A fast fast

April 14th, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, Culture, General | No Comments »

How often are charitable campaigns just opportunities for us to feel good about ourselves rather than genuinely helping others?

World Vision just concluded a successful fundraising at Aberdeen sports ground, where about 2,000 took part in a 30-hour fast to raise funds and awareness of poverty.

Apparently a mother found the idea so meaningful she drove her son all the way from Guangzhou to take part. When she’s not happily feeling smug about having made a contribution, perhaps she can reflect on the practical good she could have done by simply not making the trip, thereby saving a significant amount of carbon emissions from burning non-renewable fossil fuels. And how many people will they be able to feed if they simply sell the car and give that money to the poor?

Climate change spares no one

April 3rd, 2014 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, General | No Comments »

Well, there may have been flooding and storms around the world, but climate change barely rated a mention in Hong Kong’s press until a once-in-200-years rainstorm drenched Festival Walk.

Did you, for example, hear much about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report when it was released last September? No? Funny how the papers are suddenly carrying IPCC’s warning about the threat imposed by climate change on people and livelihoods.

The deluge that brought not just heavy rain but hailstones on Sunday March 30 occurred in the wake of the completion of three stormwater drainage systems across Hong Kong. At the time they were under construction, a query was raised as to why they were designed to cope with once-in-50-years storms when once-in-100-years storms could become a common occurrence in the future. Lo and behold, global warming has gathered such pace that a once-in-200-years storm caught not a few people by surprise. Now even the finance secretary is talking about climate change in the context of the need to build a desalination plant in Hong Kong.

It seems that whenever there’s a problem in this city, whether it’s economic, social or environmental, the preferred solution is always to throw money on building more hardware. Economic development means building hotels and theme parks for tourists. Social problems are to be addressed by building more flats and hospitals. Environmental problems? Expand the landfills, build a desalination plant.

When will the authorities wake up to the need to focus on the software? The economy cannot thrive without creative people with a wide range of skills, not low-paid tour guides and waiters. Social issues cannot be solved if doctors and nurses are not treated better and flats continue to be regarded as speculative investments. And we certainly won’t solve the problems of waste and water shortage without people learning to change their habits.

It’s funny how people moan about their flights being stuck due to bad weather. Nobody ever clicks that all that flying around is part of the problem in the first place. According to WWF’s ecological footprint report 2010, “air travel accounted for nearly 55% of the average annual carbon emissions for nearly 6,000 people who used WWF’s carbon calculator”. Someone I know who conscientiously cut the plastic windows out of envelopes before setting the paper portion aside for recycling is scornful of those who waste food, even those who doggy-bag food they can’t finish at restaurants because usually the plastic or styrofoam containers get thrown away afterwards. But next thing you know, he’s off to the Galapagos or Machu Picchu.

Has it occurred to anyone that all tourists are ‘locusts’, to borrow a touchy term that’s been adopted to criticise mainland visitors to Hong Kong? It’s not just the aviation emissions they produce. Think of any once-pristine place that becomes swarmed with tourists, places that don’t just lose their natural beauty but also the integrity of their people. What was Phuket like before it became what it is today? Bali? Does being bussed around tourist spots or being forced to go shopping help anyone understand anything about the foreign lands they visit? Does selling silly souvenirs or working as tour guides develop a people’s potential?

Imagine the amount of carbon emissions that can be saved if people learn to savour life right where they are rather than always yearn to go somewhere exotic. Imagine the amount that can be saved this way rather than just switching off the lights and recycling envelopes.

Supporting the wealth gap

March 29th, 2014 atam Posted in Building, General, Peak oil | 1 Comment »

One rule for the rich, another rule for the poor, and that’s official.

The Planning Department has apparently revised the rules regarding parking spaces to permit housing projects with larger flats to provide more car park spaces while those with smaller flats will have the number of parking spaces reduced.

While it makes total sense for flats located close to the MTR to not have any parking space at all, does it make sense for larger flats that only the rich can afford to be allocated more parking spaces? Hong Kong’s excellent public transport system is such that, even if one’s living in posh districts like the south side of Hong Kong Island, one’s bound to find a combination of buses and minibuses providing a reliable and regular service, in addition to a plethora of private shutter bus services set up to serve various residential complexes. But of course, the well-off can’t be expected to take public transport; they must drive their fast cars or be driven around town by their chauffeurs.

Does Hong Kong have a problem finding sites for more housing? Well, why is precious space being allocated to cars then, especially when car parks are so often exploited to push up the height of buildings, the better to capture whatever view there is, natural ventilation be damned?

Motorists are complaining about a lack of parking spaces and the number of parking tickets they get. If they’re to give up motoring, they’d save a chunk of money maintaining their cars and paying fines while Hong Kong’s roads will be that much less polluted and less congested. The funny thing is, while car ownership has been increasing, only a fraction of licensed vehicles are on the road at any one time. Some people actually do use other forms of transport during the week, taking the car out only at weekends. So for much of the time, these cars just hog space that could house people instead.

There’s a vision for a smart city in which driverless vehicles can be stacked away in automated high-rise garages and sent out to serve people on demand. Rather than stand idle for much of the time, they can be reassigned to serve other families once existing requests have been fulfilled. This way, a much smaller number of vehicles can serve far more families without imposing undue demand on parking spaces.

It sounds good, but when people are encouraged to treat cars as an aspirational item with even the parking spaces elevated to the status of a commodity, such a pragmatic and more environmentally friendly approach is hardly likely to gain traction.

Applause broke out during the Finance Secretary’s budget speech, when the motoring lobby discovered that Mr Tsang would not be raising the first registration tax. Did the Transport and Housing and Environment Bureaus provide any input?

Spinning energy options

March 21st, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth | 2 Comments »

Hey, if you’ve wondered how Hong Kong’s going to meet its climate change obligations, now you’ve got your answer.

And what a brilliant answer. The government is offering the public two choices for Hong Kong’s future energy supply. Option one: shift the bulk of carbon emissions to China by sourcing 50% of electricity from its southern power grid. We can go on wasting energy, guilt-free, as the emissions won’t be coming from within our boundary. Easy does it.

Option two: continue to rely on local supply, but increase the amount generated by natural gas from the current 22% to 60% while the amount contributed by coal power is reduced.

Which is cheaper? Neither, apparently. According to the Secretary for the Environment, both options would entail a 100% increase in the cost of electricity generation. It’s good he’s honest about that, as consumers must face the fact that electricity prices can only go up in the future.

But there’s something interesting about this consultation: climate change doesn’t appear to be a concern at all. The government’s “four major energy policy objectives” are safety, reliability, affordability and environmental performance, “as well as other important considerations including their implications for the future regulatory framework for the post-2018 electricity market, diversification and flexibility in meeting future demand”. Natural gas may be a less potent producer of greenhouse gases when compared with coal, but like coal it is a fossil fuel that does have a climate impact and will run out eventually.

Maybe it won’t run out for another decade or two, but as reserves dwindle prices will become higher and higher – just when we need more and more of it to power the air-conditioners as global warming takes hold. We are encouraging fancy technological fixes like occupancy sensors to improve the energy efficiency of our buildings, but everything we do increases rather than decreases the amount of electricity we use. Just think about the latest fashion accessory: the portable battery charger that people lug around because their smartphones are so energy-hungry they run out long before the day’s over.

One of the two energy options offered to the public is to be in place by 2023. How many degrees hotter will the planet be by 2023? And how much natural gas will be left to go by then?

The gambling capital of the world

March 19th, 2014 atam Posted in Culture, General | No Comments »

Think this is an article about Macau? Wrong.

You may think that, given the betting turnover at the casinos, Macau must qualify for that title hands down. You would be wrong though, because Hong Kong beats its neighbour without the need for any casinos at all.

Now you may wonder: am I referring to the amount Hong Kong people bet on horse races and football matches? Sorry, wrong again.

Hong Kong folks are in fact betting on stocks and properties, but of course the usual euphemism for that is ‘investing’. The ordinary people I know don’t look at it that way though; they are well aware that they are gambling – out of necessity.

This came to me when a friend, a former clerical worker forced to retire early some years ago, revealed that she actively plays the stock market in order to make ends meet. She doesn’t play the market because she is greedy, so she hasn’t been lured into any disastrous get-rich-quick funds. She is basically forced to play the stock market in order to beat inflation and put food on the table. The little money she was able to save as a clerk would never have lasted very long had she not taken a gamble with it by putting some in dividend-yielding shares and some in volatile stocks that can yield a quick profit if she gets the swing right.

So there you have it: our stock market is buoyant thanks to desperate Hong Kongers who have no other way to keep going. They’re not mired in poverty, but they have to risk losing their shirts to get by. The fruit seller just told me bananas have gone up by HK$3 per pound; with this kind of inflation, who can afford to rely on a little savings parked in the bank with next-to-no interest?

Another revelation came when another friend said she came by her leisurely life through property trading. She’s not greedy either, and is not speculating to make big bucks out of the property market while edging out the long queue of prospective homeowners. She’s just astutely trading her way up the property market, accumulating enough spare cash along the way to live a comfortable life without working. This has enabled her to spend time on charitable work, which surely is more rewarding than the false productivity that contributes to a nice GDP figure but not personal growth or health.

In a place where homes are affordable and there is fulfilling work on offer, people wouldn’t have to gamble as a way of life. And if this is the kind of economic activity that keeps Hong Kong ticking, do you think this city has all that bright a future?

The invisible helmet

March 19th, 2014 atam Posted in General | 1 Comment »

OK bikers, so you don’t like wearing helmets. How ’bout an invisible one that offers better protection? Well, it’s only about ten times more expensive, but if you’re going to cycle in a city with as many impatient motorists as this town, then it’s a worthwhile investment.

Quote of the day

March 6th, 2014 atam Posted in Quote of the day | No Comments »

“The price of property in city centres is making it impossible, particularly in the big cities, for any kind of social mix to take place. It’s castrating the whole notion of city life.”

Joseph Rykwert

Age is not the problem

March 5th, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, Food, General | No Comments »

Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary keeps warning that the city needs to have plenty of reserves in store because its ageing population will impose an increasing burden on the government’s coffers.

Not if more of them are like Yuichiro Miura, the climber who conquered Mount Everest aged 80. There’s a nice company in North Point which had a receptionist who worked into her 70s. She became such an institution that when the managing director got to the office every morning, he’d bow to her before going in.

There aren’t many such companies in Hong Kong and there aren’t many such workers either. And at the rate the city’s young flock to dessert buffets around town, there definitely won’t be many of them around being active and productive as the decades roll on. Mr Tsang has reason to be worried, especially since he didn’t know how to raise additional revenue to cover the ballooning healthcare cost.

Well, how ’bout introducing a “sugar tax”, as the UK government’s considering doing? In various countries around the world, governments are waking up to the potential cost of poor diet and imposing taxes on sugary drinks, junk food or obesity itself.

Poor diet is not the only problem though; lack of exercise is also detrimental to health. Apparently some people applauded Mr Tsang when they realised he would not be raising the first registration tax for cars. What was he thinking? In a densely packed city with an excellent public transport network, why let people burn fossil fuels clogging up the roads? On a minibus once, I saw a man hop on at the top of some steps leading to a road about 150 metres downhill – where he got off, after the minibus had negotiated the bend that led from the upper road to the lower one. He wasn’t even obese. Is there anything wrong with a little bit of walking?

Mr Tsang’s budget speech came barely one month after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced the release of its Fifth Assessment Report, the summary of which began, in bold, with: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, human influence on the climate system is clear, and limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Not that Mr Tsang made any reference to any government plan to address the issue. Definitely not a carbon tax, shock horror. Especially not when nothing but a bout of severe cold has affected Hong Kong, even though the eastern parts of Canada and the US were swept with ice storms, the UK suffered the biggest deluge in more than a century and Singapore and Malaysia are suffering unprecedented drought.

What does tourism do for Hong Kong?

February 27th, 2014 atam Posted in Culture, General | 1 Comment »

Have you ever wondered how it’s come to pass that a developed economy has to rely on an industry that low-income economies typically exploit to generate revenue?

There are places in the world where the people have few skills but there is plenty of white sand, archaeological relics or beautiful scenery, so tourism becomes the national income generator of choice. The irony in Hong Kong is that, for a place that prizes education so highly, there aren’t many skills here either.

In Germany and Japan, workers who work in hi-tech, ultra-clean manufacturing plants are regarded as, not “blue collar” workers, but part of the middle class. They undergo vigorous training and are respected for their skills. They are also paid accordingly. Here in Hong Kong, even though we don’t know how to fix anything that breaks down, we look down on the technicians who come to our rescue as “manual workers”. Such is the perception of any job that calls for manual skills that parents all want their offsprings to get a degree, or two, and sit in a nice office pushing paper. It’s a real cultural problem.

What happens when the universities only train up youngsters to push paper and the thousands whose intelligence is not geared for office work have only one option, in the form of the Institute of Vocational Education, to turn to?

Jobs that call for skills go begging. Those with the skills are getting on and there are few successors in sight. With employers unwilling to pay a wage that recognises the skills involved, young people are even less inclined to train up. That leaves only jobs that don’t require many skills – like tour guides, salespeople, theme park attendants, etc.

When a government chooses to milk the tourism sector for revenue rather than invest in its people, the result is a widening wealth gap and worsening prospects for the future sustainability of an economy. Here’s what happens:

  • Capital assets such as hotels and so-called tourist attractions funnel money into the hands of the rich. Where the corporations involved are foreign-owned, that money leaks straight out of Hong Kong
  • Shops catering to tourists funnel money into the hands of landlords while small shopkeepers who’d make up the lower rungs of the middle class are driven out by high rent
  • Tension rises as locals whose needs, which were catered to by the small shopkeepers, find it increasingly tough to afford the inflated prices of everything
  • Luxury shops split their hefty income between the landlords and the overseas headquarters of the luxury brands; all Hong Kong gets are the income of the salespeople, who don’t acquire any long-term skills that would enable them to earn a better, more stable income

Every government announcement of new projects these days comes with an estimate of the number of job opportunities created, but not all jobs are created equal. Yes, there are a handful of people making nice money out of tourism, but they’re not the low-skilled, poorly paid people employed by the sector.

Another Stern review due?

February 13th, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth | No Comments »

The economist Nicholas Stern famously estimated, back in 2006, that it would cost 1% of world GDP to prevent global warming from getting out of hand.

Well, the severe flooding in the UK is already estimated to have cost the country 1% of its GDP, and this is 2014. Carbon emissions are soaring, well past the 350 ppm that the 350 people have said is the really safe threshold before runaway climate change kicks in. We passed 400 ppm in 2012.

In 2008 Lord Stern revised his estimate to 2% of world GDP, but now he’s saying the cost of climate change can’t be quantified in economic terms only because of the social cost involved as well. Wow, an economist discovered there’s social as well as economic cost to climate change!

Someone in Hong Kong, shivering under the intense cold, is probably sniffing (or sniffling): “Bah humbug, it’s freezing here, what global warming?” Well, know what happens when polar ice caps melt? They trigger pretty cold storms.

Problem is, the people who like the “fat choy” greeting form a powerful lobby that ensures they’ll continue to profit from business-as-usual dressed up with a tinge of green. Look at the climate change counter to the right; we now have less than three years to do anything meaningful to prevent runaway climate change. There is simply not enough time to change the momentum of the existing economic model.

After this freezing cold, wait for the searing summer.

UPDATE: Stern has indeed spoken: “In fact, the risks are even bigger than I realised when I was working on the review of the economics of climate change for the UK government in 2006. Since then, annual greenhouse gas emissions have increased steeply and some of the impacts, such as the decline of Arctic sea ice, have started to happen much more quickly.

“We also underestimated the potential importance of strong feedbacks, such as the thawing of the permafrost to release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as well as tipping points beyond which some changes in the climate may become effectively irreversible.”

Read his whole article here.