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How we discovered pollution-poisoned crustaceans in the Mariana Trench

Even animals from the deepest places on Earth have accumulated pollutants made by humans. That’s the unfortunate finding of a new study by myself with colleagues from the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Up until now I have tended to stick to the nice side of deep sea biology: discovery and exploration. My colleagues and I are quite at ease in ocean trenches as scientists there can usually work without having to wrestle with anthropogenic impacts like litter or noise and chemical pollution. It is Earth at its most pristine.

But in this instance, while investigating the ecology of Pacific trenches, and with such a unique opportunity to collect deep sea specimens, we couldn’t resist having a quick look for man’s mighty footprint.

We tested various different species of tiny scavenging crustaceans known as amphipods that we gathered between 7,000 and 10,500 metres in depth in the Mariana and the Kermadec trenches in the western Pacific. We found that regardless of depth, regardless of species, regardless of trench, these animals were loaded with the two types of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) we were looking for.

In creatures that live in shallower waters, exposure to POPs can reduce reproductive success and thus population growth. It’s hard to study deeper animals alive under controlled conditions but can assume the pollutants have a similar effect. There were striking variations between trenches and between the sorts of pollutant, but the salient finding is that humanity’s footprint is thoroughly imprinted on some of the most extreme and remote environments on Earth.

In the deep sea these pollutants are particularly concerning as they are inherently hydrophobic, which means they will bind to anything that isn’t water. This includes tiny specs of “marine snow” or larger carcasses that fall through the ocean, which is how the deep sea receives most of its energy. Therefore the primary mechanism of food supply to great depths is also a very efficient way to deliver pollution.

But where did it all come from? Take one of the two types of pollutants for example, a category known as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs. About 1.3m tonnes were produced between the 1930s and 1970s to use in paints, plastics, electronic equipment and more. Of this, 65% is now contained in landfills or still within electrical equipment. But more worryingly, the other 35% was accidentally released into the environment.

These pollutants are invulnerable to natural degradation and so persist in the environment for decades, therefore once they find their way into rivers, coast lines and the open ocean there’s plenty of time to sink many kilometres below the waves.

And once a pollutant finds itself in the greatest ocean depth, where else is there to go? The bottom of the Mariana Trench, for example, the deepest point on Earth, was found to host highly-contaminated amphipods. Once these POPs are in the food web there are no mechanisms for dispersal or reversal from such great depths, and hence the bio-accumulation will only continue.

The only positive from this story is that, once people realised these chemicals were an awful contribution to the world, POPs were banned by the 2001 Stockholm Convention. At this point one would hope some major lessons were learned. But no, we don’t look have to look far to realise this taught us nothing. Just take a look at the plague of plastic microbeads (and other microplastics) turning up in the ocean following a brief excursion from, say, a cosmetics bottle, across someone’s face or armpit and then sent on the long journey down the plug hole.

It seems that once again, we have a shocking example of our own stupidity, as people gradually realise that plastic microbeads are, funnily enough, made of plastic, and that stuff that goes down the sink doesn’t magically disappear into another dimension.

The deep sea is closer than you think

We have all likely heard that “Mount Everest would fit into the Mariana Trench with over a mile to spare” or some other pointless analogy regarding the number of elephants standing on a car illustrating the high pressures in the oceans. These all serve to needlessly distance ourselves from these remote marine frontiers.

Of course, the pressure and depth are immense, which do require incredible physiological adaptations for survival, and equally clever engineering solutions for exploration, but the 11km that so easily swallows Mount Everest is still only 11km. Think of it like this: 11km is only half the length of Manhattan Island, I could legally drive it in less than six minutes, and Mo Farah could run it in less than 30 minutes.

The reality is that the deep sea just isn’t that remote, and the great depth and pressures are only an imaginary defence against the effects of what we do “up here”. The bottom line is that the deep sea – most of planet Earth – is anything but exempt from the consequences of what happens above it, and it’s about time we appreciated that.

Activists lose judicial review over construction of airport’s third runway

Two activists lost their legal challenge on Thursday to prevent the construction of the Hong Kong International Airport’s third runway. The High Court dismissed their judicial review.

The two applicants, Lantau resident Ho Loy and member of Green Sense Yu Hin-pik, argued that the environmental impact assessment conducted by the Environmental Protection Department was flawed, as it did not provide a sufficient evaluation of the project’s ecological impact.

The third runway system. Photo: Airport Authority

The third runway system. Photo: Airport Authority

The third runway project was proposed by the Airport Authority in 2010 because of increasing traffic at Hong Kong’s only airport. The plan included reclaiming 650 hectares of land north of the airport for the third runway, as well as expanding the existing Terminal Two for immigration clearance.

New marine park

The applicants said the assessment failed to offer off-site mitigation measures regarding the loss of habitat by Chinese White Dolphins. However, Mr Justice Chow said the report already included a list of mitigation and compensation measures to avoid and reduce potential environmental impacts, such as the designation of a new marine park.

The activists also said that noise estimates and the predicted impact to air quality was based on information provided by the Airport Authority and the assumption that the mainland will open up its airspace. The judge said the Civil Aviation Department consulted expert opinion and relevant data to confirm the authenticity of the assumptions and data.

The proposed third runway. Photo: GovHK.

The proposed third runway. Photo: GovHK.

Mr Justice Chow said that the court only had to rule on whether the assessment by the city’s environmental watchdog had followed due procedures – not to examine the “Airport Authority’s wisdom in pursuing the project”.

In August, protesters held a demonstration at the airport in response to the construction of the third runway. They called for the Airport Authority to suspend land reclamation work and to stop charging passengers as a means to subsidise the project.

The Authority said they welcomed the ruling and will continue implementing the mitigation measures according to the environmental impact assessment and permits.

According to Apple Daily, the applicants are currently looking into the judgment and will not rule out the possibility of filing an appeal. Green Sense said in a statement that they were “very disappointed” with the court’s decision.

China’s hairy crab scandal reveals depth of pollution crisis

Toxin-tainted crustaceans raise doubts over clean-up of showpiece lake

Every autumn, Hong Kong restaurants serve a seasonal delicacy: hairy crabs, shipped the same day from lakes around the Chinese city of Suzhou.

But the territory’s food safety inspectors recently made a shocking discovery: some crabs in this year’s consignment contained dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals. Even worse, the crabs appeared to come from Lake Tai, a model in China’s fight against pollution after a multiyear, multibillion-dollar clean-up.

Has the clean-up failed? Or is something else amiss? The answer, says crab breeder Wang Yue, lies in “bathing crabs”, which carry the Lake Tai name but have spent minimal time in its waters.

Mr Wang and his family tend hundreds of crabs in baskets hung from bamboo posts in shallow Lake Tai, also known as Taihu. He estimates the market for crabs has grown to three times what families like his can produce, so crabs grown elsewhere are brought to the lake for a few days so that they can be sold on at a premium — a practice known as giving them a “bath”.

“The crabs here are sweet and tasty because the water is fresh. But people in other cities don’t know the difference,” he said. “Some people can make a lot of money by pretending they come from Lake Tai.”

Lake Tai and nearby Yangcheng Lake provide top-quality hairy crabs. But so many are cultivated elsewhere — in nearby lakes, ponds dug into former rice fields or even under solar farms — that prices have been depressed and breeders on Lake Tai struggle to break even.

The bathing crabs affair appears to be a classic Chinese food safety story, where an explosion in production outpaces regulators’ ability to police quality. But the bigger problem is the long shadow cast by China’s polluters.

A showcase environmental clean-up has markedly improved water quality at Lake Tai. But the costly success does little to address China’s broader soil pollution crisis.

Over the past decade, central planners drew up blueprints to tackle smog, water pollution and soil pollution by closing or moving factories, regulating emissions and improving monitoring — the playbook used at Lake Tai.

The result has been a steady improvement in COD, a measure of the organic content in water and one of Beijing’s environmental targets. But the dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls found in the crabs could come from poorly regulated waste incinerators or steel sintering elsewhere in the Yangtze Delta region, or wherever the bathing crabs are raised.

“It may be discharged as air emissions but if it showed up in crabmeat it’s because the emissions got into the water and the soil, the sediment,” said Ma Jun, a Chinese environmentalist. Persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs “are hard to decompose. They are persistent. They will stay in the environment for a long time.”

From Mr Wang’s weir, the water smells fresh. A bucket of snails on his porch and the egrets perching on the bamboo struts testify to the improvement in water quality.

It used to be much worse. In the 1990s, 1bn tonnes of rubbish, waste water, pig manure and fertiliser entered Lake Tai every year. Petrochemicals, smelting and textiles turned the waterlogged region into one of the wealthiest in China. Local governments turned a blind eye to polluters.

In 2007 a toxic algae bloom cut off drinking water to 2m people for 10 days. Weeks earlier, authorities arrested a local man campaigning against factories dumping waste in the lake. He was jailed for three years.

After the algae bloom, Beijing declared the lake a natural disaster zone and ordered it cleaned by 2012. It shut factories and moved foundries to industrial zones, installed waste water treatment plants and discouraged pig farm expansion. A widened channel to the Yangtze river helped water circulate.

“There are 35m to 40m people around this lake who rely on its water. So the government had to prioritise it,” said Fang Yingjun, head of Lüse Jiangnan Public Environment Concerned Center, a non-governmental organisation. “Every year we go to the same spot to check the water for algae and every year it’s better. It really is much better. So much money has been spent.”

It was not easy. The warm, shallow lake is the perfect spot for organic pollutants to trigger algae blooms. At 2,338 sq km, it is one and a half times the size of Greater London — big enough to hide plenty of sins.

“You can’t really see the polluted water any more but companies are still good at disguise,” said Wu Lihong, the campaigner who was jailed. Lake residents still spot underwater pipes leading from factories. This summer a secret landfill for waste from Shanghai was discovered on an island in the lake.

And while Beijing focused on Lake Tai, it also encouraged polluting factories to migrate from wealthier areas to the poor hinterland. Meanwhile, ecommerce and cheap airfares allowed new crab farms to spring up around China.

Bathing crabs are likely to remain a barometer of China’s ability to clean up its environment for years to come.

Chemical clue to why seabirds eat plastic

Plastic pollution in the sea gives off a smell that attracts foraging birds, scientists have found.

The discovery could explain why seabirds such as the albatross swallow plastic, causing injury or death.

The smell, similar to the odour of rotting seaweed, is caused by the breakdown of plankton that sticks to floating bits of plastic.

About 90% of seabirds have eaten plastic and may keep some in their bellies, putting their health at risk.

The rate of plastic pollution is increasing around the world, with a quarter of a billion tonnes of plastic waste recorded in the oceans in 2014.

Scientists think seabirds associate the smell of plastic with food – and are tricked into swallowing plastic waste.

“These seabirds actually use odours to find their way around in the world and to find food,” said Matthew Savoca, of University of California, Davis.

“We found a chemical on plastic that these birds typically associate with food, but now it’s being associated with plastic.

“And so these birds might be very confused – and tricked into consuming plastic as food.”

Cabbage smell

In experiments, scientists at the University of California put microbeads into mesh bags and dangled them in the ocean.

After three weeks at sea, they analysed the plastic for chemical signatures.

Nothing was found on new plastic samples, but three types of plastic in the sea acquired a distinctive chemical smell.

The chemical – dimethyl sulfide – has a characteristic sulphurous odour associated with boiling cabbage or decaying seaweed.

It is also produced in the oceans through the breakdown of microscopic algae or phytoplankton, which collects on plastic.

Seabirds with a keen sense of smell, including albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters, can detect this odour, which they associate with food.

Thus, smells as well as visual cues – such as shiny plastic – may attract seabirds to plastic.

Co-researcher Prof Gabrielle Nevitt, also from UC Davis, said species such as petrels were likely to be affected by plastic ingestion.

“These species nest in underground burrows, which are hard to study, so they are often overlooked,” she said.

“Yet, based on their foraging strategy, this study shows they’re actually consuming a lot of plastic and are particularly vulnerable to marine debris.”

The researchers are calling for more research to see if other animals – such as fish, penguins and turtles – are also drawn to plastic by chemicals.

And they say it might be possible to develop plastics that either do not attract algae or break down more quickly in the environment.

Even knowing which species are most at risk based on the way they find food is informative – because it helps us – the scientific community – figure out how to best allocate monitoring and conservation effort to those species most at need,” said Dr Savoca.

The research is published in the journal Science Advances.

How two women from Canada are leading the fight against marine pollution in Hong Kong

Lisa Christensen and Nissa Marion helm Ecozine, an environmental organisation behind the annual Hong Kong Clean-up Challenge

When former Canadian golf marketing executive Lisa Christensen first took part in a 1999 coastal clean-up event, little did she know she would commit her life to tackling Hong Kong’s waste problem.

Neither did she know she would later found an environmental organisation empowering tens of thousands of people to clean up the city’s shorelines every year.

Last year Christensen’s company Ecozine, a media platform devoted to sustainable lifestyles, engaged 75,623 people to clean up 4.6 million kilograms of trash from 2,447km of shorelines, country park trails and city streets during its annual Hong Kong Clean-up Challenge.

Nissa Marion is the Robin to Christensen’s Batman in fighting the city’s environmental injustice. The former model and actress from Canada joined Christensen at Ecozine in 2010 and is now the editor-in-chief of its publications. The challenge has evolved from a one-day event 16 years ago to a nine-week programme enjoyed by individuals and corporations alike. With the latest challenge ongoing since September 1 and running till December 1, Christensen and Marion shared with the Post their views on how to address the city’s problem of plastic waste.

What inspired you to start beach clean-up events in Hong Kong?

LC: When I arrived in Hong Kong in 1997, I did a lot of hiking. I was up in Tai Long Wan in Sai Kung, and was shocked at all the trash I saw on the beach and how the beach was just completely destroyed. I had never seen anything like that, growing up in Canada where we have pristine, clean oceans. I just couldn’t get over what I saw there. So I investigated and found that Hong Kong had virtually no recycling system. It had a very high consumption rate, poor waste management strategies and solutions, and a big littering problem. So I joined a beach clean-up in 1999 with Christine Loh Kung-wai. She’s now the undersecretary for the environment. I was so inspired by what I saw that I decided to organise my own beach clean-up the next year.

How did the original clean-up events eventually evolve into the annual Hong Kong Clean-up Challenge?

LC: We had about 100 volunteers the first year. In 2003, we started to get more companies involved. That year I reached out to the organisers of the International Coastal Clean-up in Washington. They said they would love to have us as their Hong Kong representative. So that’s when real growth started. We grew from 50 volunteers to 150, and then 500, and eventually 7,500 volunteers. The number is still growing. As for the Clean-up event, we have seen around a 60 per cent increase each year. Last year, we had about 75,000 participants.

How does the Hong Kong Clean-up Challenge work?

LC: We identify hundreds of beaches that have not been routinely cleaned by the government, such as mangroves, rocky shorelines, beaches and even country trails.

Companies and individuals can go on our website and choose a beach that is near their neighbourhood. They can then sign up as a team to participate. We provide all the know-how materials and education. We invite the team captain to collect and manage data when they collect the trash. This is a very important part of what we do. [The data] goes into a global index managed by Ocean Conservancy, a non-governmental ­organisation in Washington. And by the end of the challenge, teams can win awards for categories such as ‘Weirdest Item Found’, ‘Most Trash Collected’, ‘Largest Non-corporate Team’. We will invite our goodwill ambassadors like actor Daniel Wu and musician Jack Johnson to give out awards to winners at a ceremony.

What are some of the most rewarding moments in a clean-up?

NM: Almost every time we do a beach clean-up, someone in the group would come up to me and say: “Wow I had no idea. I am never using a plastic straw again,” or “I am never buying another plastic bottle of water again.” These small wins and those who share with me that they are creating a change in their lives based on their participation are so rewarding. It is inspiring to know that what happened to me is happening to other people.

How has local environmental awareness changed over the years, and how has this impacted the Hong Kong Clean-up Challenge?

NM: From our perspective, the awareness is increasing but action still needs to follow. We haven’t quite reached that tipping point yet. But we have seen people taking a stance and saying they want to do something about the environment. In 2003 when I first got involved, we would call companies and say: “Hey, we’ve got this great event and it’s free. We provide everything. It’s environmental and it’s about sustainability.” We’d say: “It’s CSR (corporate social responsibility)”, which is something they had not heard of yet. And the companies would say: “That sounds great! We love what you are doing but we don’t have any budget for that. It’s just not part of our company’s remit.” But now we have companies calling us to say: “We have the team, we have the budget and we have this CSR thing we have to fulfil, so can you help us out?” So there is this tectonic shift in the corporate world also.

LC: When we first started, companies would say there is no way I could get my staff out in the sun without a mask, especially post-Sars. People would say: “You want me to pick up trash? That’s not my job. It’s someone else’s”. But now this is considered cool.

How are global views on ocean conservation now compared to when you started?

LC: Ocean conservation and waste management were never part of anyone’s agenda. It was always air pollution or climate change. But the recent Our Ocean Conference was held for the first time in Washington. President Barack Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio and others pledged US$4.2 billion (HK$32.6 billion) to clean up our oceans.

Everyone at the conference was mentioning plastic pollution. So it has gone from being a non-issue to an issue of great significance where important people are paying attention.

Some people are blaming the mainland for our coastal pollution problems in Hong Kong. What is your response to this?

NM: The headlines say stuff like “Shocking amount of debris in Hong Kong”, but it’s really not shocking if you have been working on this issue for 16 years. It’s good that the media is picking it up. But the important thing to remember is that, yes, some trash from recent rainstorms was from China – from the Pearl River Delta. But that doesn’t absolve us of being responsible for our own waste. And there is a gross amount of waste washing up on Hong Kong shores that is from Hong Kong people. Pointing fingers is dangerous because it removes our responsibilities. [As an organisation], it’s very much our commitment to help Hong Kong take responsibility for its own waste footprint.

LC: Personally I don’t see any immediate increase in the level of pollution. It has always been there. But of course the problem is worse compared to 16 years ago. The current is changing, and with it, the water direction, which affects how much trash is brought into Hong Kong’s coastlines. It’s seasonal. Freshwater from the Pearl River Delta also brings in trash. But whatever the case, I have personally seen local fishermen chucking litter into the water. Sometimes when you have 150 extra idle fishing boats in the harbour at times when they are not allowed to fish, they throw things into the water. I have witnessed dumping action in Hong Kong waters by Hong Kong vessels and entities – pleasure crafts, fishing vessels, individuals and contractors. I have seen it all. I know there’s been dumping action going on for years because the stuff we’ve been collecting off the beach – it’s not litter left by beachgoers. They are trash that has been dumped by boats out at sea, and brought in by the waves.

What is new at this year’s Hong Kong Clean-up Challenge?

LC: This year we actually initiated a registration fee for teams. It’s the first time we are doing this. So there’s a registration fee of HK$500 for a non-governmental organisation, school or a family. It is HK$1,000 for a small or medium company and HK$3,000 for a large company with over 100 staff. One other new thing this year is that Ocean Conservancy invited Hong Kong to host its 30th anniversary event. So from November 15 to 18, Ecozine will be organising the global event, inviting all the representatives around the world to come to Hong Kong for a global conference.

China’s ‘natural’ disasters are man-made in many cases

With the onset of summer, China has been engulfed by natural disasters, particularly along the Yangtze River basin, where exceptionally heavy rainfall since the beginning of July has led to massive floods and mudslides in several major cities.

Massive floods in central China, in cities like Wuhan, are to be blamed not only on persistent and torrential rain, but also on the obsolete and poorly maintained underground drainage systems. Hence, we can say that the ferocious floods are partly natural, and partly man-made disaster.

China’s rapid economic growth over the past 40 years has come at a huge environmental cost. Industrialization, massive deforestation, rapid urbanization, reckless land clearance and over-harvesting have taken an irreversible toll on the natural environment, resulting in large-scale pollution, widespread soil erosion and desertification across the country.

The crisis has been compounded by the lack of public oversight and administrative transparency, as well as rampant corruption at basically every level of government. All these factors put together have exacerbated the environmental destruction across the mainland.

According to the official figures of the Chinese authorities, soil erosion is the second most critical environmental problem facing China apart from industrial pollution.

Currently soil erosion of different proportions has already affected an area of 3.6 million square kilometers, accounting for 37 percent of China’s total land area. In the meantime, the scale of desertification has also hit crisis level, affecting a total area of 2.6 million square kilometers.

It is estimated that as a result of continued soil erosion and desertification, China is losing an average of one million hectares of farmland every year, and the speed with which it is losing is accelerating.

In the meantime, China’s environmental crisis can not only be found on the ground, but in the atmosphere too.

Unregulated and unchecked carbon emissions have led to persistent smog in almost every major city across China. Highly polluted air has led to an increase in acid rain. It is estimated that as many as 190 cities across the mainland have been suffering from heavy acid rain in recent years, contaminating reservoirs, rivers, lakes and other fresh water sources.

To make things worse, while some parts of the country are plagued by relentless floods, other parts are facing persistent drought. When it comes to the scarcest and most hotly sought after resource in China, many people might immediately think of oil, but actually it is fresh water that is in need most.

As of now, China’s average fresh water resource per capita stands at 25 percent of the global average.

According to British climate expert and historian Hubert Lamb, government policies and political ideology of rulers often have profound and far-reaching implications for the natural environment. Unfortunately, contemporary China is simply a living proof of Lamb’s theory, showing how the ideology of a totalitarian regime can have devastating effects on the environment.

China’s massive environmental destruction dates back to as early as the 1950s, when Mao Zedong ordered the removal of the “4 perils”, during which hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants eagerly took part in a nationwide campaign to kill sparrows on a massive scale because, according to Mao, they endangered crops.

Ironically, after all the sparrows in the wild had gone, the country witnessed a sudden surge in the number of pests such as locusts and aphids that were truly endangering crops.

Then during the period of the Great Leap Forward, Mao called on the nation to launch a steel production drive. That led to countless trees being cut down to produce firewood for makeshift and primitive steel mills across the country. During the process of steelmaking millions of tons of untreated toxic waste were discharged into rivers and lakes across China.

Unfortunately, even though Mao’s era is long gone, acts of state-sponsored environmental destruction are still underway in full swing across China.

As regional party leaders are obsessed with GDP growth and dazzling infrastructural projects without giving any consideration to the long-term implications for the environment, the situation looks bleak.

Hong Kong authorities outlined ‘enhancement’ measures to compensate for marine habitat destruction, court hears in legal battle over third runway

Lantau residents and conservationists seeking a judicial review of decision to approve airport project question whether these measures are legally binding

The city’s environmental authorities have outlined “enhancement” measures aimed at compensating for marine habitat destruction in assessing the impact of a proposed third runway at Hong Kong’s airport, the High Court heard on Thursday.

These measures would be a “bonus” on top of original impact mitigation plans, barrister Ben Yu SC said.

On the third day of a four-day legal battle over an environmental impact assessment for the runway project by the Environmental Protection Department, Yu, who was representing the department, said the outlined enhancement measures were required conditions for approving the controversial construction plans, which are expected to cost HK$141.5 billion.

The lawyer cited the promotion of environmental education and eco-tourism and the development of a sustainable fisheries industry as examples of marine habitat enhancements laid out in the department’s assessment report.

These would create additional benefits, given that advanced drilling and construction methods would also be used to minimise and mitigate environmental damage, Yu said.

But Lantau resident Ho Loy and conservationist Yu Hin-pik, who are seeking a judicial review of the department’s decision to approve the new runway, questioned whether the enhancement measures were legally binding.

They also queried the authorities’ willingness to try to restore the marine habitat near the building site to a state as close as possible to that present before construction.

They pointed to a lack of immediate mitigation measures to compensate for the irreversible loss of more than 650 hectares of marine habitat, mainly for the Chinese white dolphin, as the authorities are only offering an enlarged marine park when the runway project is complete in 2023.

On issues such as the assessment of noise produced by the new airstrip, Yu noted the environmental department had adopted time-proven methodologies in collecting data and projecting the possible noise footprint of aircraft.

The procedure complied with statutory requirements, the lawyer argued.

The hearing will end on Friday before High Court judge Mr Justice Anderson Chow Ka-ming.

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Biodiversity steering committee ends three years of work ‘disappointed’

Environment Undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai apologised to committee members and said she hoped the work their work would continue

Members of a steering committee tasked with preparing the city’s first biodiversity action and strategy plan (BSAP) have ended three years of work without receiving a draft report from the government.

Disappointed members – whose terms expire this month – had expected a draft before their final meeting on Friday but were presented only with a summary of the public consultation results and a rough outline of what the report would cover.

Members pointed out that their 2013 letter of appointment had tasked them with “steering the formulation process”, “consider recommendations” and to “ratify the final draft of the BSAP” before its submission to policymaking bodies.

“We were asked to ratify the document. This was the task we were given and we need to know if our task had been truncated and why,” said member Paul Zimmerman.

Member Ruy Baretto was concerned that the committee was missing out on a crucial step of the process and called on the authorities to present a final draft to them for scrutiny at another meeting. “We are being pushed off the boat before the boat reaches the harbour and this is unacceptable,” he said.

Professor Jim Chi-yung added: “We are all quite disappointed because members had expected a draft report today but all we got was a table of contents.”

Agriculture Fisheries and Conservation Department assistant director Simon Chan Kin-fung believed there may have been some “confusion” with their roles. This was followed by an apology by Environment Undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai.

“We could not have given the so-called ratification to another body that is outside the government’s usual framework of dealing with policy,” Loh said. “I hope members will accept our apology and be willing to go on with the process in place.”

Loh also said there were no plans to extend members’ appointments and that the government was ready to finish the report and commence ministerial-level discussions.

She expected the final report to be published within the year.

The government received 2,444 submissions to a three month public consultation, which ended last month. Of these, 126 were individual submissions – most of which came from green groups – 85 were group submissions and 2,231 were standard “templates” submissions.

According to the department’s summary, “many” supported the extension of protected areas and there was “general support” for enriching urban biodiversity.

It acknowledged that green groups demanded 10 per cent of Hong Kong waters to be marine protected areas and that local communities emphasised the need to “respect land rights”. “Some” requested for the review of relevant legislation and policies.

To implement the BSAP plan, the AFCD has been allocated with HK$150 million to spend up to 2019. An advisory body and inter-departmental working group would also be formed to oversee its implementation.

Ecosystems more sensitive than previously thought

Three-quarters of EU ecosystems are currently exposed to more nitrogen deposition than they can cope with and nearly one-tenth is receiving too much acid fallout.

Critical loads are scientific estimates of the amounts of pollutants that various ecosystems can tolerate without being harmed. They are sometimes referred to as the limits on what “nature can tolerate.”

If pollutant depositions exceed the critical load limit, damage to sensitive ecosystems will by definition occur sooner or later.

The sensitivity of various ecosystems to exposure to acidifying and eutrophying air pollutants has been monitored and mapped for more than 25 years, and European countries coordinate this work through the Coordination Centre for Effects (CCE) of the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP).

Recently, the CCE has developed a new set of maps, using updated information from the countries’ national experts. By comparing the critical load maps with data on air pollutant deposition, the CCE has also produced maps that show the extent to which European ecosystems are exposed to more air pollutant depositions than they can tolerate in the long term without damage, i.e. where the critical load limits for acidification and eutrophication are exceeded.

This new data shows that the areas at risk are greater than previously assumed – the acidity critical loads are now exceeded in eight per cent of the ecosystems in the EU (7% in the whole of Europe). The area exposed to nitrogen overload now extends to 75 per cent of EU ecosystems (62% in Europe). See table and maps.

Following emission cuts over the last 40 years in the main acidifying air pollutants, especially sulphur dioxide (SO₂), the area of sensitive ecosystems at risk of acidification in Europe has now shrunk to less than 250,000 square kilometres (km2), nearly eight times smaller than it was in 1980.

Progress is however markedly slower for eutrophication, which is caused by excess nitrogen deposition resulting from emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia (NH₃). Here the affected area has shrunk by less than 40 per cent over the same time period, and still covers 1.9 million km2.

Table : Area of ecosystems exposed to excess deposition of eutrophying and acidifying air pollutants in 2010 (km2).

Table : Area of ecosystems exposed to excess deposition of eutrophying and acidifying air pollutants in 2010 (km2).

It should be noted that the maps give a snapshot of deposition versus ability to resist at a given point in time – they do not really reflect the environmental situation right now.

Environmental monitoring, experiments and calculations show that there may be considerable time lags, and that the damage that has already been caused by excess air pollutant inputs will persist for decades, in some places even for centuries.

Clearly there is still a long way to go to actually achieve the long-term environmental objectives of the EU’s 7th Environmental Action Programme, one of which is that there should be no exceedance of the critical loads for acidification and eutrophication. The same objective is also enshrined in the CLRTAP Gothenburg Protocol.

The key legal instrument in the EU for cutting emissions of acidifying and eutrophying air pollutants is the National Emissions Ceilings (NEC) directive, which is currently being revised, and negotiations on new emission reduction targets up to 2030 are now ongoing between EU institutions, with the aim of reaching a final compromise by June 2016.

Christer Ågren
Source: Modelling and mapping of the impacts of atmospheric deposition of nitrogen and sulphur:
CCE Status Report 2015. By J. Slootweg, M. Posch, and J-P Hettelingh (eds.). RIVM Report
2015-0193, Coordination Centre for Effects, the Netherlands. Link:

Sea levels could rise 1.3 to 2 metres by 2100

New studies have been published concluding that sea levels could rise far more rapidly than expected in coming decades. The UN’s climate science body had predicted up to a metre of sea level rise this century. But a new study led by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research for the first time, combines the two most important estimation methods for future sea level rise and yields a more robust risk range. Sea levels worldwide will likely rise by 50 to 130 centimetres by the end of this century if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced rapidly.

A second study provides the first global analysis of sea level data for the past 3,000 years. It confirms that during the past millennia the sea level has never risen nearly as fast as during the last century. Even if ambitious climate policy follows the 2015 Paris Agreement, sea levels are projected to increase by 20 to 60 centimetres by 2100.

According to a third study, published in the journal Nature, collapsing Antarctic ice sheets are expected to double sea-level rise to two metres by 2100, if carbon emissions
are not cut.

Previously, only the passive melting of Antarctic ice by warmer air and seawater was considered, but the new work added active processes, such as the disintegration of huge ice cliffs.

The Guardian quoted Prof Robert De- Conto, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who led the work: “this [doubling] could spell disaster for many low-lying cities”.

He said that if global warming was not halted, the rate of sea-level rise would change from millimetres per year to centimetres a year. “At that point it becomes about retreat [from cities], not engineering of defences.”

“Many coastal cities are growing fast as populations rise, and analysis by World Bank and OECD staff has shown that global flood damage could cost them $1 trillion a year by 2050 unless action is taken. The cities most at risk in richer nations include Miami, Boston and Nagoya, while cities in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Ivory Coast are among those most in danger in less wealthy countries.”

“The new research follows other recent studies warning of the possibility of ice sheet collapse in Antarctica and suggesting huge sea-level rises. But the new work suggests that major rises are possible within the lifetimes of today’s children, not over centuries.”

Compiled by Reinhold Pape from press releases.