Dirty old town
Hong Kong is slowly choking on its own pollution. Technology may be a major cause, but it could also be a cure
David Wilson – Updated on Sep 28, 2008 – SCMP
Hong Kong survived the bird-flu pandemic and Asian financial crisis in 1997 and the Sars outbreak in 2003. Now many fear that it will be a chronic crisis – air pollution – that will do most harm to the city’s future.
In a place where earnings and acquisition have long been people’s priorities, a dramatic shift in behaviour appears necessary to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a victim of its “toxic sewers”.
Calls have been made, urging consumers to adopt “clean” technologies, and the city’s government and commercial sectors to pursue more green initiatives.
Clean technology, as described by United States-based research firm Clean Edge, is “a diverse range of products, services and processes that harness renewable materials and energy sources, dramatically reduce the use of natural resources, and cut or eliminate emissions and wastes”. It notes that clean technologies “are competitive with, if not superior to, their conventional counterparts”.
Green initiatives include campaigns against “light pollution” – the excessive use of neon lights and overlit advertising. Government-led efforts include implementing strict guidelines for auditing the carbon emissions of commercial and residential buildings and more stringent air-quality, fuel and vehicle emission standards.
According to research conducted at the University of Hong Kong, the city’s air contains almost three times more soot and other pollutants than New York’s and more than twice that of London. Hong Kong is bedeviled by high particulate matter levels, which are linked to increased mortality risk. It also has high levels of sulphur dioxide, which has been linked to childhood respiratory disease.
The main culprits are coal-fired power plants, wasteful household consumption and traffic. It was reported that Hong Kong’s roads are the world’s most crowded, with almost 280 vehicles for every kilometre. Early this month, Greenpeace China unveiled its Real Air Pollution Index for Hong Kong, to spur the government to fall in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. On the green group’s website, there is the Air Pollution Clock – a free download that counts the number of hours since July 1 this year that Hong Kong’s air has failed to reach WHO standards.
As well as discouraging tourists, the pollution is threatening Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s financial hub. US investment bank Merrill Lynch has warned that the air quality is so lousy it poses a real danger to the city’s long-term competitiveness. Already, multinational corporate executives have given up on Hong Kong’s smog-filled skyline and moved to greener Asian cities, such as Singapore. We have asked a group of local experts to share their views on how members of the community can do their bit to help clean up the city and the planet.
Christine Loh Kung-wai is a former Hong Kong legislator and chief executive of Civic Exchange, an independent, non-profit public policy think-tank.
“Anything that is more energy-efficient can qualify [as clean technology], including bicycles and other pedal-powered devices. Look at the Segway two-wheeled electric transporter. Consider low-energy light bulbs and lightweight hybrid cars such as the Hypercar from the Rocky Mountain Institute [www.rmi.org/hypercar]. The vehicle offers ultra-light construction, low-drag design and hybrid-electric drive. Cars made with strong lightweight materials go further on less fuel.
“Then there is clean water technology – aided by devices such as filters and low-flow shower heads. More and more Escos [energy service companies], architects and engineers, even power companies are providing energy-efficient products.
“But changing our behaviour is more important than buying new technology. We must consume less.”
Christian Masset, chairman of Clear the Air (www.cleartheair.org.hk), a volunteer organisation targeting Hong Kong’s air-pollution issues, suggests that households take the initiative and provide a good example in their local communities.
“To save on energy, install a room temperature controller such as the ION Tx PIR. It’s basically a smart thermostat that controls the overall temperature using a network of occupancy sensors in various rooms in a home. It can be paired with the air conditioner or, even better, with less energy-consuming ceiling fans.
“Whatever electronics you have in your house, it’s best not to leave them on standby. Switch them off when not in use. This simple energy-cutting solution can save up to 20 per cent on your electricity bill.
“If you live in a windy location, install Motorwind [www.motorwavegroup.com] turbines to produce part of your electricity without drawing it all from the [electricity] grid. The nylon turbines can be installed on balconies of flats or rooftops of buildings and generate electricity at wind speeds as low as 2 metres per second.
“For cleaner transport, I think people should support the Hong Kong-made electric car designed by EuAuto Technology [www.euauto.com.hk]. All you need to do is plug the car into a standard household socket for six to eight hours to recharge its batteries. Once the vehicle has been fully charged, you’re ready to go – and at speeds of up to 40mph.”
James Ockenden, publisher of environmental technology, engineering and finance magazine Blue Skies China [blueskieschina.com], believes that prudent investment decisions could make a big difference.
“Buy a clean-tech mutual fund but watch where the money is invested. Some high-street `climate change’ funds invest in Toyota, claiming hybrid development is worthy of green money. That is debatable. Make sure the fund manager’s definition of `green’ aligns with yours. If you have US$50,000 to invest, consider a specialist Chinese venture capital fund. The money will go pretty much directly into a clean technology start-up.
“Watch your carbon offsets [a carbon offset is a financial instrument representing a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions]. Choose a well-audited scheme such as Carbonfund.org [the non-profit US organisation buys and retires certified carbon offsets for its donors]. You can be sure your money will actually go towards making industry pay more for the right to produce carbon dioxide [CO2] emissions. A tonne of CO2 reduction costs from €20 [HK$230] to €30 in the European market, while some retail schemes charge 10 times that for questionable, even worthless, carbon certificates.
“Don’t pick up the IPO prospectus; try to read it online when possible. The Hong Kong stock exchange is experimenting with electronic market information. If successful, it could be applied to the Chinese stock markets, saving billions of pages of ink and paper each year.
“Ditch the car, get a trolley [to carry bulky goods]. The classic Hong Kong trolley, which costs HK$300 and up, is a remarkable piece of clean-tech engineering – it’s green like a bicycle, carries a decent payload and fits into a taxi for long trips.
“Until there’s a decent environmental building code in Hong Kong, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any energy efficiency benchmark to compare flats to. Still, it doesn’t hurt to ask property developers tough questions. Demand some kind of energy efficiency/social responsibility report when looking at new buildings. Ask if the property has single-glazed windows. Check if the building uses low-VOC [volatile organic compound] paint. Organic vapour from paint is a major cause of brown haze.”
Martin Williams (www.drmartinwilliams.com), a Hong Kong-based conservationist, photographer and writer, sees the internet helping more people live an eco-friendly life.
“Technology tends to go against green living. But using the internet, consumers can get better information than many so-called `green’ television documentaries provide. The Web also allows individuals to take some action. You can join discussions, participate in online campaigns and play a role in making grander changes than simply switching to long-life light bulbs in your home.
“Also important: switch off, reduce, reuse and recycle. Have hi-tech gizmos repaired as soon as possible, don’t just buy new ones for the sake of fashion. Modern condoms may not be thought of as clean technology, but with the planet’s resources already overstrained by the human population, green living also means not having loads of children; future generations must be given a chance of a better life.”
For more information about Hong Kong’s air, visit www.greenpeace.org/china/en/campaigns/air-pollution. Take a look at the Air Pollution Clock – if you dare.