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.

Don’t just protest; act

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

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

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

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

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

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

The assault on trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying the price for a concrete jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guess what the Saudis are doing?

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hope so.

Revisiting the scheme of control

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

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

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

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

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

HK$78 million a minute

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Top Gear man vs climate change?!

April 1st, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change No Comments »

Stranger things have happened I guess.  Days after Jeremy Clarkson got fired by the BBC for punching his producer, the former Top Gear presenter suddenly found himself, instead of driving yet another fuel-guzzling sports car to some exotic location, cycling down the road to Damascus.

Now he’s been persuaded by the Guardian to join its campaign to call on charitable foundations to divest their interests in fossil fuel companies.

“I was the poster boy for petrolheads. Now I want to become a – perhaps less gendered – poster person for the carbon-haters.”

Yup, he said that.  What next?  Status-obsessed Hong Kongers ditching their cars in favour of the MTR?




Can tourism be sustainable?

March 16th, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Culture, Earth No Comments »

You’ve been out all day sightseeing and you’re feeling sweaty and sticky, so what do you do as soon as you get back to the hotel? Have a hot bath/shower, right? And what a treat it is, running a bath/shower knowing you don’t have to pay for the water, which is expensive back home.

Never mind the freshwater shortage that threatens the entire globe due to climate change. Never mind even the drought that may be afflicting the very place you’re visiting, because even while locals may be forced to cut back on their water use, tourists staying at hotels can always get away with it.

Tourism is big business and funny business. In the past, it was mostly developing countries without other established industries that relied on tourism for revenue. The locals quickly learnt to consider tourists cash cows and any kind of scams and overcharging were fair game. Now, in the post-financial tsunami world, for many developed countries that have supposedly moved up the development curve by shedding dependence on factory production to become service economies, tourism has suddenly become a big thing.

It has become such a big thing that the tourists who used to dutifully visit historical sites and other ‘places of interest’ are spilling over into regular places where locals live and work, creating tension where their numbers have become overwhelming.

Do you not find it funny that all these visitors are forever being herded to must-see places to have their pictures taken with the same backdrops so they have the bragging rights when they get home? I’m always reminded of the film “Up in the Air”, in which George Clooney’s character carries a cardboard cutout of his sister and her fiancé with him wherever he goes to fire people – that being his job – so they can create a photo album that looks as though they’ve been to so many places. We’ve got so many photo-touching software these days, can’t we just cut and paste the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks on pictures of ourselves and save the money, the fuel, the aggro at the airport and the germs on the flights, particularly since we never come away with the slightest clue about the local culture given the shortness of our stay?

If you read enough articles about travel, you’ll find not a few descriptions of nice, still-pristine places where few tourists have tread, and always there’ll be the qualifier: “Get there before everybody else does.” So what happens when everybody who reads that article takes that advice? Hey, go see those Stone Age cave paintings before the oxygen from the breaths of so many tourists obliterates them. Visit that beautiful island before the locals are corrupted into manipulating tourists for profit. Stay at a nice hotel where the chambermaids don’t get paid the minimum wage.

Ever wonder why we are wasting so much water, burning so much greenhouse gas-emitting fuel and losing so much time checking in/out, packing/unpacking, flying/landing, etc, to sate a restlessness in our minds that we don’t understand?