil nails to hold up slopes so roots can still breathe.

Alas, the damage has been done. Over the years that the government had shotcreted slopes, they were also aggressively strangling the trees, ostensibly spraying the shotcrete around them but leaving rings so small that tree trunks can’t grow and roots can’t get the nutrients they need. Now, after years of struggling on limited nutrients, some trees just don’t have the strength to withstand storms anymore.

But what does the government do when another tree falls and injures people? Blame the rain.

Guess what the Saudis are doing?

June 29th, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, Peak oil | No Comments »

What do we know – they’re building solar farms! The Saudis are apparently thinking ahead, fretting over rising oil consumption in Saudi Arabia and how they can continue making money out of the precious commodity.

Because oil is so heavily subsidised in the kingdom, if most of what they extract from their land has to go towards meeting rising Saudi demand, there may come a day when they run of oil to sell and sufficient money in reserve to continue sparing their people taxes and provide all welfare infrastructure at no cost to users. This, of course, will not do; just imagine the social upheaval arising from people used to getting so much for free suddenly losing all that privilege.

So, better make use of the ample sun in the Arabian desert to generate electricity and save the oil. Nobody knows how much reserve Saudi Arabia has really got, so this could mean they’re running out and looking to build a solar panel industry of their own to provide future income, or simply that they want to be able to continue to dictate oil prices by controlling their output.

They’re not worried about climate change, oh no, but if the world moves forward quickly and switches away from fossil fuels in time to avert catastrophe, then the Saudis can keep what they’ve got left in the ground forever.

Let’s hope so.

Revisiting the scheme of control

May 29th, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth | No Comments »

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the government is considering cutting the annual rate of return the two power companies get.

Haven’t we been there before? The rate of return is based on the amount of capital assets the two companies have and has always been the incentive for them to develop new power plants and related facilities. Cut their rate of return and you give them an incentive to expand their asset base, although this time they may propose to build massive wind farms or something like that instead of more traditional power plants.

Why not let them keep the current rate of return but find other, better ways to power a greener city? Suppose people are given incentives to use renewable energy? The government’s stance has always been that Hong Kong has very limited renewable energy potential, but given the rising cost of electricity, surely small tweaks to the regulatory regime will be enough to spur people into exploring cheaper renewable options? Just imagine cladding all the roofs at the Fairview Park estate in Yuen Long with solar panels. Or having biofuel plants like the one in the Zero Carbon Building, in all buildings. How ’bout putting solar panels on all the noise enclosures on highways? If the stormwater drainage tunnels were equipped with turbines, the recent episodes of black rain and red rain could supply a nice bit of electricity for us as well as divert stormwater from low-lying areas.

Why is it that distributed renewable energy gets such short shrift in Hong Kong?

HK$78 million a minute

May 29th, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth | No Comments »

This is not the rate some top lawyer or banker charges for their services, but the amount in subsidy given to the fossil fuel industry.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), no less, has estimated that the fossil fuel industry receives US$5.3 trillion in subsidies a year, a sum larger than the total health spending of the whole world. The financial types worked out the sum by including what good old economists consider ‘externalities’, by including the cost incurred by people affected by bad air and severe weather caused by climate change. They also estimated that cutting these subsidies would cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 20%.

Now we know how we could maybe keep global warming to within 2ºC. The US$120 billion the renewable energy industry gets in subsidy pales in comparison, but if the hefty subsidy given to the fossil fuel industry is withdrawn, then the renewable industry will become competitive without any subsidy at all.

The IMF estimates are being released as Shell prepares to drill for oil in the Arctic. You see, fossil fuel companies are powerful and rich enough to spend any amount to lobby in their own interests, to hell with the planet. Until this type of lobbying is stopped throughout the world, there is little chance future generations will have a habitable planet.