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.

Car parks in congested Hong Kong

May 15th, 2015 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Peak oil No Comments »

The Hong Kong government is building new offices for civil servants in West Kowloon and, laudably, has included just 92 parking spaces for a complex designed to accommodate more than 10,000 civil servants.

How do you force people to take public transport rather than clog up the roads with private cars? By not providing parking spaces of course. Motorists will complain, but in a city short of housing but plagued by roadside pollution and congestion, it makes more sense to build a few extra flats than parking spaces. What the government plans to do with West Kowloon Government Offices is what the MTR has been doing with their residential properties for a while: restrict the number of parking spaces to encourage people to take public transport instead.

It’s such a sensible approach one wonders why it’s not adopted for the West Kowloon Cultural District, where billions are to be spent on a huge underground car park. Is it because it’s designed to cater to the tastes of wealthy, car-owning culture vultures? Well, respected cultural venues like the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York don’t provide parking spaces, and they’re not exactly short of patrons.

But judging by one legislator’s reaction to the shortage of parking spaces at the proposed government offices, it’s clear that the concept of sustainability has yet to reach those who should know better, never mind the wider public. No wonder we’re only seeing a ‘consultation’ on electronic road pricing now, when it’s already been successfully implemented elsewhere for years.

The good news and the bad news…

December 13th, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, Peak oil No Comments »

Amazing: just when you think the oil price can only go up, it’s taken a tumble to a level not seen for quite a few years.

The good news of course is that cheap oil will make a few things cheaper, although Hong Kong motorists have cause to moan that cheaper supplies have not translated into cheaper prices at the pumps. The bad news, for anyone who’d read a blog such as this one, is that there is much less incentive for governments and businesses to invest in renewable technology.

The economic case is gone, they’d say. When oil is expensive it’s easy for them to portray themselves as climate-aware greenies; now oil is cheap it’s just as easy for them to say they’re giving people the cheapest option available. Never mind that fossil fuels need to be phased out, whatever the price. If global warming is factored into the oil price, it’d be several times more expensive than what it is today.

But now, while the oil lasts, people will become even more addicted to the age of oil than ever before, and when both conventional and unconventional oil becomes prohibitively expensive because what’s left is so hard to extract, expect riots and protests everywhere.

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?

Mayan wisdom

December 14th, 2012 atam Posted in Animal welfare, Climate change, Earth, General, Peak oil No Comments »

Maybe the scientists overlooked the gigantic black hole that will gobble up the entire galaxy on December 21.

Or maybe not.

Perhaps the world won’t come to a dramatic end on the day. Still, the Mayans are on to something. Perhaps they foresaw how the inverse relationship between the state of the planet and the state of the stock markets will reach a turning point on that day, beyond which there will be no hope of avoiding a collapse.

Isn’t it funny? Back in 2009 all the talk was Copenhagen and a new climate change agreement. Three years later, the new Rio summit came and went, followed by another round of climate change talks, this time in Doha, and nobody noticed. Quietly, the negotiators agreed to disagree and meekly extended the Kyoto Protocol for another eight years.

China has hundreds of new coal-fired power plants planned and is not about to ditch them, whatever WWF says in its latest China Ecological Footprint Report, which shows that most of the country’s in an ecological deficit. Not to be outdone, the UK has just approved fracking, which releases huge amounts of methane – a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – directly into the atmosphere.

All in the name of energy security.

And if we look at the inverse relationship I talked about earlier, you’ll see why a collapse is inevitable. The market cheers when stock prices go up, so when the stock price of a petroleum company goes up, analysts flag the stock as a “buy” and investors look forward to a nice return. Never mind that the rise in its stock price is due to a rise in fuel prices that has made ordinary folks suffer. There was dismay when the Deepwater Horizon tragedy occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, but not because of the loss of lives or environmental damage; rather, it was because the stock price of BP sank in anticipation of the compensation for which it became liable, directly impacting on the billions of pension funds invested in it.

Think about it: retirement funds are invested in businesses that hurt the environment or the community, be it a coal mining firm or a real estate trust that gets its return on hiking rent and driving out small retailers. Someone’s secure retirement is predicated on someone else’s suffering.

To really address global warming would mean stopping the growth model in its tracks and shutting down huge numbers of corporations whose very existence threaten the planet’s survival. It just won’t be done. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published way back in 1962; 50 years later, Hong Kong still approves the use of the deadly herbicide paraquat, which has accounted for several canine deaths.

There’s a magazine with a regular interview with thoughtful people in the Q&A format. One standard question is “Are we all doomed?” and nearly 90% of interviewees say “no”, which just shows you what capacity for denial we have.

Maybe the Mayans wasn’t predicting the end of the world; maybe their calendar simply ended because their own civilisation collapsed. “Their attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those activities. Like most leaders throughout human history, the Maya kings and nobles did not heed long-term problems,” Jared Diamond wrote in his book Collapse. Now it’s our turn.

Pigs are flying

October 29th, 2012 atam Posted in Climate change, General, Peak oil No Comments »

There’s a recession looming, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the newspaper.

Every other page is an advertisement for London property and “wealth management” or private banking services as well as opinion pieces by fund managers and property analysts introducing funds with amazing returns.

For every report on poverty and inflation, there will be more about Hong Kong becoming quite an art hub with auctions and fairs. People are even expecting a pay rise.

Somehow, there is so much money sloshing around looking to grow into ever-bigger pots that big banks and big companies can’t kick the small fries out quickly enough to refurbish yet more premises into swanky branches that only the seriously moneyed may enter without being scorned.

The economy is booming and tanking at the same time. On one hand companies are worried about the global economic outlook, retailers have seen their takings decrease as even mainlanders tighten their purse strings, and workers fret over their jobs. On the other, the stock market is reaching highs and investors are sailing in, putting pressure on the Hong Kong dollar.

Do you actually believe that the EU will come out of its current malaise anytime soon? Or that the recovery in the US will pick up much speed? Or that local governments in China don’t have a debt problem that will catch up with the country someday?

Every time there’s the slightest sign that the world economy is growing again, as the IMF so fervently wishes, oil prices go up in tandem. That’s not the worst of it. An authoritative report by the US National Research Council has just been released, pointing out that biofuels production from algae is unsustainable in terms of use of energy, water and nutrients. The positive spin is that industry could improve its techniques to reduce the inputs needed throughout the production cycle, but will the improvement come in time to replace all the oil needed?

In the meantime, a sociologist at the University of Oregon noted something that nobody seems to have paid much attention to. Richard York found that CO2 emissions doesn’t fall during economic downturns at the same rate it rises during booms, meaning we can’t even take comfort in the hope that a recession would slow down global warming.

But it hardly matters.

There’s a virtual economy involving huge sums appearing and disappearing across computer screens; and there’s a real economy where people are getting less and less for what money they’ve got. Those in possession of the numbers on the screens will continue to party till the sun goes down. Those who just discover that a few sticks of celery have tripled in price will just have to find their way to the food bank – if a food bank is to be found.

Is this the pinnacle of progress?

July 20th, 2012 atam Posted in Climate change, Food, General, Peak oil 1 Comment »

Now that we’ve gone through the agricultural revolution and, for most of those in the developed world at least, no longer have to worry about having enough to eat; and now that we’ve gone through the industrial revolution and no longer have to put up with the physical drudgery of the past, what’s next?

Here’s what’s next: Sheldon Adelson is looking to expand his empire in Spain and finally break down Japan’s resistance to casinos. Singapore, once so strait-laced, decided to host casinos in order to keep on growing its economy. And residents of Matsu county in Taiwan have apparently voted in favour of hosting a casino.

Yes that’s right: we’ve arrived at a stage of development where we’ve got nothing better to do than kill time gambling away – often other people’s savings, as one recently-sentenced addict did of his parents’ and former colleague’s funds. One techie once even tried to persuade me to do some publicity for a Macau casino from the IT angle, saying how fantastic its ICT provisions were, so there you have it – all these technologies and all these building materials ripped from the earth to create monstrous spectacles, the better to squeeze money out of people who don’t really know right from wrong.

Using fossil fuels, which take millions of years to form in the Earth’s crust, to increase crop yields may be justified in the name of feeding humanity, but so twisted are our sense of morality in today’s world, we are now doing it the other way round – growing crops to feed our addiction to fossil fuels.

Peak oil sceptics are popping the champagne because the environmentally devastating technique of fracking has released so much oil that they no longer fret about production failing to meet demand, forgetting that the carbon emissions associated with fossil fuel use will now catch up with us sooner than the exhaustion of oil fields.

Much has been said of the effects of fracking on the environment surrounding the affected sites, but little attention has been drawn to the process itself – which requires the use of a gelling agent derived from guar, a hard bean predominantly grown in northern India. OK, so with guar gum prices going up by 800%, some farmers no longer have to go hungry, but what about the millions in India alone that don’t get enough to eat, who could do with a bit more land assigned to food crops?

During its Wild Wild West days, America lost much of its topsoil growing tobacco for export – and so many think smoking is just a personal health problem. Now the abuse continues to a stage where we have the most vicious of cycles: a crop grown to facilitate the extraction of fossil fuels to be processed into chemical fertilisers that degrade the land and release heaven knows how many tons of carbon dioxide into the air.

Isn’t it wonderful what advanced technology and world trade can do to us?

A big car park at the airport

April 1st, 2012 atam Posted in Earth, General, Peak oil No Comments »

I’ve often wondered whether, apart from a handful of Transition Towners on Lantau and the green souls at Kadoorie Farm, anybody else in Hong Kong understands what peak oil is and how it will affect us.

Well, apparently there is at least one – and what an excellent letter he penned too, which appeared in today’s Sunday Post. Here’s what he said:

“The recent decision to proceed with the construction of a third runway at Hong Kong’s airport is a potentially splendid decision if it can be built quickly enough. When many of the world’s airlines have either gone bust or significantly downsized due to rising fuel prices, the third runway will make a superb park-and-ride car park for all the mainland drivers who wish to visit Hong Kong in their vehicles provided they can afford the fuel to run them.

“For those readers who think I’m simply being sardonic, I currently earn my living visiting remote and dreadful places in support of an organisation whose job it is to find oil and gas in such locations because there is no longer any easy low-hanging carbon energy fruit to be picked. It’s more difficult and dangerous to find and extract and the price is going to continue going up. I wish my day rate would do the same.

“In a recent Bloomberg article, referring to Emirates Airlines, the Dubai-based carrier’s president said he could think of a ‘load of airlines that are teetering on the brink or are really gone.’ He said if you moved forward to Christmas, ‘another eight or nine months, and we’re going to see this industry in serious trouble.’

“Politicians and businessmen lie about this matter because the morons they need for their survival (voters and customers) don’t want to hear the truth.

“Go ahead, build the car park.”

(Mark Ranson)

What’s even more interesting is that it was reported only yesterday that Obama has decided to play a high-stakes game to sideline Iran by restricting its ability to earn revenue through oil exports. He reckoned there was sufficient oil around to cope with the resulting shortfall – but only just. “In a statement, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said the administration acknowledged that the oil market had become increasingly tight, with output just besting demand,” the report said, which went on to say that “some energy experts question whether Saudi Arabia really has enough spare capacity to make up for the loss of Iran’s oil.”

Hong Kong’s government may be proud of its huge reserves now and happy to mute dissent by offering one-off sweeteners. Soon enough though we’ll be regretting the billions spent on infrastructure to serve an oil-based society, rather than having it invested in cushioning ourselves against the social and economic shock that rising oil prices will bring.

What’s our carbon budget?

March 24th, 2012 atam Posted in Climate change, General, Peak oil No Comments »

Say you have a tube of toothpaste. What do you do with it when it’s finished?

Whether you’re the messy type who’s used to squeezing out the toothpaste anywhere along the tube or a tidy person who likes to start from the end and work your way towards the cap, there’s usually still quite a lot of toothpaste left by the time the last easy bit is squeezed out from near the cap.

A lot of people (especially those who brush their teeth with the tap running) will then throw the tube away. Those with a waste-not-want-not mentality though would try a bit of ‘ironing’ on the tube, to force out what’s left inside. The tube will then last a few days more before running out, but certainly not the couple of months you get out of a new tube.

Our situation with regards to oil is similar – except that this planet is the tube; you can’t go out and get another tube when it’s all squeezed out. Recently peak oil sceptics have been cocking a snoop at the doom-mongers, pointing at the success of fracking to raise the US’s oil output. Setting aside the environmental damage caused by this method of extracting oil or gas, the problem with their sense of triumph is the fact that this is rather like ironing out the last bit of toothpaste – which is why, rather than the steady supply of an oil field with considerable reserves left, fracking typically yields a certain amount for a short period before production drops dramatically.

Of course, if you really really want to get every last bit of toothpaste out, you can cut the tube open and scrape it out – and there may yet be the technology that will top fracking and deep-water drilling to extract the last drop of oil. But will it be worth it, environmentally and socially?

Already the price of oil is trending upwards despite the economic uncertainty surrounding the world and people everywhere are once again protesting against high fuel prices.

But the trouble with our oil addiction is not only that very soon the rate of production will cease to keep pace with rising demand, but also the fact that the carbon emissions associated with the fossil fuel will make this planet a little too hot to handle unless we cut back.

James Leaton of the Carbon Tracker Initiative offers an illuminating perspective in a recent article, in which he asked “How much ‘unburnable’ carbon is there on the world’s stock exchanges?”

By “unburnable”, he means the amount of fossil fuels that we can’t afford to utilise because doing so will create enough greenhouse gases to push climate change beyond a rise of 2ºC. His organisation worked out that the world’s listed companies own more fossil fuels than can be burned between now and 2050 if there is to be an 80% chance of climate change not going beyond 2ºC.

You can see Mr Leaton’s point just by looking at the kind of companies with plans to list in Hong Kong: Sunshine Oilsands, Kinetic Mines, Husky Energy… The Hong Kong Stock Exchange is actively courting commodities firms in competition against established commodities trading centres like London. Looked at a different way, HKEx is actively promoting the government’s vision of Hong Kong as a financial centre by exacerbating climate change.

So if the world’s not choked by peak oil by 2015, it will be by greenhouse gases not much later. We need to do much more than pay lip service to “low-carbon living” to avoid the impending disaster.

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.