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June 22nd, 2008:

The Neglected Dangers Of Ultraviolet Exposure

Updated on Jun 22, 2008 – SCMP

Everyone is aware of the dangers of air pollution; fewer people are concerned about those from ultraviolet light. Yet too much exposure to it can be just as dangerous. According to the World Health Organisation, four out of five cases of skin cancer result from too much exposure to sunlight. But a lesser known danger from ultraviolet light comes from a WHO statement, which warns up to 20 per cent of cataract cases worldwide are caused by such overexposure. If left untreated, cataracts can lead to blindness.

Hong Kong’s ultraviolet readings are among the highest in the world, mainly because of its position on Planet Earth. Clearly, more public education to raise awareness is needed. It is, therefore, commendable that the Observatory will start issuing hourly advice via public announcements from next month when ultraviolet (UV) levels reach “extreme exposure”, which means above 11 on the UV index.

Since 1999, the Observatory has been providing daily ultraviolet readings. Currently, visitors to its website – the most widely viewed of all the government Web services – can also find ultraviolet forecasts for the next day. But it provides only index levels, instead of precautions to take to avoid exposure. But, just as it now issues warnings when air pollution reaches dangerous levels, there is a need to extend the same service to sunlight exposure.

This new service will be especially important to schools, where young pupils are regularly exposed to the sun during physical education classes. While increasing numbers of schools now advise pupils to put on hats and use sunscreen lotion, many are still woefully unaware. Yet overexposure from a young age clearly increases health risks later in life. This month, a University of Hong Kong survey found people are not nearly as aware of the damage that excessive ultraviolet exposure can inflict on the eyes as of its ill-effects on the skin. Teachers and parents, therefore, need to be better educated about the dangers of too much exposure to sunlight.

Though the new service is being offered by the Observatory, the Education Bureau should join in efforts as well. Better awareness will help reduce the number of cancer and cataract cases in the years to come.

Xining Special Steel Company

Province battles dual nightmares: black skies, 1m below poverty line

Shi Jiangtao – Updated on Jun 22, 2008

In the suburbs of Xining , the provincial capital and largest city of Qinghai , smokestacks at a large industrial plant spew billows of black, white and red smoke and steam into the city’s grey sky.

The chimneys belong to Xining Special Steel Company, the largest producer of stainless steel and structural iron in northwestern China and employer of 9,000 workers. Listed in Shanghai and one of Qinghai’s biggest taxpayers, the steel plant is the pride of the financially distressed local government.

The factory just a few kilometres upwind of the city centre makes no effort to curb or clean its emissions.

Local residents say they have suffered under thick, dirty fallout from the factory for decades.

“It is a nightmare to live near the factory,” said a resident whose husband works at the steel plant. “We used to see clear blue skies every day, but what else can we say? China is `the world’s factory’ now.”

Amid growing public anger, authorities have promised again this year to crack down on industrial pollution, which has shown signs of worsening in recent years.

The factory has been named and shamed repeatedly by local environmental authorities over the years, but that has not stopped it reappearing on the provincial green watchdog’s list of top industrial polluters.

Bai Ma , chairman of the Qinghai provincial committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, admitted that the plant has had serious pollution problems for years due to old equipment.

“Pollution is a serious problem with old equipment and the factory is trying to replace it or upgrade its steel-production technology,” he said. “But it needs a lot of money, which makes the cleanup effort difficult to proceed with smoothly.”

Most of Qinghai’s economic indicators show that its gross domestic product is among the smallest on the mainland.

“Qinghai’s GDP for 2006 was just 64.1 billion yuan [HK$72.84 billion], which was hardly comparable to eastern provinces,” said party chief Qiang Wei .

“Our local fiscal revenue in 2006 was 4.2 billion yuan, smaller than that of a district or a county in Beijing.”

The socio-economic disparities among the different regions in Qinghai are widening, according to official statistics.

Nearly 68 per cent of the provincial population, or 3.7 million people, are crowded into Xining and its eastern suburb Haidong prefecture, which is only 3 per cent of the total area. They absorbed 58 per cent of the provincial economic output.

About 20 per cent of the province’s total population, or 1.04 million people, live below the official poverty line, mostly in rural and mountain areas, with more than 60 per cent concentrated in the source regions of the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang (Mekong) rivers.

Eliminating poverty remained the biggest challenge for the province, Mr Qiang said.

Provincial leaders insist that Qinghai has witnessed some extraordinary changes, with annual GDP registering double-digit growth for the past consecutive six years thanks to Beijing’s western-development policies.

But the province lags ever farther behind affluent coastal regions.

Guangzhou’s GDP for 2006 was 10 times that of Qinghai.

Despite the province’s 12 per cent rise in GDP last year, research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences last year found that the province’s overall economic competitiveness had slipped.

But that could be the price Qinghai must pay while it tries to lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty and conserve the already fragile Tibetan Plateau, according to Mr Bai.

“Our government has made environmental conservation a prerequisite for economic development,” he said.

A total of 7.5 billon yuan has been invested in the river-source regions to relocate more than 40,000 Tibetan nomads in Guoluo, Huangnan and Yushu counties and reverse the degradation there.

The three areas have also been exempted from mandatory goals of economic growth since 2006.

“The top priority for the … regions is environmental conservation, which is crucial for sustainable development of the province as well as the whole Tibetan region,” said Governor Song Xiuyan .

Qinghai recently launched another ambitious campaign to clean up Qinghai Lake on the eastern edge of the vast Tibetan Plateau and an important wildlife refuge.

Ecological degradation in the province, experts warn, will affect the entire northwestern and Himalayan regions and pose grave threats to the upper reaches of the Yellow River.

Mr Bai said he was optimistic about the future of the province, which is rich in natural resources, including hydropower resources, Tibetan herbs, numerous saltwater lakes and the country’s largest potassium fertiliser production base.

He said the province attached great value to expanding schools and vocational education, and luring talent from around the country.

He made an appeal to Hong Kong to invest in the province. “Qinghai is a resource-abundant province that has yet to be fully explored.

“There is plenty of room for Hong Kong’s advantage in investment, talent and technology to play a bigger role in our future development.”

What Can Steer Us To Driving Electric?

By Rachel Oliver – For CNN – 22nd June 2008

HONG KONG, China (CNN) — It’s small, affluent, tech-savvy and it has a very obvious pollution problem — Hong Kong is arguably an ideal destination for electric cars.

And despite the absence of a car-making industry, the city can now boast a home-made electric car all of its own. MyCar, a two-seater micro car, will roll of the production line for the very first time in October and will be available for purchase.

But you won’t find it on sale in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong still hasn’t got its act together when it comes to electric vehicles (EVs), according to the chief executive of MyCar’s manufacturer, EuAuto Technology, Chung Sin-ling.

She says the city lacks the necessary framework and policies that would make it viable for her company to sell MyCar here. So they are heading to Europe instead.

“In London they have government incentives to get people to switch from gasoline to electric vehicles,” explains Chung, citing the waiver of the congestion charge and free parking for EVs in London as an example.

“But that has to be driven by the government. In Hong Kong they are still debating whether to use diesel or whatever.”

Hong Kong is not without EVs though. Private organizations like local utility Hong Kong Electric has its own small fleet of them.

But according to Chung, the restrictions they have to operate under mean introducing them now into the mass market isn’t practical.

“[Hong Kong Electric] only use them inside their private site and they have to get a very special licence and they can’t drive outside their site and they are restricted to certain uses,” she says.

“We don’t want those kinds of restrictions.”

Make it hip, make it affordable

Europe to date has taken the lead when it comes to encouraging motorists to drive cleaner cars.

Most notably, London has cracked down on car-related pollution with the introduction of a congestion charge and, more recently, with additional fees for heavier polluting cars to pay on top.

Under the rules of the Low Emission Zone, for example, fees as high as $400 can be imposed on trucks and vans trying to enter Greater London that are more than six years old.

“There should be very high incentives for people [to drive EVs],” says chairman of local pollution lobby group, Clear the Air, Christian Masset.

But Masset says the political will is still not there to promote EVs in the city. He believes it is down to the market to stir up interest.

“This will only happen with market pressure – it is hard to see it otherwise,” says Masset.

“If the EV became hip, then it would have an effect.”

But in order for this kind of customer pressure to happen, customers need to want the cars in the first place. That’s about education, says Professor Eric Cheng, director of the Power Electronics Research Center at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, whose team was involved in the MyCar project.

And education needs to come from the government, he says.

“The government is not helping the car user,” says Cheng.

“It hasn’t put any special mechanism in place, any special law or regulation for motorists to drive EVs. I don’t think the government has done anything to persuade motorists to use EVs.”

Hong Kongers are not familiar with EVs he says, and are concerned about the technology so they need to be shown that EVs are just as good as petrol cars.

One obvious way to demonstrate that would be to change the public transportation system from diesel-fueled to electric-powered, he says.

“Taxis, minibuses, buses can be forced to go electric but the government isn’t doing anything,” says Cheng.

The government has in the past offered one-off grants to minibus drivers ranging from $7,000 to $10,000 to encourage them to convert from diesel to either LPG or electric.

However Cheng says stronger measures are needed.

“Voluntary schemes do not work. The government needs to put a mandatory scheme [in place], to start off with public transport so people can get used to it and see that it is good.”

And then there is the question of money. Cheng says the amount of money his department received to design MyCar was nowhere near enough and to him, it told him how important the government view EVs.

“The money involved was very small. It was about $130,000 for MyCar. It’s nonsense. You need tens of millions of dollars. How can we build a new generation of EVs for Hong Kong? We need to train the new engineers, the graduates, technicians,” he says.

“Car-makers want subsidies from the government, as the initial costs are very high. The government needs to give them financial support and I am not talking about one or two million Hong Kong dollars. We also need more investment in R&D.”

In the meantime Chung is making plans to sell MyCar in London, her first stop the London Motor Show in July to stir up some more interest. One day she hopes to come back to Hong Kong.

She says EuAuto Technology is ready now. The market isn’t though. And that, she says, is something that is in the government’s hands.

“We want to come here — as long as the policy is there to make it happen,” says Chung. “It would be sad and kind of ironic if we can sell them all over the world and not in our own home town.

“We have the customer, the market demand, and the product – we just need the government to support it.”

Hong Kong’s Carbon Trading Move

Hong Kong’s carbon trading move too little, too late: analysts

22nd June 2008

HONG KONG (AFP) — Hong Kong has joined the international carbon trading structure with a promise to slash emissions, but analysts say the move will fail to produce any serious reductions in greenhouse gases.

“It is a bit of an impotent gesture and is about four years too late,” said Shane Spurway, head of carbon banking at Fortis Bank.

In a low-key press release sent out just before a public holiday weekend earlier this month, the city’s Environmental Protection Department said it had set up the legal framework to allow projects that could sell on their reductions in carbon emissions.

“These projects will help further reduce Hong Kong’s greenhouse gas emissions,” a spokesman for the department said in the statement.

But experts doubt that the belated decision will help reduce harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Spurway said the projects that could have benefited from the early introduction of the scheme had already been planned and so would not be able to gain carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

The mechanism, which was set up by the international community in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 and came into force in 2005, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating a worldwide cap and trade system.

Developed countries, mainly in Europe, place a limit on the amount of gases factories can emit. To meet their obligations, the polluting industries can either reduce their own emissions or buy carbon credits from people who have made reductions, often in the developing world.

The reductions in the poorer parts of the world are easier and cheaper than the developed world and so have attracted the most investment.

China has been the biggest beneficiary, according to the World Bank which says it now produces more than 70 percent of all the world’s CDM projects, targeting such heavily-polluting industries as cement and chemicals.

Until now, Hong Kong has been unable to access financing for such projects, meaning that completed landfill or power station projects have been less profitable.

The delay in agreeing the scheme has meant any projects already planned are ineligible, as schemes must prove they would only take place with the extra investment, the so-called “additionality test”.

China Light and Power, a major Hong Kong energy firm with operations across the world, said there were no plans to begin CDM projects in Hong Kong.

“While we welcome the government’s announcement on CDM, right now we do not have any projects that would use it,” a spokeswoman told AFP.

Hong Kong and China Gas Company, which operates major landfill projects in Hong Kong which may have benefited from an earlier adoption of CDM, declined to comment.

Christine Loh, from think tank Civic Exchange which has been a vocal critic of Hong Kong’s environmental record, said the move showed that business, so often the driver of policy here, was finally getting interested in the issue.

“The financial community can see carbon trading getting to a level where the world is talking about it. They can see the new assets of the future — clean air and clean water,” she said.

Both Loh and Spurway said a more significant step by the Beijing and Hong Kong governments would have been to allow Hong Kong companies operating in China to benefit from carbon-related finance to cut emissions.

Currently, Hong Kong companies are treated like foreign enterprises in China. If they want to instigate schemes that would create carbon credits, they have to set up a joint venture with a Chinese firm, which many are unwilling to do.

“You have something like 90,000 Hong Kong-owned factories (in China), but because of the joint-venture requirement, they are probably a bit reticent to set up there,” said Spurway.

The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce welcomed the government’s move, saying it would “enable Hong Kong to contribute directly to the global effort against climate change”.

But it added that it hoped Hong Kong companies would be able to get greater benefit from carbon reduction activity in China.

Hong Kong has faced strong criticism from campaigners for its environmental policy on issues ranging from the appalling air pollution to the failure to ban plastic bags.

Business groups have argued the poor air quality, blamed on the thousands of factories just across the border in China’s manufacturing hub, is damaging the city’s ability to attract top managers and compromising its position as an international finance centre.