Different rules for different groups

February 18th, 2016 atam Posted in Building, Earth No Comments »

Here’s a tip for all those opposed to the construction of a third runway at Chek Lap Kok: get a big-name developer behind your campaign against the project, and you can get it stopped even at this late stage.

Oh, so you’re just a dolphin or green group? Sorry, too bad, forget about it.

The government’s prompt response to the opposition of powerful business groups to the proposed renovation of the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade by a single developer – by withdrawing the proposal and opting to carry out minimal upgrading instead – shows whose opinion it really cares about as well as how little it cares about the community it purports to ‘consult’. Despite the public objecting to the proposal during the ‘public consultation’, it was prepared to steamroll the scheme like it’s done with every other scheme until those business groups launched a judicial review.

How remiss of it; typically, the government is quick to rope in business interests, then claims that it has already consulted ‘stakeholders’. That applies even where business interests have no business being involved – like the Lantau countryside.

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.

Trees have no money or lobbying power

November 11th, 2015 atam Posted in Building, Earth, General No Comments »

Listening to ex-Hong Kong CE Tung Chee-hwa talk about how sad he was to hear about a family having to pay HK$3 million for a 170-square feet flat and his think tank’s idea of chopping down trees to provide enough land to build housing for everyone, a tree may groan.

“Sigh, I clean the polluted air and provide a home for different species of animals that keep the environment healthy. My roots hold the soil together so it doesn’t slide away when there’s heavy rail, and I help filter the rain so what goes into the reservoirs is fairly clean. And yet, all Hong Kong people can think of is cut me down.”

The tree may have added that, right next to the country park where it stands, a sprawling village has just sprawled further with new three-storey village houses built to be sold to outsiders for a profit, or former farmland deliberately ruined as the owner awaits the knock of a developer. The tree may have one or two NGOs with no official position and zero financial clout arguing on its behalf, but they’re hardly a match for the wealth and power of village chiefs, which have successfully put a stop to all conversation about the unsustainable small house policy. So while there’s endless talk of a shortage of land to meet Hong Kong’s housing needs, no one dare suggest the land’s right there, occupied by three-storey high village houses rather than the 50-storey high housing estates that could accommodate thousands more people.

There are villages where the occupants genuinely care about maintaining their rural way of life, but those who have clamoured against any encroachment on their turf are doing so purely for profit. So while their chiefs rub shoulders with the high and mighty, the poor trees can only sigh and hope for the best. After all, the way things are going, climate change may claim them if the chairsaw doesn’t, right?

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.


March 31st, 2015 atam Posted in Earth, General 1 Comment »

No, not “bring your own bag”, nor “bring your own bottle”, though both are good ideas.

This BYOB stands for “bring your own backpack”. Starting 1 April 2015, Hong Kong’s plastic bag levy will be extended to cover all kinds of purchases, with some exemptions. Rather than just bringing your own shopping bag, it makes sense to bring a backpack and here are some reasons why:

  • A backpack allows you to carry your purchases while keeping your hands free
  • If you’ve got more stuff than the backpack can hold, it allows you to carry additional shopping bags with your free hands
  • A backpack also lets you conveniently bring your own bottle
  • Carried properly over both shoulders, it’s much better for your spine than bags that you usually hold in your dominant hand through the entire journey
  • A backpack gives you extra breathing space on public transport like the MTR

I don’t agree with some of the exemptions; for example, plastic is used unnecessarily by retailers to bundle goods for special offers when they can simply put up labels indicating them. Still, the levy is a good start.

Can something be done over plastic bottles next? After all, do we really need to fatten the pockets of conglomerates buying bottled water when we can bottle our own at the tap? Or ruin our teeth and health buying flavoured drinks? So there are some bottled herbal teas and juices; well, why not get them fresh from the herbal shops and juice stalls?

Finally, a nod to the Agriculture & Fisheries Department for encouraging hikers to bring their own bottles, as this poster at one country park shows.