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March 31st, 2008:

More Cars Spell Ruin For Lantau

Updated on Mar 31, 2008 – SCMP

Cecille Gamst Berg (“Lantau takes highway to Hell, March 21) is totally correct. Very soon Lantau, a former green lung of Hong Kong, will choke under exhaust fumes. “Improving” the road system by opening up the island for private car use is only the beginning.

An increase in traffic will not only lead to more roadside pollution but a need for more parking space.

Soon, quiet places like Cheung Sha, Tong Fuk and Pui O will be faced with more cars parked alongside paths on narrow roads or an increase in concrete car parks to meet demand.

Noise pollution will increase as Hong Kong drivers have the habit of resting on their car horns when in traffic congestion.

The final nail in the coffin will be the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge which will bring probably thousands of cars to these previously unspoiled villages.

An unpolluted area will soon be suffering from an increased carbon imprint.

This bridge must be stopped or turned into a less polluting rail link.

Wai Lai Ti-Lai, Lantau

Linking bypass and fate of road pricing is deceitful, say activists

Ng Kang-chung
Updated on Mar 31, 2008 – SCMP

Anti-reclamation activists yesterday criticised the government for linking electronic road pricing with the controversial Central to Wan Chai Bypass.

Activists accused the government of using the road pricing issue to speed up reclamation of Victoria Harbour to build the bypass, a road aimed at easing traffic congestion on Hong Kong Island.

A Sunday Morning Post report said the second feasibility study on electronic road pricing had determined that if the government introduced the charge tomorrow it would have to sting drivers HK$90 for each trip to Central to achieve its aim of cutting traffic 20 per cent.

The study found drivers would need to pay only HK$40 to HK$50 if there was a bypass.

A vocal critic of the government’s environmental policy, Albert Lai Kwong-tak, criticised the administration for trying to mislead the public.

“I cannot see a close relation between road pricing and the construction of the bypass. If our aim of having road pricing is to control pollution and ease traffic congestion, drivers can choose not to take private cars and use public transport if they think the fee is too high,” said Mr Lai, a Civic Party member.

He said the government could still try road pricing without linking it to any “alternative route”.

“For example, we can try it by starting to charge drivers on days with serious pollution or heavy traffic,” Mr Lai said.

Legislator Kwok Ka-ki, convenor of the Action Group on the Protection of the Harbour, said: “The government simply wants to create an excuse to justify its reclamation of the harbour. Overseas experience is that building more roads will only encourage more people to drive and would thus result in road congestion in the end.

“Then we are locked in the cycle of building more roads and then more congestion, and then reclaiming more of the harbour.”

The Central-Wan Chai Bypass is facing uncertainty and delays after the Court of First Instance blocked 10.7 hectares of temporary reclamation in and around Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter, saying it should be subject to the 1997 Protection of the Harbour Ordinance.

Crop crisis ignites drive for transgenic rice

Stephen Chen in Beijing
Updated on Mar 31, 2008 – SCMP

Last summer brought nothing but scarcity for the rice farmers of Licun village in Fujian province. Half of their regular strains of hybrid rice died despite an abundance of rainfall, sunshine, pesticide, fertilisers and sweat.

Their big fear is that there will be poor harvests again this year.

In the beginning, the farmers thought the seeds were the problem, so they stormed Shaowu city’s agricultural bureau demanding punishment for the “criminal” who sold them fake hybrid seedlings.

But agriculture officials said the seeds were real – the problem was the environment.

The experts said a rise by 2 degrees Celsius in average temperatures had triggered an outbreak of pests and diseases and, despite being specially bred for higher yields, the hybrid rice did not have the genetic strength to withstand the environmental onslaught. They said the farmers had to triple the amount of pesticide they usually sprayed on the crops.

Farmers were outraged. “That amount would kill me before killing the pests,” said Wang Lixian, a villager who lost nearly everything last summer.

The incident in the coastal province is not isolated. Guangdong, Guangxi , Hunan and Zhejiang have reported similar calamities in hybrid rice production, pushing rice prices up to record highs in the autumn.

The price of rice increased 9.4 per cent in 10 years, and the cost of eating out rose 4.1 per cent. In response, the Ministry of Agriculture issued an internal circular, urging research institutes to accelerate the application of transgenic (TG) technology on rice species to resist a growing number of pests and diseases caused by weather variations.

Global warming, pollution and rising food prices have put Beijing under unprecedented pressure to commercialise TG rice crops. Support from the scientific community is growing stronger as well, although some tough opposition remains.

The central government’s attitude to TG crops two years ago was cautious and its policy was strict, said Huang Jikun , chief scientist of the Chinese Academy of Science’s (CAS) Centre for Agricultural Policy. The instructions on TG technology were to “tighten control, develop gradually and apply with caution”.

But the government’s stand has changed dramatically as global warming has become a real concern and consumer complaints about soaring prices and pollution have topped the leadership’s agenda.

“The latest order is to `standardise management, accelerate [research and development] and promote applications,'” said Professor Huang, a leading supporter of TG rice on the mainland.

“That means we will have more money, fewer restrictions and a clear direction … towards commercialisation. The spring of TG rice has finally arrived.”

China leads TG rice studies. Its first commercialised species will target diseases and pests rather than nutrition, taste or yield.

Zhu Zhen, a researcher at CAS’s Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, said his team had come up with a competitive candidate for broad application. “Any insect that takes a bite of our rice will be poisoned and die.”

Nevertheless, convincing the general public that a crop fatal to insects is absolutely safe to humans is not easy. “But the theory is simple and straightforward,” Professor Zhu said.

The scientists took a string of genes from an ordinary bean and inserted it into the rice genome. The genetic sequence, called SCK, instructs the rice to produce a type of protein that destroys insects’ intestinal systems.

People have stomachs that produce enzymes that dissolve the protein, but because insects do not, the protein goes straight to their intestines, killing them.

“The beauty of the method is that the insects cannot develop immunity. They cannot develop a stomach like ours any time soon, can they?” Professor Zhu said.

A similar TG technology has already been commercialised on the mainland for cotton and is under cultivation by more than 7 million farmers.

“Cotton farmers have reported a significant rise of income, a reduction in pesticide used and a boost in productivity since the TG species was introduced in 1997.

“These will be a good reference for the government when they consider the commercialisation of TG rice,” Professor Zhu said.

Recent developments in the United States also offered guidance for the mainland, said Huang Dafang , a researcher at CAS’s Biotechnology Research Institute.

The US government has approved an application from the state of Kansas to cultivate and sell more than 1,200 hectares of TG rice that can be used to treat diarrhoea. The authorisation was a groundbreaking event for the large-scale commercialisation of TG rice crops.

There is a threat that the European Union and Japan might boycott China’s exports if TG rice is grown, but the price is considered small compared with the potential domestic benefit.

“Development of TG technology is an irreversible world trend … an effective measure for solving major social and economic problems such as food security, health, environment protection and energy shortages,” Professor Huang said.

It is a view shared by more and more members of the National Agricultural Transgenic Bio-safety Committee, according to Lu Baorong , a committee member who is also deputy director of the Bio-diversity Research Institute at Fudan University.

The organisation, founded by the State Council in 1999, has the final say on the commercialisation of any TG crops on the mainland.

About six types of TG rice have entered the final stage of bio-safety evaluation since 2001, but the committee members – more than 50 scientists from various disciplines – were not able to agree to approve the strains because their biological impact remained uncertain.

“Every year we receive numerous requests for commercialisation from domestic research institutes; every year we have had a huge debate; and every year we cannot reach a consensus and have to ask the applicants to do more experiments and come back with more data,” Professor Lu said.

One of the central issues is whether the artificially cultivated genetic properties, such as insect resistance, will spread to other plants and cause some unexpected, irreparable damage to biodiversity in nature.

“So far, none of the research teams has come up with enough persuasive answers to these questions,” Professor Lu said.

He admitted that the recent shift in government attitude on TG technology would have some impact on committee members.

“As a scientist, I will not vote for the commercialisation of any immature TG crop,” he said.

The committee will meet in May to discuss the issue.

200 nations aim to bridge gaps over greenhouse emissions caps

Associated Press in Bangkok – Updated on Mar 31, 2008

Governments from nearly 200 countries will launch discussions today on forging a global warming agreement, a process that is expected to be fraught with disagreements over how much to reduce greenhouse gases and which nations should adhere to binding targets.

The week-long, United Nations climate meeting in Bangkok comes on the heels of an agreement reached in December to draft a new accord on global warming by next year.

Without a pact to rein in rising greenhouse gases in the next two decades, scientist say warming weather will lead to widespread drought, floods, higher sea levels and worsening storms.

“The challenge is to design a future agreement that will significantly step up action on adaptation, successfully halt the increase in global emissions within the next 10 to 15 years, dramatically cut back emissions by 2050, and do so in a way that is economically viable and politically equitable worldwide,” said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The European Union environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said the Bangkok meeting would determine the willingness of all parties to act quickly.

He stressed the need for an aggressive, long-term agreement “to prevent climate change from reaching dangerous levels”.

All states, including the US, agree emissions need to be reduced to avert an environmental catastrophe. But the major polluters remain divided over how best to achieve these goals.

“We’re willing to take on international binding targets as long as other major economies … do so,” said US negotiator Harlan Watson.

“The primary concern is the so-called leakage issue,” Dr Watson said. “If you take commitments and you have energy-intensive industries, they might want to move to other countries which don’t have commitments.”

China has argued that developed countries should be required to take the lead in reducing pollution because their unrestrained emissions over the past century contributed significantly to global warming.

Mr de Boer has said that requiring China, India and Brazil to take on binding targets was not realistic.

“Developing countries see that as problematic,” he said. “The problem of climate change … is a result of rich countries’ emissions. The historic responsibility of this problem lies with industrial nations.”

Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said a compromise might be building on the agreement reached in Bali where developing countries for the first time agreed to take voluntary action that was “measurable, reportable and verifiable”.

Mr Meyer said the west could provide the technology that would allow developing nations to reduce emissions in sectors like steel and cement. “Now you have this new animal agreed to in Bali. That is a big deal,” he said. “You’re opening negotiating space for new tools and mechanisms that will help developing countries bend down their emission curves while achieving sustainable development strategies.”

Adding to the complexity of negotiations will be disputes over how best to help poor countries adapt to environmental changes by speeding up the transfer of technology and financial assistance from rich nations.

The EU has proposed that industrialised countries cut emissions by 25 to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. The US has repeatedly rejected mandatory national reduction targets of the kind agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol a decade ago.

Japan, which is struggling to meet its emissions obligations under Kyoto, is looking for less stringent conditions this time around. It has talked of using 2005 rather than 1990 as the baseline for reductions and is campaigning for industry-based emission caps.

Under its plan, global industries such as steel or cement would set international guidelines for greenhouse gas emissions. Proponents, including the United States, say that would help set a level playing field for competitive industries.

Critics, however, worry sectoral caps could be used to favour industries in richer countries with access to more advanced technology.

Timetable to save the planet

What will be achieved in Bangkok?
Bangkok’s main task is to agree a programme for the next two years – the details may show how urgently governments want to tackle climate change. After Bangkok, delegates will meet three more times this year.

What’s wrong with the Kyoto Protocol?
Kyoto obliges 37 developed nations to cut emissions by 2012. The Bangkok talks will be about widening action. Every developed country except the US has ratified Kyoto. The US presidential candidates say they are committed to stepping up action.

But Kyoto runs until 2012. Why the hurry?
The United Nations says that a new treaty needs to be in place by the end of 2009 to give national parliaments time to ratify before Kyoto runs out. A worry is that it took two years to negotiate Kyoto – and then eight to get it ratified. And investors need time – a power company trying to decide whether to build a coal-fired plant or a wind farm wants to know the rules on greenhouse gases.


Green Vibes

Karen Wong – The Standard
Monday, March 31, 2008

Over the past decade, words like global warming, pollution, and recycling have become part of the everyday vocabulary. Andrew Thomson, chief executive officer of The Business Environment Council, has been one of the strongest proponents of environmental protection, pushing forth agendas to make Hong Kong a “greener” place.

Thomson’s passion for environmental issues is more than just saving trees, or cleaning the air, but he sees the practicality in being environmentally friendly.

Arriving in Hong Kong in 1992 from the United Kingdom, Thomson immediately found himself involved in environmental-related work.

“Hong Kong has improved significantly. When I first arrived in Hong Kong, constructions were horrible everywhere.

“There has been some significant advance in environmental construction. Now, people have come to incorporate green building effectively,” he said.

With his deep knowledge in environmental science, along with his experience in numerous industries, Thomson is currently working with many different sectors in Hong Kong to understand that it is possible to be both environment and cost-friendly.

“We would often target transport- related issues, buildings and the manufacturing sector, and we would receive lots of general criticism on environmental issues,” recalled Thomson.

It is hard, he said, for people to see the progress that the city has made when in fact the progress takes a long period of time.

“It is a huge challenge, it’s not like deciding whether to have steak or fish,” he said.

“People are impatient when it comes to pollution, the problem is that there’s no magic wand on such an issue.

“Although the government is [taking] drastic measures to prepare for the Beijing Olympics, it only works for a short-term fix. If it is used for the long term, it would stop economic development.” He said when it comes to environmental issues, the discussion is the same in the East and the West.

“It is always about economic development against environmental protection. Issues such as air pollution and water conservation are always quite challenging, but recently, food availability has been ever increasingly challenging.”

Thomson started his career in retail banking, but after receiving enough mileage in the financial world, he went back to the environmental science- related issue, which “was very dearest to my heart.”

“Many see environmental issues as black and white. They think that business makes money and environmental issues cost money,” said Thomson, adding, “environmental issues are part of management issues that a company should take, same as human resources, same as cash flow management.

“Historically, companies comply with government legislation, but government legislation is the minimum requirement. The companies are actually interested in being efficient because efficiency saves money.”

As a member of the HKSAR Government’s Waste Management Appeals Board, Thomson says environmental issues are about being efficient. “Environmental issues [have] become part of the efficiency drive.”

In a job where success cannot be noticed right away, Thomson said breakthroughs have been made in promoting green buildings.

“We have accessed over 200 buildings in Hong Kong to help them in adopting a practice to increase the efficiency with the way buildings use their resources.”

Also a member of the Council for Sustainable Developments Strategy Sub-Committee, Thomson works to help companies incorporate a suitable plan that benefits both the environment and the companies themselves.

“Green building is one of BEC’s projects, it’s my baby. We’ve been working for over 13 years, making changes and improving the usage of buildings with different companies.”

In terms of personal investment, Thomson says he has invested some money in funds related to environmental issues but his largest investment lies in property.

“I would say I have a fairly balanced portfolio. Some aggressive, some non- aggressive. I don’t have a great deal of money invested in Hong Kong, most of my money is invested in the MPF.”

Looking ahead to the future, Thomson is realistic.

“Looking ahead, I don’t see the air clearing up in the next few years. I continue to see a lot of challenges, such as the issue with the harborfront. [But] I believe the harbor will become more and more clear.”