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.

Who’s occupying what?

October 8th, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, General 1 Comment »

It has been noted that Occupy Central is different from the larger Occupy movement, which is anti-capitalist or anti-inequality, since Occupy Central is about universal suffrage, but look deeper and similarities will reveal themselves.

If you look at the recent meeting held by Chinese president Xi Jinping with Hong Kong ‘leaders’, you’d notice that those present all belong to the top 1% of Hong Kong in terms of income; nobody from the other 99% was there. When there is advice on the city’s sentiments from only the top 1%, it’s little wonder that its people are misrepresented.

The Occupy Central protesters are not alone in their frustration; all over the world, governments are pursuing agendas that protect those in power and those with vested interests. They may claim to support any clamour for democracy, equality and justice, but their actions, in their own cities/countries and abroad, typically demonstrate hypocrisy and expediency that suit their own purposes and not the needs of the suffering masses.

Note that the tycoon who was pictured seated right next to the Chinese president is also the one who’s now building flats with all of 196 square feet of space – for people, apparently. Note also that Russia got away with annexing the Crimea from Ukraine because Germany depends on Russia for its gas and the UK depends on Russian oligarchs to prop up its London property market, which has priced out virtually every local not in the top 10%. It’s a vicious cycle: Hong Kongers priced out of their own property market have turned their attentions to London too; flats and houses are no longer for living in, but are just another form of investment. Note also how, on the Turkish border with Syria and Iraq, people are dying from an onslaught because the Turkish government wants to weaken its Kurdish opponents rather than save lives.

There is a nice irony in the cancellation of a climate change symposium “due to the sustained disruptions in the city”. Eh? You’d think that a climate change symposium that was to take place at a venue accessible only on foot would be the least likely to be affected by the Occupy Central blockade of vehicular traffic. Not so. Delegates were supposed to be accommodated at a hotel a short walk away from the venue, which means that, once deposited from the airport, they could easily reach the venue without any problem. Those who’d intended to attend, if they really understand the issue, would be expected to take the train and then walk – no surface road transport is really necessary – but then this being Hong Kong, the concern must be that their chauffeur-driven cars would be stuck in traffic on the way.

The Occupy protesters were drenched by a couple of amber rain episodes. It’s been observed that this past rainy season has been unusually dry, despite the serious downpours when it did rain. The people of Hong Kong could do with more information about climate change, but it’s not to be, because fossil-fuel-driven vehicles are occupying the road bumper-to-bumper. The people of Hong Kong could do with a fairer society too, except that those occupying corner offices don’t want them to.

Energy from waste and wasted opportunity

July 4th, 2014 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, General No Comments »

There is a consultation on Hong Kong’s future energy mix and there is much debate over the the government’s proposed plan to build a huge incinerator in Shek Kwu Chau.

Are the two things related? Often when poor policies are formulated people complain that the various government bureaus/departments don’t talk to each other, but in this case both the energy consultation and the incinerator proposal are under the purview of the same bureau. Yet, somehow, boxed-in thinking rules the day and there appears to be no attempt to find more cost-effective solutions to the problems of energy supply and waste.

In the debate over Hong Kong’s future energy supply, the issue is dominated by whether or not some of the future supply should be obtained from the mainland grid or generated locally using natural gas. Renewal energy is mentioned but not given much weight. Now Hong Kong is unlucky when it comes to the prevailing forms of renewable energy. The sun doesn’t always shine and photovoltaic panels can’t generate much when stuck on the roof of high rises. And there isn’t always much wind either.

But what Hong Kong does have is plenty of waste. The Zero Carbon Building – designed by the Secretary for the Environment no less, when he was an architect – already uses biodiesel from waste cooking oil to generate power. As for the municipal waste that can’t be recycled and which the government is proposing to incinerate, well, why are we paying lots of money to build a huge facility that will generate even more carbon emissions, if not from the plant itself, then from the process of reclaiming the land for it and using the trucks and barges to transport the waste to the remote location for incineration?

The management consultant, qualified electrical engineer and columnist Tom Yam has long argued against the project’s huge cost to the taxpayer. What he hasn’t highlighted, however, is the opportunity for distributed energy generation that urban planners elsewhere expect to be part of the future of resilient cities. Build small incinerators throughout Hong Kong. Let them take the waste generated nearby, incinerate it and generate some electricity for the area in the process. If it’s possible to locate refuse collection points/transfer stations in all the districts throughout Hong Kong, why not small incinerators that will not be quite so costly to build?

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.

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?

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.

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.



A learning disability

November 25th, 2013 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, General 1 Comment »

There’s a book out there called The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, about someone who overcame her learning disabilities and went on to found a chain of schools to help others who suffer in the same way.

In the book, the author, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, talks about how she grew up having a prodigious memory but was unable to understand things like cause and effect, metaphors and the relationship between things. For example, when shown a photograph of a spider’s web and a separate photo of a spider, people would usually establish the association immediately; many would also understand how the spider’s web, with its myriad connecting points, came to symbolise the wordwide web.

For Arrowsmith-Young and others like her, however, the photos would be viewed as separate photos and no association between the spider’s web and the internet would be established.

What struck me about this book was not the way the author managed to devise a series of exercises to help herself, and subsequently others, overcome these learning disabilities, which are attributed to the lack of neural connections within certain parts of the brain.

No, what struck me was the fact that we are all, to a greater or lesser degree, learning-disabled. How else to explain the disconnect that seems almost impossible to overcome?

Here’s a finite planet with limited resources. There are seven billion people on this finite planet using these resources so quickly that even supposedly renewable resources like water are being exhausted, and guess what: we want MORE people. Here’s yet another assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change affirming the man-made nature of global warming, and what are we doing? We are racing to extract the last fossil fuels left in the ground. Anyone who’s numerate would know what the consequence of exponential growth is, and guess what? We want to maintain economic growth.

Arrowsmith-Young’s students are eager to clear the fog in their heads and make the connections. We, alas, want to see off visible air pollution but not the fog in our heads.

The inequalities of climate change

November 11th, 2013 atam Posted in Climate change, General 1 Comment »

Hong Kong is an amazing place. There could be a black rainstorm with well over 70 millimetres of rain falling per hour and, as soon as it stops, the streets in the urban areas would be dry and in no time at all, the crowd will be back as if nothing’s happened.

When I spoke to officials of the Geotechnical Engineering Office about seven years ago, I was told that Hong Kong spent the equivalent of HK$5,000 per man, woman and child on landslip prevention. Think how much that must be considering Hong Kong’s population was already approaching seven million then. Think also of how much more has been spent since to protect the city from landslides and flooding now the government has decided to treat dangerous natural slopes as well as man-made slopes and has completed several major tunnels to divert stormwater before they reach urban areas downhill.

Contrast that with less well-off places around the world, where every storm creates such havoc that millions lose their homes if not their lives, where governments simply do not have the funds to pay for the kind of works that protect Hong Kong from carnage. Look at the Philippines, which has been battered by Typhoon Haiyan and lost 10,000 people to storm surges in Tacloban city. The Philippines has always taken the brunt of typhoons, but never before has a storm this ferocious swept in from the Pacific.

Scientists have long predicted that global warming would trigger more extreme weather events and that such events will disproportionately affect poor nations which have neither the infrastructure nor funds to improve their climate resilience. In climate talks – the next round is just round the corner – negotiators, especially those from developing countries, have called for the governments of countries that are responsible for much of the global warming to provide funds to help them cope.

Typhoon Haiyan and the Manila hostage tragedy are unrelated events, but does it make sense if the victims of the hostage tragedy, in a spirit of forgiveness, ask that any offer of compensation be spent on helping the hundreds of thousands of victims of Typhoon Haiyan? There is no denying the physical, mental and emotional suffering of those who went through the hostage crisis. Given that some may struggle to pay for the long-term care they need, financial support for the victims is indeed called for, but is this something the Philippines can afford, especially now given the amount needed to help victims of the typhoon? If a fund could be set up in Hong Kong to help the victims of SARS, can a similar fund not be set up to help the victims of the hostage tragedy? Surely it’s time for Hong Kong to show a spirit of community and reach out to help, not bully, a neighbour?