Green park – not

August 3rd, 2012 atam Posted in Building, Culture, Greenwash No Comments »

Oh big wok (大鑊) indeed: Michael Lynch, the chief executive of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, who’s dubbed the district “WoK”, wants to spend HK$4 billion of taxpayers’ money on a “green park” – to cover up a car park.

If you’re looking for an example of the kind of environmental hypocrisy that afflicts Hong Kong, you can’t find a better one than this. The car park will be kept out of sight so the cultural district will have the appearance of a “green” project.

It is to be built underground, on top of the West Kowloon Terminus, which will bring mainland tourists travelling on the high-speed rail directly to the district. Non-car-owning locals though will have to trek over after taking the train to the MTR Austin Station. Or cycle there; bicycle lanes have been promised, but how these will be integrated with the transport network in the rest of Kowloon, who knows.

Why is the car park necessary? People going to performances and exhibitions at the Cultural Centre, Kwai Tsing Theatre and the Academy for Performing Arts have typically gone via public transport, with just a handful taking taxis. Even at the City Hall, which has a government car park standing right next to it, performances and exhibitions are predominantly attended by those who get there by bus, train or ferry.

The elitism is explicit in the expense to accommodate a car park: those who can afford to own a car are particularly encouraged to visit the future cultural venues, even though the pollution and energy use associated with this mode of transport make a mockery of its green claims. At a time when Hong Kong is choking under a heavy smog, does it make sense to continue encouraging vehicle use? Imagine also the cost of running such a car park, in terms of lighting and ventilation.

Even assuming the amount can be covered from the return on the government-approved sum that the authority has invested, wouldn’t it be better to spend that money on something else? Hong Kong’s population is projected to age in the coming years; suppose we invest that HK$4 billion in heathcare?

Occupy Central more relevant than ever

July 18th, 2012 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, General, Greenwash No Comments »

The Occupy movement has lost its momentum and the bank targeted by the Occupy Central activists, HSBC, has taken this opportune moment to apply for permission to kick them out.

What a shame the movement has dwindled to such a point that a bank whose head of compliance has found it appropriate to step down following a money-laundering case of gargantuan proportions still feels it’s justified in getting rid of the activists. Note its judicial application is based on the grounds that the bank is obligated to maintain pedestrian access in the public space under its headquarters.

It’s all a matter of legal obligation, you see, not morality.

And that’s how the world works, it seems. There are developers who squeeze maximum profits by selling bay windows as extra floor space and there are low-income earners who live in tin sheds on the roofs of old tenement buildings because they can’t afford to live anywhere else. The former is legal and the latter is not, but which is morally wrong?

A wealthy person in Hong Kong may structure his finances in such a way he is liable to very little tax while a welfare recipient may try to earn some money so he has enough to cover rent and food, but the former is legal and the latter is not. Is it fair?

There are corporations that make hundreds of millions of dollars in profit every year, making bottled water and junk food perhaps, and give a bit of money to NGOs to plant trees or serve disadvantaged groups. Then there are individuals who, despite not earning much, devote much of their time tending plants, caring for the elderly and binding together communities. Who are really socially responsible?

And then, of course, there is the corporation that funds climate change awareness campaigns in the most high-profile way possible and sends its staff to forests to tag trees – which was criticised by American senators for its “pervasively polluted” culture in the money laundering case.

But they all get plaques and badges in recognition of all the ‘green’ things and ‘CSR’ things that they do. As long as the image is good, it doesn’t matter how rotten the core is, it seems.

Until they’re found out, that is.

The 15th anniversary spoof

July 1st, 2012 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, General, Greenwash No Comments »

One wonders what would have happened to this spoof of the official handover anniversary song if the copyright bill, now shelved, were passed.

It summarises a lot of the problems highlighted by this blog, like the wealth gap, inflation, etc – which just goes to show that Hong Kong is not on the path of sustainability at all. Although the newly-installed Chief Executive has appointed an architect with a record in green building as his environment minister, his impact will most likely be limited if the other bureaus do not share his agenda.

What say would he have, for example, in the proposed development of the third runway, given that the Airport Authority has just handed its shareholder, the government, a nice return, even though in the UK, a study has just shown that Heathrow can increase its capacity by 25% without building a third runway, by adopting mixed mode flying more? In fact, what would he say at all?

The forest down the drain

May 22nd, 2012 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, Greenwash 3 Comments »

Hey consumer, does it feel good to use virgin wood pulp for the toilet routine?

Hong Kong is a funny place: surveys show people are concerned about climate change and the environment yet companies can actually score marketing kudos for pretending to be green or outrageously not so.

Hence we have the famous bottled water manufacturer who has apparently developed a more “environmentally friendly” bottle that uses less plastic and the loo paper manufacturers who loudly proclaims – without protest from any of the green NGOs (though Greenpeace has a guide) – the source of the pulp for their products to be virgin forests.

Consumers appear to prefer chopping down the forests for their butts but have no problem eating out of the recycled takeout bags and boxes containing their hamburgers and pizzas – boxes that are made from recycled pulp of uncertain origin. Think about the old man at the bin retrieving pieces of used paper to sell for a few cents while someone’s dog is also marking territory….

It actually makes more sense to turn recycled pulp into loo paper and it’s available and cheap. Why are forests still being chopped down for this purpose?  The supermarkets want to rake it in by charging much much more for recycled loo paper imported from half way round the world, but we don’t have to pay that much for it: recycled loo paper costing about $22 per 10 rolls is available from the St James’ Settlement shop behind the Blue House in Wanchai, Club O (7G Cheong Ming Building, 80 Argyle Street, Mongkok) and Herbal Bliss (11A, 128 Wellington Street, Central).  Bit of a hassle if you don’t live or work near these places, but only demand will induce more shops to stock it.

Say it – not – with flowers

April 6th, 2012 atam Posted in Earth, Food, Greenwash No Comments »

During Ching Ming people were encouraged by the Conservancy Association to pay their respects to their ancestors using flowers rather than incense, the idea being that this is a more environmentally friendly alternative.

Well, flowers won’t cause hill fires, true. They don’t generate polluting smoke either. But are they all that environmentally friendly? Many types of flowers are air-freighted to Hong Kong from around the world; think about the carbon emissions associated with those journeys. Of course, there are also many which are now grown around the Pearl River Delta and perhaps just trucked over, but at a time when food security has become such an important issue, does it make sense to grow flowers rather than food?

Let’s pay our respects with some local flowers by all means, but to encourage grave-sweepers to switch to flowers generally may well be counterproductive.

So you think you’re recycling…

March 16th, 2012 atam Posted in Earth, Greenwash 1 Comment »

Got a truck and a couple of mates? Want to make some easy money?

Here’s how: grab a government contract to clear the recycling bins dotted around Hong Kong. You will be paid HK$50,000 a month for emptying 160 sets of bins. That’s it. You don’t have to recycle the emptied contents and the government won’t ask.

This is really easy money. Know why? Because there are established channels for paper and metal recycling, the bins for paper waste and aluminium cans are usually regularly emptied by those who need the little money they can make by collecting them and selling them on to recyclers.

Which leaves the contents of the bins for plastic waste to be collected. What to do with that? Easy: chuck them all into the big rubbish containers at the nearest refuse chamber – and, if you have time, wave them bye-bye as the rubbish collection vehicle arrives to take them to the landfill.

This was revealed to me when I asked a worker at the refuse chamber if they take glass for recycling. He waved me away cynically. “Don’t waste your time,” he said, and went on to vent about the truck that stuffs his containers with plastic waste every week.

OK, this is the situation with just one of the recycling bin contract; maybe the other ones are properly fulfilled. But at a time when the government is launching a “public consultation” on waste charging and giving out the usual statistics covering landfill capacity, waste volume by type, etc; we really need to find out why, despite various pilot schemes and waste recycling campaigns, the percentage of waste recycled remains low. Clearly, this is not just the fact that the government refuses to consider a simple, cost-effective way to treat organic (mainly food) waste at district level using compact composting set-ups, but also a failure of oversight.

It’s all very well to set up a plastic recycling centre at EcoPark, which started operation in 2010; but if contractors are still dumping the plastics at refuse chambers in 2012 and collecting the money for recycling, why should taxpayers pay twice over only for the landfills to run out of capacity way too soon?

Green building? Yeah right.

February 16th, 2012 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Greenwash 1 Comment »

Here’s a building with carbon emissions that are off the scale, but you know what, it will still be awarded a “platinum” rating under HK-BEAM.

The interim chief secretary of the HKSAR has suggested that the shocking energy consumption of the new CGO and LegCo Complex is partly attributable to the remedial works undertaken by the contractor, but what would be the excuse when the project is finally done and dusted? Does the presence of extra facilities justify the high energy use?

A carbon auditor and building services expert familiar with both HK-BEAM as well as the industry-rejected CEPAS (Comprehensive Environmental Performance Assessment Scheme for Buildings), when presented with data of the complex’s energy use, warned that it was “off the scale”, but what can be done? The truth of the matter is that the building industry knows exactly what needs to be done to be given the highest environmental rating, and it doesn’t entail designing anything that will actually save energy when fully operational.

What is important for those involved is that the product will be able to boast of its green credentials; whether it’s genuinely green is a different matter. And if ‘green’ is no longer fashionable, swap it for hipper buzz words like ‘low carbon’ or ‘zero emission’.

None of this is a surprise in a society so preoccupied with appearances, or ‘face’, but at a time when the world is facing an energy crunch that has serious implications for energy pricing and Fukushima has shown the futility of relying on the nuclear option, energy efficiency is the most cost-effective means of achieving some measure of energy security.

Despite acknowledgement of the fact that buildings account for nearly 90% of Hong Kong’s energy use and that efforts to make them more energy-efficient will go a long way towards reducing the city’s carbon emissions, the reality is that the little that’s been done to cut energy use has been more than cancelled out by buildings with bigger spaces to be artificially ventilated. They always tell you that those atriums feature high windows that let in natural light; they don’t tell you that the amount saved in lighting cost is nothing compared to the extra air-conditioning required.

Look what’s happening at Tamar. Here’s a harbourfront complex with fully enclosed but not always fully utilised facilities, which means a vast amount of space has to be artificially ventilated when natural air flow might have done the job for nothing. And if they switch off the air-conditioning when all that space is not in use?  Imagine the indoor air quality.  It’s far from being the only example. Next time you walk into a building that proudly displays a plaque that says it’s got a platinum rating under HK-BEAM, just look around at the vast space and feel the chilly temperature that will tell you all you need to know about what that rating stands for.

Big business trumps the planet, every time

December 30th, 2011 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Greenwash, Peak oil No Comments »

The Chief Executive’s words to the US consul general – that “the great fear in Hong Kong is not taxation without representation, but `representation without taxation’ in which the non-taxpaying majority would dictate [terms] to the taxpayers.” – is so haunting in light of the announcement that the “people of Hong Kong” are in favour of a third runway at the airport.

Never mind the environmental impact, the air traffic situation in the region, or even aviation carbon emissions. Can we afford to spend HK$136.2 billion on a third runway when healthcare cost alone, which stood at HK$68 billion in 2004/05, is projected to rise to 26.5% of GDP by 2030, according to the government’s own favourite think tank, the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre?

Or put it another way: why are we being asked to pay for mandatory health insurance when so many are already struggling to cope with mortgages/rates/management fees, ever-rising food prices, etc; when there ought to be plenty of money in the kitty for providing the necessary healthcare to an ageing population if silly money wasn’t being spent on unnecessary hardware?

Why are the priorities all wrong?

The answer, of course, is that big business wants it that way. Big business wants the hardware to secure its profits, the needs of ordinary people be damned. If we look at the big business that went out of its way to support the third runway, we’d see a host of companies with a nice record of “corporate social responsibility”. Companies that plant trees, send their staff to volunteer for NGOs and sponsor climate change conferences.

The trouble is, the damage caused by their pursuit of profit, whether it’s the planet or the sustainability of the local socioeconomic system, is so much more than their positive contribution. It’s so easy to make a billion and donate a dollar. I’m reminded of the various world religions that invariably have a parable comparing the offering of a rich man vs that of a poor one. Why is it that the holy ones always value the latter’s humble offering so much more, even though in practical terms it’s so much less? Because it’s all she’s got. And yet, most likely, the priest will kick her aside while welcoming the rich man with many kowtows.

Thus it is that while the poor who pay little or no tax may break their backs to make sure the cogs of this city keep turning, scant attention is ever paid to their well-being.

That huge amount is being spent on top of other huge amounts, all designed to make Hong Kong less, not more, resilient in a very different world. The year 2012 is likely to mark not just the start of a global downturn, but the pressing reality of climate change, peak oil and high inflation. What’s being done to help us cope with them?

“As pollution, financial instability, health problems, and inequality continue to grow, and as political systems remain paralysed, capitalism’s future might not seem so secure in a few decades as it seems now.”

Mark those words of Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University and former IMF chief economist.

How do you bridge the cost-benefit gap?

October 27th, 2011 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Greenwash 1 Comment »

Is the government displaying a rare show of honesty, or is it assuming the public’s innumerate and therefore it could get away with the latest estimates for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge project?

According to the government, the cost of the project is estimated to have risen HK$6.5 billion as a result of the need to compress the construction programme following the delay caused by the judicial review. Nice justification: blame those who oppose worsening air quality in their neighbourhood for the rise in cost. If you read the Legco question-and-answer, you’ll see how vicious the attacks on those purported to have assisted the resident who brought the judicial review has been.

Anyway, that estimate apparently counts the reclamation works for the boundary-crossing facilities but not any possible rise in costs for building two link roads, one cross-boundary and one between Tuen Mun and Chek Lap Kok. The boundary-crossing facilities are now expected to cost HK$30.43 billion while the detailed design and construction of the cross-boundary link road is estimated to cost HK$16.18 billion. The Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok link is estimated to cost HK$1.9 billion for detailed design and preliminary work.

So that’s HK$48.51 billion, not including the cost of building the Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok link. The government’s estimate for the economic benefits which will be brought by the bridge over 20 years, though, is 40 billion yuan (or about HK$48.93 billion) – of which only 23 billion yuan will accrue to Hong Kong.

So let’s say the judicial review never happened; the cost of the boundary-crossing facilities would still be HK$23.93 billion – which is still far more than what the city, by the government’s usually optimistic forecasts, would recover after the bridge has been in operation for 20 years.

And what 20 years. The government wants to rush the programme so that the bridge will be completed in 2016, so the economic benefit that won’t even cover the capital cost of only part of the project would tally up by 2036.

I have no idea what assumptions are used to make such projections over such a long time period, but it’s safe to say that if they’re based on world trends over the past 50 years, then the powers-that-be are in for a mighty surprise. By 2036, oil will be sufficiently scarce to make running any kind of petrol vehicle ludicrously expensive while other resource constraints and climate change will ensure such a bumpy road between now and 2036 – and beyond – that, while costs are certain to rise, the economic benefit arising from the project can only fall.

It’s a rather hefty price for the average Hong Konger to pay, don’t you think, for a bridge that will only make it easier for the jet set to drive over to their golf courses?

The challenge of being green in HK

October 7th, 2011 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, Greenwash No Comments »

The occasion was a climate change conference. After the hip opening, in which video screens showed a raft of rock stars – who collectively generate enough carbon emissions to notch a couple more degrees to global warming with their world tours – singing a Band-Aid-like song about the urgency of climate change, the conference opened with the head of a green NGO among the businesspeople on stage, contributing his views on the issue.

Shortly after the discussion began, a few suited delegates on the floor clambered onto their chairs and unfurled banners denouncing the Hong Kong government for its failure to address climate change. Security personnel acted quickly, grabbing the disguised protesters and booting them out of the conference hall.

Outside, literature on reducing our climate impact, produced by a third NGO sponsored by a big bank (if you’re wondering, it’s the one that recently announced 3,000 people in their Hong Kong office are to be made redundant) were liberally distributed to those attending the conference.

No prizes for guessing who the three NGOs are, but if you really don’t know, this BBC report will help you. They are all celebrating big anniversaries this year and together have clocked up 130 years of campaigning for the environment.

They all have their “Hong Kong branches” but, alas, how different they are here. It makes sense for any organisation to adapt to local conditions when they set up and develop anywhere, but such is the ferocity of the resistance against any effort to deter money-making, and such is the public’s susceptibility to greenwash; that green NGOs have been forced to choose between significant compromises or irrelevance.

The one whose head was on the stage learnt that a long time ago, which is why it decided to prefer accepting sponsorship from a petroleum company to remaining part of the global group. The one whose campaigners were hauled out of the conference hall wanted to stick to its ideals, but despite stunts that attract media attention is ignored by most but the most committed greenies.

The one whose literature was distributed outside the hall is currently finding itself stuck between a rock and a hard place, having decided to help Hong Kong’s most aggressive developer design a wetland at Fung Lok Wai in Yuen Long.

I can understand their reasoning: either someone who knows how to do it properly steps in to minimise the damage or let the developer do a 1881 Heritage 2 – except that this time the victims aren’t historical buildings and valuable trees, but the whole ecosystem of a wetland. The developer doesn’t seem stoppable, and it’s never been their style to take to the streets like the other greenies – who are now furious with them.

This is the problem: the two NGOs that long ago decided to work with rather than against the corporate lobby believe they can bring them round and persuade them to help rather than ruin the environment. They don’t seem to recognise that they’ve been embraced not because these corporations have been converted to their cause, but because the association burnishes their image and legitimises their activities. They can boast of their “CSR”, citing their cooperation with/sponsorship of these major NGOs.

The NGOs have no idea they’ve been co-opted. They’re like the hippies who brought yoga to the West, feeling pleased how the discipline has spread and benefited so many without noticing how it’s been turned into a whole new industry complete with designer yoga apparel, retreats at luxury spas and production-lines-worth of teachers to show us how to sooth our body and mind.

Of course, of the hundreds of thousands of practitioners there will be some who grasp the essence of the discipline. Similarly, there is no doubt that among the many “sustainability managers” and others in the corporate world, there are those who genuinely care about the environment. The green movement can’t win though, because as much as they care, they would have been schooled to adopt perspectives that are favourable to the businesses for which they work.

As the global heads of the three big NGOs acknowledge, the environmental movement may have won battles, but the war is lost.