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March 22nd, 2008:

Olympic Pollution

The Ottawa Citizen – Saturday, March 22, 2008

While debate has raged in recent days over whether countries or athletes should boycott the Beijing Olympics on political grounds, another kind of boycott has been quietly gaining strength — on environmental grounds.

One of the world’s leading long-distance runners, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, has pulled out of the Olympic marathon because of the risk Beijing’s pollution poses to his health. A Canadian equestrian has said she chose not to try out for Canada’s Olympic team because of concerns about heat and humidity — exacerbated by pollution — in Hong Kong, where the equestrian events will be held.

In an attempt to protect athletes, Olympic committees around the world are considering everything from issuing masks — the British Olympic Committee is looking at this option — to having inhalers at the ready even for athletes who are not asthmatic. Some say that all athletes should wear contact lenses to protect their eyes from pollutants. Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympic Committee, concedes that some competitions may have to be postponed or delayed due to pollution. All of which should surprise no one.

Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world. It was so when the Olympic Games was awarded and it may be even more polluted by the time the Olympics begins, despite China’s assurances that air quality will have improved by then. In the middle of an unprecedented growth spurt, fuelled, in part, by the Olympics itself, that is tough to do.

Pressure on Pearl River Delta Manufacturers

Feeling the squeeze

Stricter controls and a labour shortage are putting pressure on Pearl River Delta manufacturers

Joseph Cheng – Updated on Mar 22, 2008 – SCMP

Industrial upgrading is the natural path of economic development. Since the mid-1990s, Guangdong’s leaders have been according top priority to upgrading industries in the Pearl River Delta, to maintain the province’s domestic and international competitiveness. The provincial authorities look to Japan and the “four little dragons of Asia” – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea – as models for Guangdong’s gradual development of hi-tech, high-value-added industries.

The growth of Guangdong’s exports has indeed been impressive, but the total value is relatively small: of every US$100 in exports, only US$16 is retained in the province.

Two years ago, the Guangdong authorities began to impose limits on factories that were inefficient consumers of energy or produced a lot of pollutants. They were told to close or move out of the delta. At that time, the Hong Kong government and industrialists did not take this warning seriously.

In recent years, the Hong Kong government has lobbied central and provincial officials to seek a longer transition period for the city’s factory owners in the delta. This lobbying, however, is not a solution to the long-term challenge.

Even in the absence of any concrete plans by Guangdong for the removal of industries, low-value-added, export-led processing operations in the delta have faced difficulties. Many Hong Kong taxi drivers used to own such factories.

At this stage, the Chinese leadership is emphasising sustainable development and environmental protection. These are important indicators on local cadres’ report cards. If they don’t perform as expected in these areas, they will have no chance of promotion, and may even lose their jobs.

Then there are the irresistible market forces: the rise in wages and the devaluation of the US dollar (that is, the appreciation of the yuan) are the two key factors.

With the improvement in rural incomes and inflation hitting the cities, a shortage of migrant labour has emerged in the past two years across the delta and in most coastal cities. Manufacturers have had to raise wages to recruit workers: 800 yuan a month is no longer attractive; 1,000 yuan a month is acceptable, depending on circumstances; 1,200 yuan a month will solve all recruitment problems. After all, wages for migrant workers had been stagnant for about a decade.

The yuan appreciated about 7 per cent against the US dollar in 2007; and by another 3 per cent so far this year. With profit margins as low as 5 per cent at some export processing factories, it was no surprise that many had to close.

The options are: moving up the value-added chain or moving out of the delta. Cheaper labour is available elsewhere in Southeast Asia, for example in Vietnam and Cambodia, or the central Chinese provinces such as Hunan and Jiangxi . The metal-producing city of Chenzhou in Hunan attracted much attention in Hong Kong even before the Lunar New Year snowstorms.

A less conspicuous aspect of “building a harmonious society” on the mainland has been the improvement in labourers’ working conditions and basic rights. The implementation of the Labour Contract Law in January led to some sudden dismissals in delta factories. But, in the foreseeable future, regional shortages of senior technicians and other workers will remain the trend in the Chinese labour market. This adds to the impetus of manufacturers moving to the interior provinces.

These trends constitute a severe challenge to the Hong Kong economy. Trade and logistics services are two of the city’s economic pillars. In 2006, they provided about 840,000 jobs. The upgrading of some delta factories, and the relocation inland of others, will generate new demands on these services. They must adapt to these new demands to maintain their comparative advantage.

On the other hand, the Chinese leadership has been trying to shift the momentum for economic development from exports to domestic demand. Some of the factories moving to the central provinces from the delta may also choose to adjust their business strategies to reduce their dependence on overseas markets and turn their attention to domestic sales.

If a severe economic slowdown emerges in the US, this adjustment may accelerate. This will be another new challenge to Hong Kong’s business and logistics services.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong

Incinerators Better Than Landfills

Updated on Mar 22, 2008 – SCMP

I refer to the letter from Tracy Lai (“Incinerator is a major polluter”, March 11).

I assume that the Hong Kong government would only consider the latest technology with flue gas filters for any such facility.

When comparing what we do now (landfills) versus waste incineration it might be wise to choose the lesser of two evils.

In landfills all toxins can escape, uncontrolled, into the water and the atmosphere. Considerable amounts of the greenhouse gas methane (much worse than carbon dioxide) are produced and escape into the atmosphere. Again, the process is uncontrolled.

There are different kinds of incinerators. However, what they all have in common is that the waste is reduced to around 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the original volume. They produce bottom ash, fly ash and combustion gases, similar to a coal-fired power plant.

Dangerous dioxins and furans are broken down to non-hazardous substances in the high temperature combustion chamber of the incinerator.

Bottom ash can be disposed off in landfills.

Fly ash and gases pass through sophisticated flue gas purifiers, which remove heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid and fine particulate. As in any combustion, carbon dioxide is produced.

The hot gases that leave the combustion chamber are used to produce steam to drive turbines and generators to produce electricity. Incinerators produce up to 50 per cent less greenhouse gases than landfills (a better carbon footprint). Also, incinerators produce a considerable amount of electricity, which will reduce coal and gas burning in power stations.

Incinerators reduce solid waste going to landfills by 90 to 95 per cent. The hazardous waste (heavy metals, etc) can be disposed of properly.

Landfills are ticking time bombs. The stench is a nuisance, not to mention a potential health hazard.

Peter A Thuler, Sai Kung