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March 17th, 2008:

Green Rooftops Help Chicago Stay Cool

Agence France-Presse in Chicago – Updated on Mar 17, 2008

Nestled atop Chicago’s neoclassical city hall lies a secret garden hidden to all but those peering out of the windows of neighbouring office towers.

Dozens more dot the rooftops of shops, restaurants, businesses and city-owned buildings in a patchwork of green aimed at cooling Chicago’s concrete jungle.

About 370,000 square metres of rooftop gardens have been planted on public and private buildings in the seven years since the first plants were placed atop city hall as part of a broader effort to reduce the Illinois city’s carbon footprint.

Inspired by similar programmes in Europe, Chicago, the largest city in the United States’ Midwest, now has one of the most extensive rooftop garden programmes in the world.

Corporate America is joining the trend, planting gardens atop a Chicago McDonald’s restaurant and an Apple store, while smaller businesses and land owners are planting green roofs with the help of city grants.

“Chicago is at the head of the pack,” said Amy Malik, regional director of the non-profit group International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

Concrete surfaces – especially those coated with dark tar – both absorb and radiate heat, which significantly increases a building’s heating and cooling costs and contributes to raising urban air temperatures.

The cooling effect of the gardens is dramatic. Thermal images taken of the city hall rooftop on a cloudy summer day found it was the same temperature as the air: 22 degrees Celsius. The black tar roof next door was a scalding 66 degrees.

“There are more than just aesthetic benefits,” said Chicago’s environment commissioner Suzanne Malec-McKenna.

In addition to helping cool buildings, the plants also filter the air, reducing pollution and improving surrounding air quality. The rooftops also “stress sewers less by gathering rain water and using it”, and a green roof can also extend the life of a roof by protecting it from the elements, Ms Malec-McKenna said.

Authorities do not generally open the 36 city-owned rooftop gardens to the public because of safety concerns. But dozens of bird species gather amid the 20,000 plants on the city hall garden alone.

It is a 1,860 square metre oasis perched on top of an 11-storey building in the heart of the central business district that hosts more than 150 species of plants. And honey from the beehives kept in two of the city gardens is sold to raise money for after-school programmes.

“A market has been built around this,” Ms Malec-McKenna said. “The economics of building green roofs have gotten much better. Now we have more than two dozen contractors across the Chicago region who know how to do this.”

Organic grocery shop owner Paula Companio received a US$5,000 grant from the city in 2006 to grow produce on her roof which she hopes to sell in her store below. The garden covers half of the roof of her shop and produces a small crop of onions, potatoes, herbs and tomatoes.

Ms Companio estimates that her building has been 15 to 20 per cent warmer in the winter, and “noticeably” cooler in the summer since the garden was planted.

“The experience became such a community project – everyone asked about it. It showed people it’s possible that they can do it too.”

Conflict Over Emission Targets For Industries

Reuters in Makuhari, Japan – Updated on Mar 17, 2008

The top greenhouse-gas-emitting nations yesterday backed UN-led efforts to forge a global pact to fight climate change but disagreed on suggestions that specific emission targets be set for individual industries.

G20 nations, which include the US, China, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa, held three days of talks near Tokyo to discuss ways to tackle emissions.

Some G20 delegates voiced concern over Japan’s proposal for sectoral caps for polluting industries.

Japan wants top polluters to assign near-term emissions targets for each industrial sector which, added up, would then form a national target. But it was unclear if this target would be mandatory or voluntary and developing nations said the scheme needed to take into account their individual circumstances.

“It is clear that developed and developing countries are still far apart on sectoral approaches,” said South African environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk.

Ailun Yang of Greenpeace China said developing countries objected to the Japanese idea of abandoning binding targets for rich nations by just setting their own targets based on sectors. She said it was opposed by China, Brazil, South Africa, Germany, Spain and South Korea.

Indonesia called for more funding and the transfer of clean energy technology to make a sectoral approach work. “The goal is the same for developed and developing countries, but there are big differences in thinking,” said Japanese Trade Minister Akira Amari.

Business Leaders Have Formed An Alliance To Prepare For A Warmer World

Feeling the heat – Business Leaders Have Formed An Alliance To Prepare For A Warmer World

Sarah Monks – Updated on Mar 17, 2008 – SCMP

Hong Kong’s corporate titans seldom meet to talk about the weather. But that, like the climate, is changing with the launch today of a new business forum. Established by the Business Environment Council, the Climate Change Business Forum aims to be “a research and communication platform” for climate change issues specific to Hong Kong.

“Climate change is a result of excessive emission of greenhouse gases and some of these also cause the air pollution that we face every day in Hong Kong,” said Executive Council convenor Leung Chun-ying, the forum’s patron chairman.

Firms in the forum include those in sectors near the eye of the global warming storm – power, transport, property and manufacturing.

Last week, the Observatory projected that the city’s annual mean temperature would rise by 4.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, higher than earlier forecasts. CLP Power’s emissions of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, rose 8.5 per cent last year to a 15-year high, which it attributed to depletion of natural gas reserves and greater reliance on coal.

“We only need to have an increase of one or two degrees before the end of the century to make life very different in Hong Kong, and that carries social and economic costs,” said Mr Leung, who is Asia-Pacific chairman of DTZ Debenham Tie Leung, a real estate consultancy and founding member of the forum.

He said under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the mainland and Hong Kong did not have a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “I would definitely like to see Hong Kong, led by the Hong Kong government, setting itself a target in reducing the amount of emissions,” said Mr Leung.

“We should consider the choice of fuel at the generation end and consumption at the consumer end, namely how we can save energy in terms of the design and the maintenance of our buildings and the plant machinery that we use – air conditioners, for example.

“The side benefit of doing this is not just slowing down the pace of climate change or mitigating the damage it can cause, but also helping to improve the quality of our air,” said Mr Leung. He said energy efficiency in buildings was “low-hanging fruit” for climate change action in Hong Kong and that achievable targets should be set.

Mr Leung also said Hong Kong should look longer term at mitigation measures, “particularly outside Hong Kong, where we have our economic footprint”. Some scientists have warned of flooding in the Pearl River Delta, with problems for drainage and sewage. “We have a huge manufacturing base in the delta area and that would mean disruption to our production, and business losses.”

The new forum aims to involve business, government and the public “working together to either pre-empt or solve some of these problems”, and also promote best practices. “Climate change is a long-term issue and we need a long-term attitude and solutions,” Mr Leung said.

According to Environmental Protection Department deputy director Carlson Chan Ka-sun, Hong Kong’s per capita emission of carbon dioxide, at about 6.5 tonnes, is among the lowest for well-developed economies.

“It’s partly because we are a service economy and a pretty compact city and we have a very good public transport system. The car ownership rate is among the lowest,” said Mr Chan, who chairs the government’s interdepartmental working group on climate change.

Even without reduction targets, he said the government was implementing strategies to control greenhouse gas emissions. “In Hong Kong, we believe the most effective way for us to tackle climate change is to enhance our energy efficiency.”

The government, he said, had been doing “quite a lot” to deal with the power and transport sectors. It was also promoting energy efficiency and lower energy consumption. Legislation on mandatory energy efficiency labelling and a proposal to make building energy codes mandatory were among recent initiatives. Hong Kong had also adopted a target set by the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation grouping to reduce energy intensity, said Mr Chan.

Energy is Hong Kong’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (62.5 per cent) followed by transport (16.1 per cent) and waste (12.1 per cent) from methane-generating landfills and other sources. Up to 55 per cent of Hong Kong’s electricity is generated from burning coal – about the same percentage as the US and nearly twice that of Japan. Hong Kong’s other energy sources are natural gas, at 20-23 per cent, and nuclear power.

The only major way we can cut down our greenhouse gas emissions, although they’re already very low, is to do something about our fuel mix for generating electricity, to reduce coal burning in favour of either nuclear, natural gas or some other renewable energy source,” said Mr Chan.

“If we’re going to change our fuel mix, the next question is to what sort of fuel mix and what will the implications be in terms of our security of energy supply, implications for tariffs? We need a proper discussion, proper debate in society about how much we are willing to pay for our electricity.”

Whether Hong Kong should change its way of producing energy was part of a major consultancy study of the city’s air quality objectives currently being carried out, he said.

The founder and chief executive of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, Chandran Nair, said that reducing emissions was a global responsibility and Hong Kong should do its bit.

“That doesn’t seem to have sunk in to Hong Kong. If you’re still unable to fix the most basic problem of air quality – which is yesterday’s problem in that it’s been with us 15 or 20 years – how can you deal with the more complex problem of climate, which is the problem of the next 20 years? How do you take action when it’s not a single catastrophic incident but is creeping up? You really need visionaries.”

Mr Nair, who formerly headed an environmental consultancy, said emissions reduction in wealthy societies required a dramatic lifestyle change, but there was reluctance to face the need for draconian measures. It would take a combination of political will and leadership from the business community to start the shift.

“There’s been poor business leadership in this town on these issues. We need business leaders to speak up because they are the ones who can be the role models, influence policy and bring everyone along,” said Mr Nair. The business forum could play a positive role but it should also accept and support mandatory measures, he said. “We need an equivalent of [property billionaire] Lee Shau-kee, `the god of stocks’, for the climate change debate. And we still need someone like that for the air quality problem.”

Mr Nair said it was vital for Hong Kong to understand and discuss the mitigation of climate change impacts. “How much will it cost? How will we pay for it? In many ways Hong Kong can be a leader and a laboratory for learning how to protect high-value coastal cities from sea-level rise,” he said.

Hong Kong is the newest member of the C40 Large Cities Climate Leadership Group, which promotes collaboration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from urban areas. The group’s senior policy adviser is Christine Loh Kung-wai, chief executive of think-tank Civic Exchange, which researches climate-change impacts and policy.

“Cities have offered to bring expertise together to share with C40 and other cities. From what I can gather, the officials who go get many ideas on how others are solving specific problems,” she said. “Leaders like London already have climate-change plans. Hong Kong has given out a consultancy to look at Hong Kong’s climate impacts and to consider mitigation and adaptation measures.” She said it would be useful for Hong Kong to attend upcoming best-practice workshops organised by the C40 group, and consider hosting a C40 event.

Four Steps On The Road To Environmental Ruin

Christian Masset – Updated on Mar 17, 2008 – SCMP

In the past three weeks, several government decisions have highlighted our officials’ dubious approach to Hong Kong’s air quality, and public health in general. Regrettably, some of them were contained in John Tsang Chun-wah’s budget.

First, there was the decision to subsidise electricity consumption by granting HK$1,800 per household, ignoring the fact that earlier, we were asked to lower consumption to supposedly reduce pollution from power plants. This sends the message that consumers should ignore the first recommendation, and keep on wasting electricity.

Second, the budget failed to raise tobacco taxes, for the eighth year in a row; they are currently less than in any developed country. This missed opportunity endangers the lives of 32 per cent of our young people and 20 per cent of adults, who risk developing various forms of cancers and respiratory diseases at any time. It also means missing out on an estimated HK$2.5 billion in tax revenue.

The list doesn’t stop there, however. The green light for construction of the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge, destined to land in the north of Lantau, is another unfathomable action. No study has so far revealed a workable level of profitability. At an estimated total cost of 60 billion yuan (HK$65.9 billion), and given the present estimated traffic, a return trip would have to cost about HK$2,600 to recover the investment for the bridge in 30 years; the only way to make this bridge work would be for the Hong Kong government to pay HK$27 billion.

To this cost must be added the ecological destruction associated with the bridge, including the increased air pollution from vehicles using low-quality diesel coming into Hong Kong. This would only aggravate the already high level of air pollution recorded daily near Kwai Chung.

If the bridge is intended to delay the irreversible decline of Hong Kong’s shipping activities, the cost looks outrageous, and unfairly places the burden on the public to safeguard private shipping interests from the challenges of losing business to Shenzhen.

And last, but by no means least, we have the decision to welcome back incineration – because our landfills are filling up faster than anticipated due to the dumping of demolition waste, and unmet recycling objectives. We keep consuming more than we recycle. Let’s remind ourselves that, from 2000 to 2005, Taipei reduced its waste by 28 per cent, and its rate of disposal dropped 60 per cent. Why can’t Hong Kong do the same? Is an incinerator capable of solving all our waste problems?

The questions remain: what technology will be adopted? The emissions from incineration contain dioxins – powerful carcinogenic substances. How will these emissions be kept to an absolute minimum? And, how will the highly toxic ash be disposed of? The Environmental Protection Department needs to clarify these points to the public and legislators before any commitment is made to incineration.

These four recent decisions demonstrate that our officials haven’t yet taken measure of their own responsibility in protecting public health and preserving our environment for tomorrow. They are still of the 1970s, business-as-usual mentality.

Hopefully, a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology on February 1 will trigger some interest among decision-makers. It revealed a direct link between dirty air and lower IQ among children aged from eight to 11. The researchers detected abnormal oxidisation and inflammation of segments of the brain, causing a loss of IQ points, among children exposed to black carbon-particulate matter emitted from car and truck exhausts, in particular diesel vehicles.

The public needs to know that the administration is taking notice of studies like this. Otherwise, they will be left to rely on environmental non-governmental organisations to take action, and to help them learn more about issues affecting their health.

Christian Masset is chair of Clear The Air.

Is Closing Schools The Right Move Amid The Flu Outbreak?

After the government’s late-night decision to shut schools, Secretary for Health and Food York Chow Yat-ngok said: “There is no cause for alarm. This is not just a decision on public hygiene, but one concerning public sentiment.” (“All primary schools shut to curb flu outbreak”, March 13).

Sentiment? I look forward to such urgent action on pollution.

Renate Boerner, Pok Fu Lam

Don’t Hide Facts On Air Quality

Updated on Mar 17, 2008 – SCMP

On Sunday, March 9, I planned to go for an early morning walk.

However, after looking at the sky I decided against it as the air looked dreadful. All I could see was a wall of dirty white, and no sea view.

I visited the website of the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) to check the air pollution index (API).

The relevant page started off with the API readings at the general stations and it showed a reading for Central/Western of 61. Were my eyes deceiving me?

I had to scroll down to find the true reading at the bottom of the page, which showed a reading of 100 for Central.

I consider this to be toxic, and decided that I would definitely not be going for a long walk that day.

The government is so dishonest in its handling of information with regard to the air quality.

People walk at the roadside level so please show us what the relevant API reading is at the top of the page instead of making us scroll down to find the true reading.

Joyce Wong, Pok Fu Lam