Half a degree to go

December 18th, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, Greenwash No Comments »

There goes Cassandra again. While everybody’s celebrating the climate deal struck in Paris following COP21, some people just can’t help but wonder how the world’s going to limit temperature rise to 1.5ºC.

Consider this: a 1ºC rise in temperature has already been locked in. Hong Kongers should know: we’re in line for the warmest Christmas for years. It would take a lot of effort to limit future rise to just 0.5ºC, for all kinds of reasons. For starters, proposals to build new coal-fired power plants have been approved everywhere, with China and India accounting for 76% of the new capacities. According to the World Resources Institute, the 1,199 proposed new coal-fired plants have a total installed capacity of 1,401,278 MW.

For another, nobody’s saying anything about keeping fossil fuel reserves in the ground. The share price of oil companies depend on how much they have in reserve as well as how much they extract and sell, and neither they nor their shareholders are prepared to let their holdings drop in value by committing to keeping reserves in the ground. Despite recent trends by some institutional investors to divest their holdings in oil-related stocks, there are still too many pension funds and others with substantial holdings in oil companies. Is somebody going to launch a business in helping them ditch oil stocks and rebuild their portfolios?

Then there’s meat. You’ve heard about the carbon emissions associated with meat, particularly beef, but as developing economies mature, they’re demanding more and more meat in their diet. Such is the demand that an American meat producer plans to spend hundreds of millions on promoting its products in China.

Finally, can world leaders really commit to combating climate change without taking the slightest look at the current economic model? They’re still anxious about economic growth and thinks every country should encourage consumption as an economic driver. Sorry but planet Earth simply doesn’t have the resources or resilience to sustain the level of consumption pursued by an ever-increasing number of humans.

Thank you Jason Wordie

August 6th, 2013 atam Posted in Earth, Food, General, Greenwash No Comments »

A tea connoisseur I know who regularly brews tea that costs thousands of dollars per tael takes his hobby really seriously. Not only does he use the finest porcelain cups and pots to make his tea, he also collects litres of mountain runoff for the purpose, every day.

I used to think the people who lug huge containers to hiking trails to collect water were superstitious folks who thought the water had magical properties. Turns out, it simply tastes better and is full of minerals too.

So a big thank you to Jason Wordie for pointing out the superior properties of Hong Kong water in a recent piece in the Post Magazine. I hope lots of expats read that and will stop hoarding trolley-fuls of bottled water home for consumption, as if the water that comes out of the tap is too poisonous to drink. Although tap water is not necessarily mountain runoff, it is treated to a high standard and I can bet you anything you won’t find traces of Prozac in it, like you would in the UK.

I also hope all those who think nothing of paying for bottled water just ‘cos they can’t be bothered to fill and carry around a water bottle will rethink their habit and stop fattening the wallets of already-rich corporations. Isn’t it funny how an outcry is inevitable whenever an increase in the water tariff is suggested, and yet we’re prepared to pay ridiculous amounts of money to buy the stuff when it’s bottled and marketed with a nice image?

And speaking of water tariff, it’s been known for a while how the low rate has encouraged profligacy, but it’s just too politically sensitive, especially when a government lacks governance, to raise the prospect of increasing it. It’s not just our freshwater use that’s heavily subsidised either; our use of seawater for flushing is too. We pride ourselves on saving lots of freshwater by having a system that uses seawater for flushing, but we’re not told the cost of treating that seawater when it goes down the drain. The salinity of such effluent makes it more difficult to treat, which translates into higher wastewater treatment cost. And we’ve not even factored in the power consumption associated with pumping all this effluent to the Stonecutters Island plant for treatment.

If all of this is a necessary evil, can we not at least try to minimise it?

Wonder how climate change comes about?

May 27th, 2013 atam Posted in Animal welfare, Climate change, Earth, Greenwash No Comments »

Doing some marketing for his employer, Ocean Park polar curator Philip Wong told the press recently that the polar programme at the theme park carries an environmental message about climate change.

Yeah right.

One wonders how much electricity is consumed by the park, which also boasts a “carbon management” plan, to maintain a sufficiently cold environment for the polar animals it keeps on display, and therefore how much greenhouse gases is emitted as a direct result of the park holding a bunch of penguins and seals captive in sub-tropical Hong Kong.

The icebergs sure are melting, but they wouldn’t melt quite so fast if we’re not pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in the name of entertainment – oh sorry, that’s supposed to read “educating the public on the effects of climate change”.

Baltic peat moss in Hong Kong?

May 16th, 2013 atam Posted in Climate change, Food, General, Greenwash 1 Comment »

If we need further evidence that the government will not take the lead in addressing climate change in any real way, this is it: Baltic peat moss spread all over a flower bed in a public park.

Here we are fretting over our mountain of waste, much of it food waste that can be treated and used as compost, and where and what does the Leisure & Cultural Services Department – you know, the one that gives us those artificial turf pitches – use to grow its flowers and shrubs? This is peat moss extracted from wetlands in northern Europe which have served as carbon sinks for thousands of years, until the horticultural industry sold gardeners the idea that it is a good growing medium and proceeded to destroy these wetlands, in the process releasing the sequestered carbon, to make its profit.

And here we have the LCSD buying peat moss from the Baltic region, which has to be transported half way round the world to be used in an East Asian public park. How much transportation emissions is added to the amount released by extraction of the peat moss? I guess that depends on just how much of the stuff the LCSD is using all over Hong Kong.

One university that has installed a biodigester on its campus to turn food waste from its food and beverage outlets into compost says it produces enough compost in one day to cover all its landscaping for one month. This is a campus that, for all its greenery, is still pretty much covered in concrete though. Imagine the surplus compost being taken up by LCSD. Imagine, in fact, all the compost that can be made out of Hong Kong’s food waste being used to fertilise the few organic farms we have as well as to rehabilitate the agricultural land that has been ruined by years of abuse. We can then improve Hong Kong’s food security, but no, the government wants to seize the land and build more housing, choosing not to tackle the unsustainable small house policy while inflating its population forecast.

Nobody in government really understands climate change beyond spinning its efforts to achieve “sustainable development”.  Worse yet, it’s not only ruining Hong Kong; it’s ruining the ecosystem in northern Europe too.

What are you wearing?

May 4th, 2013 atam Posted in Earth, General, Greenwash 1 Comment »

Having worn the ancient jeans to shreds, I recently bought some replacement from a retailer with a long-term code of ethics.

When the factory collapse occurred in Bangladesh, I checked the label again and – gulp – confirmed that they were indeed made in that country. Can this company’s compliance managers be expected to have really done their job in ensuring fair and healthy working conditions for their suppliers’ workers?

The problem with today’s consumerism is that people buy new stuff constantly and throw them away when they’re still practically new, adding to the mountain of waste. In the meantime, natural resources from the water and good soil needed to grow the cotton for the clothing to the metals and rare earth elements needed to make the electronic gadgets run out. And yet we’re told the world’s economy has to be propped up by consumption; that China, for example, can’t keep growing unless it stimulates domestic consumption.

So what we have is a system finetuned to produce goods at maximum efficiency and lowest cost, whatever the cost to the workers or the ecosystem. Note that the aim is not to provide employment, but to drive ever-growing profit.

You could have 100 workers making good-quality clothing, at a rate of, say, 50 pieces a day, because they are attending to every detail themselves, or you can have 100 workers arranged in a production line, assembling fast fashion at a thousand times that rate. The first set of workers are too slow though, so the amount they make won’t turn a great profit. The approach therefore has long been to break up a product into a thousand different manufacturing processes to be sub-contracted to different factories so that more can be made by extremely bored and poorly paid workers assigned to repetitive tasks making the buttons, the zips, the sleeves, etc, in such quantity that higher profits can only be generated by brainwashing consumers into believing they must constantly get something new.

Sub-contracting only ever works where specialist knowledge or skills are needed on an irregular basis. For example, certain industrial plants require ducts that must be welded by specialist welders to ensure the joints have the integrity to cope with the plant’s critical operation reliably, so it makes sense for the contractor building the plant to sub-contract the job of assembling those ducts to a team of specialist welders.

Where the input of knowledge or skills is needed on a regular basis, sub-contracting is just a means of exploitation. For example, every residential building is more or less the same, but contractors typically sub-contract most of the tasks to others in order to keep their payroll down. It’s no accident that the more reputable contractors are those who invest in direct labour. So, does it make sense for a telecommunications company which needs a team of maintenance workers to regularly service customers’ connections to “outsource” its maintenance work, or for a container terminal operator that needs crane operators on a daily basis to have them work for contractors instead?

I once bought a pair of trainers that were made by fairly-paid workers in Portugal using natural materials. They were quite a few times more expensive than the average sweatshop-made trainers, but they’re of sufficiently good quality for me to be still using them today. Unfortunately, price alone doesn’t always translate into better treatment for workers; it can – and in Hong Kong always does – mean higher rent, while the workers responsible for making them still get paid a pittance.

For as long as rampant sub-contracting is practised around the world, the wealth gap will just widen more and more. Hong Kong’s Gini co-efficient, by the way, is now up to 0.509 (see Census & Statistics Department table below, from their “Household Income Distribution in Hong Kong” report.



Kiss the rainforest goodbye

April 30th, 2013 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, Greenwash No Comments »

Wow, have you heard? Sinopec has developed a ‘green’ aviation biofuel.

The biofuel has been successfully tested on a short flight and is made up of waste cooking oil and… palm oil. Scale it up to feed an expanding fleet of aircraft and you’d be looking at chopping down all the rainforest in Borneo to make way for palm oil plantations.

The alarm over the use of palm oil for biofuels was raised a good six years ago, but profits of course always trump ecology. And it’s such an easy sell when people are so uninformed; they just have to say palm oil cuts greenhouse gas emissions and most people would nod their heads and say, good, they’re going green.

It’s like the clever people in the UK government now opposing the ban on pesticides that have been killing off bees in their millions. Heeding the advice of the pesticide manufacturing lobby, the government claimed that the effects of the pesticides were uncertain. Thankfully there are more ecologically aware souls in Europe, who have just voted in favour of a two-year moratorium. In China, who dare say palm oil’s no good?

Before long, someone’s going to take a palm-oil-fuelled flight to Indonesia to see the famed orang-utans. As the flight comes in to land, they’ll discover palm plantations stretching as far as the eyes can see. Upon landing, they’ll discover that the few orang-utans they can still see are – in a zoo.

Chopping trees for the Climate Group

January 14th, 2013 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, Food, Greenwash No Comments »

When people talk about going green, what have they got in mind? If you ask someone on the street, chance is the answer will have something to do with using fewer plastic bags and doing some recycling.

Few will mention reducing wasteful use of resources, and certainly absolutely no one will talk about something as arcane as life cycle cost.

But a leader of the Climate Group??

Failing to persuade Hong Kongers to opt for plastic Xmas trees that they can reuse year after year, if they insist on having a Xmas tree, the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Association has done the next-best thing by collecting the now-abandoned real trees for recycling into fertiliser.

This in a place where food waste alone is enough to produce fertiliser for all the greenery in the city, with plenty to spare. And yet, here’s where the association’s collected a 9-metre tree from HSBC – you know, the bank that sends its staff to far-out places to tag trees and track deforestation for their environmental education. You’d expect them to know something about the life cycle cost of the giant Xmas tree-now-turned-fertiliser – the amount of water used in growing it and the energy cost involved in growing it, chopping it down and shipping it to Hong Kong, and finally the cost of removing it for recycling into fertiliser. Water that would have been better used to grow crops for human consumption; energy that could be saved, along with the carbon emissions associated with it. Instead, the bank’s probably patting itself on the back for arranging the tree’s recycling.

Someone from the association expressed the hope that Hong Kongers’ would learn more about the importance of recycling wood and timber. In a place where retail renovations of the same shops happen every year or two as landlords hike rent and drive out tenants, and where homeowners hankering after the magazine look think little of razing their homes every few years to bring in new flooring, new sofas, new shelving, etc etc. Good luck.

Ever ask why there’s so much recycling to do in the first place?

How NOT to be sustainable, in the Landmark HK

December 10th, 2012 Mar Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, Greenwash 1 Comment »

For the latest example of Hong Kong’s leading companies saying one thing and doing the opposite, visit the Landmark, one of Hongkong Land’s crown jewels.    There you will find, in the centre of the atrium, a large white monstrosity masquerading as a snowy mountain, with fake ski-lodge, skis, and a gondola constantly revolving on eye level with the shops on level 2.  The whole piece is ringed by round wooden posts.

But wait! Come closer and you will notice that these round wooden posts are actually pieces of small tree trunk!  That’s right, Hongkong Land not only wanted to erect an ornament that will be demolished and sent to landfill within six weeks of installation; they also needed to kill at least thirty trees—if not more– to make that wooden fence.

As a vegetarian, my friends often try to goad me into debate about whether plants are living beings.  Whether or not you believe that trees are as “alive” as animals, surely you’ll agree that it takes a huge amount of hubris and ignorance to kill thirty trees in order to give “the public” six weeks of eyesore in the middle of Central?

Hongkong Land claims on its website and in its sustainability report to be “committed to sustainability… and to minimise our impact upon the environment as far as practicable” and to “implement sustainable practices and technologies in all our buildings.”

Even without knowing what else was destroyed to make that fake mountain, or the number of years that it will rot in the landfill after 2012 is long gone, or the amount of coal burned to run the gondola 18-20 hours a day, it seems that this whole installation is the opposite of sustainable.  No doubt Hongkong Land will spin it otherwise, perhaps even in their next sustainability report.

Holidays are supposed to be about the spirit of giving.  Instead, Hongkong Land shows us only taking:  us taking from the earth, taking from nature, and taking from the future, and all without giving anything back.  No thank you, Hongkong Land!





There goes the COP circus again

November 29th, 2012 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, General, Greenwash No Comments »

There’s an age-old behavioural experiment originally designed to prove our capacity for self-interest but ended up showing our capacity for empathy too.

In it, one person is offered a sum of money, say $10, and left to decide whether or not to share it with a second person. If the second person refuses what the first person proposes to share, both would end up with nothing.

So how much do people share? You’d expect most of those with the money to share would offer the least amount that the other person can reasonably be expected to accept, but in fact most of them offer almost half the money to the second person. Even when the first person is given the power to dictate how much the second person gets, like it or not, the amount shared still tends to be high.

The “rational self-interest” the experimenters look for only rears its head following a final tweak: when the two persons are put in separate rooms. When the first person cannot see or talk to the second person face-to-face, all sense of generosity goes out the door: they offer as little as they can get away with. Empathy wins out when the partners in the experiment can directly interact with each other, but disappears when the second person becomes an abstract quantity.

We all know this at a certain level. That’s why local news occupies a more prominent position in newspapers than international news – we care more about what’s happening close to us than events happening in some remote places. That’s why when we’re really affected by something, we say it’s really “hit home”.

Now somewhere out there in a city called Doha, hundreds of delegates have gathered to resume climate change talks at COP18, trying to hammer out a deal while shut inside the meeting rooms of some ornate conference facility, far away from the men, women and children whose lives will be heavily affected by the outcome of those talks.

What do you think the outcome will be? These delegates are armed with tons of information, some of which, like the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, they will share and debate; some, like the number of coal-fired power plants their countries plan to build, they will try their best to hide or ignore.

When officials accustomed to flying business if not first class and staying in five-star hotels get together to talk somewhere far away from the ordinary people whose plight they can neither see with their own eyes nor are ever likely to suffer, the chance is they will bargain based on the abstract numbers that protect their jobs.

At the same time, climate change is too abstract a concept for the ordinary people whose lives are more directly affected by increases in electricity tariff. Try telling them increases are inevitable due to the need to switch to more expensive fuel that generates less carbon dioxide.

According to the World Resources Institute, there are some 1,200 coal-fired power plants with a total capacity of about 1,400 GW being planned across 59 countries, with the majority of them in India (455 plants) and China (363). Is it any surprise neither country wants to commit to emissions reduction anytime soon enough to avoid catastrophic climate change? After all, the negotiators aren’t the ones on the street where floodwater washes away hundreds and displaces millions when it’s done; all they see are the GDP figures on the pieces of paper their overlords provide as a reminder that no commitment that jeopardises the growth rate must be made.

Something that suits the negotiators may be agreed, but like the second person in what has come to be known as the “dictator game”, who is kept in a separate room and has no power even to decide whether or not to accept whatever’s offered, the public at large can expect little that will save them, and the planet, from runaway global warming.

So let’s go low-carbon…

November 20th, 2012 atam Posted in Animal welfare, Climate change, Earth, Greenwash No Comments »

Ocean Butcher Co has announced that its shark-finning fleet has become one of the most low-carbon in the world.

It has replaced aged vessels with new ones made with a combination of salvaged wood and recycled plastic. At the same time, it has switched to low-sulphur fuel, with older but still serviceable vessels retrofitted with new, cleaner-burning engines at a cost of US$2 million. New vessels are delivered with more energy-efficient engines as standard.

These efforts are estimated to reduce the fleet’s carbon emissions by 400 tonnes a year and also substantially reduce the level of respirable particulates generated. Ocean Butcher’s fleet is now not only more environmentally-friendly, it is also more efficient: sharks caught and fins cut by the fleet have increased 20% year-on-year, boosting the company’s profit to US$300 million.

If the above satire seems absurd and outrageous, why isn’t Ocean Park’s latest announcement concerning its becoming “the world’s first low-carbon emissions theme park”?

Marine animals confined to small pools and trained to perform unnatural acts to entertain park visitors, which have probably gone crazy from a life of captivity following human-imposed routines, have apparently been treated to more energy-efficient life support systems. Their environment is now as highly regulated as their lives, with the flow of every breath of fresh air and every drop of water monitored by computer. The wonders of technology!