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?

That medicine cabinet

February 2nd, 2015 atam Posted in Earth, General No Comments »

What do you do with your expired medicine? Let it sit in the medicine cabinet, pretending not to see it? Flush it down the toilet? Chuck it in the bin?

I thought I was doing the responsible thing when I took some expired medicine back to the hospital whose pharmacy issued it, for safe disposal. What happened next was ten minutes of confusion as one nurse mumbled about there not being a policy for taking such medicine for disposal, followed by a summons to a superior to repeat the same message.

Hospitals in Hong Kong are required to collect all medical waste for safe disposal at the chemical waste treatment facility in Tsing Yi. Surely it’s not all that difficult to set up collection boxes to take back expired medicine returned by patients for removal at the same time?

We worry about air pollution in Hong Kong because we can see the smog, but what about other kinds of pollution? We don’t want the landfills extended so more and more people have some awareness of the issue of solid waste. Wastewater came into our consciousness when it was discovered that the water in Victoria Harbour was too foul to swim in, back in the days when large-scale sewage treatment wasn’t in place.

No one, however, appears concerned about what should be a major issue, here and everywhere. Over ten years ago, tests on drinking water in the UK discovered an amount of the anti-depressant Prozac, which water treatment plants aren’t supposed to remove, sufficient to cause concern. More recent research indicated that fish exposed to human medicine display adverse behaviour. That’s from medicine we discharge after our bodies have processed it; what’s the consequence of exposing the environment to much more powerful, unprocessed medicine?

The problem worries the US Environmental Protection Agency enough for it to issue the National Hazardous Waste Management Plan in June 2014, which stated that, “Given their potential for environmental pollution, a take-back scheme for expired household medicine is needed.”

If we can set up collection boxes for compact fluorescent lamps so they can be taken back and the mercury in them safely removed, surely we can do the same for expired medicine?


October 27th, 2014 atam Posted in Earth, Food, General No Comments »

Hey Halloween is here and you’d better be scared: the pumpkin harvest has been bad in a variety of places and farmers have warned of a shortage.

What’s really scary though is the thought of all the water and energy that go into producing a crop of pumpkins just so people can play Halloween. According to reports, of the ten million pumpkins grown in the UK each year, only 5% is consumed as food; the rest are carved into pumpkin lanterns. Separate reports said that the soil in the UK is so degraded that there are only 100 harvests left.

Once upon a time economic activity had a social function. Cars were manufactured to transport people and goods. Washing machines were made to free people from domestic drudgery. Now most economic activities exist purely to generate a profit. Environmentally harmful activities are justified by the provision of dubious employment; take, for example, Halloween. What exactly do people do with all the silly costumes and decorations once the partying’s over? Do those who dress up as zombies and the like to entertain party-goers get a decent wage around the year?

When Hong Kong’s privacy commissioner called for tighter regulations of cold calling, the response of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau was that this could affect the jobs of those employed to make cold calls. So jobs are jobs, eh, regardless of their nature. Amoral governments want people to produce bigger families so there are more young people to maintain clearly unsustainable economic growth. More young people, more party-goers come Halloween, right?

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?

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?

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.

They want more people?

October 26th, 2013 atam Posted in Earth, General No Comments »

Have you noticed the MTR is always packed these days? You don’t have to try taking the train at peak hours to feel the squeeze anymore. On the street as well, it’s sometimes hard to move on the pavement unless a typhoon happens to sweep by. And yet, the government says we haven’t got enough people.

According to the Chief Secretary, this city of more than seven million people can’t afford a low fertility rate because it could hinder economic growth. Oh right, never mind the social and environmental impact of overpopulation; just make babies so big bosses will have the labour they need to make a profit out of selling things we don’t need.

Is it possible in a finite planet to produce more and more people for the sake of the GDP figure when environmental degradation is already at a tipping point? Governments worry about an ageing population putting pressure on healthcare and welfare services, but if they are truly committed to sustainability, they would look for ways to overcome this demographic hump rather than try to grow out of the problem. Increasing the population may solve the problem for those in power today but make it worse for those to come, but short-termism is a characteristic of today’s politicians isn’t it?

Besides, an ageing population need not be such a serious healthcare issue if more effort is put into helping people age healthily. Look at Japan: their old are scaling Everest aged 70 and above. Jiroemon Kimura, Japan’s oldest man until he died at 116 a few months ago, worked as a postman all his life and, after retirement, grew food. He ate healthy food and remained physically active all his life. The diseases likely to have the biggest impact on healthcare costs – diabetes and heart diseases – are lifestyle-related. Hong Kong will have a problem because the people go to dessert buffets to gobble up loads of sugar then lounge around playing with their smartphones.

When a government does nothing to stop companies selling unhealthy, sugary snacks and drinks to the public, the healthcare cost goes up, and we’re told we need more babies to cover it.

No to country park for housing

September 9th, 2013 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth 1 Comment »

There’s a very good reason why Hong Kong’s Development Secretary should not be Hong Kong’s Development Secretary: he has no understanding of the broader issues that affect his portfolio.

Just because 43% (not the 70% that Paul Chan claimed to justify his plans) of Hong Kong’s land is protected country park doesn’t make it acceptable to seize any of it for housing. Here are a few reasons why:

  • The country park system was set up in the first place to protect Hong Kong’s water resource; the benefit to the city’s flora and fauna is a side consequence of this. Although the city now buys most of its water from mainland China, shortages due to climate change-induced drought will make it increasingly important for us to maintain a source of clean local supply
  • Our country parks give us green lungs, attract visitors tired of endless shopping and ameliorate the urban heat island effect caused by densely built-up areas
  • There is plenty of land now hogged by indigenous villagers taking advantage of the small house policy to build three-storey village houses, not for their own use, but for profit. By calling for the destruction of the country parks in the name of housing, Paul Chan is dodging the contentious issue of the small house policy. His predecessor, the current Chief Secretary Mrs Carrie Lam, had a better understanding of the broader issues and tried what she could to at least start the debate when she was in his post; not Chan.

What Chan is suggesting is not something that will benefit Hong Kong as a whole. It will, however, benefit property players who must be rubbing their hands in glee, awaiting the opportunity to chop down the trees to build flats so small they have been described as glorified subdivided flats – which, of course, are what Chan himself is known to have invested in before he assumed his official post.