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June 30th, 2008:

Politburo Talks Point To Climate Change Action

Wang Xiangwei – Updated on Jun 30, 2008 – SCMP

As soon as President Hu Jintao came to power in late 2002, he introduced a regular study session for all members of the Communist Party’s Politburo. This was aimed at educating and providing a forum for top leaders to discuss strategic and significant national issues.

Although details of the sessions are kept secret, Xinhua usually releases short summary remarks by Mr Hu after the meetings.

Some dismiss the sessions as mere public relations exercises and the sessions receive scant attention from overseas media.

But for many observers, reports of the subjects covered in the sessions and Mr Hu’s summaries – though couched in official jargon – can provide a rare glimpse into the leadership’s lines of thinking on strategic issues.

Previous discussions have mainly focused on subjects such as the rule of law, national defence, the economy, agriculture and how to strengthen control of the party. So it is interesting to note Xinhua’s report on Saturday that the Politburo’s latest study session on Friday was devoted to climate change.

This is significant in several ways. Recognising the importance of climate change and addressing the matter have finally become a priority for the mainland leadership after years of empty talk.

“How we cope with climate change is related to the country’s economic development and people’s practical benefits,” Xinhua quoted Mr Hu as saying. “It is in line with the country’s basic interests.

“Our task is tough, and our time is limited. Party organisations and governments at all levels must give priority to emissions reduction … and bring the idea deep into people’s hearts.”

He called for efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by optimising energy efficiency, promoting recycling, increasing forest coverage, exploring water resources scientifically and strengthening international co-operation.

The timing of the study session is also interesting as it came just days before the Group of Eight meeting in Japan, where Mr Hu will join world leaders to discuss climate change, among other issues.

The buzz is intensifying in Beijing that Mr Hu is likely to put forward some bold proposals at the meeting, although it remains unclear what those proposals might be.

Beijing has resisted international efforts to impose targets for reducing emissions on developing countries, including China. Mr Hu has argued that developed countries should step up efforts on emissions reduction, and should provide financial and technical support to developing countries.

China is among the countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, although Beijing is only required to monitor and report its emissions.

To be sure, one Politburo study session is unlikely to lead to immediate policy changes on climate change, but it can help trigger a national debate on what the mainland should do and can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Although officials still refuse to acknowledge it, the mainland has already overtaken the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Many officials have argued that the mainland produces far less on a per capita basis than many developed countries, and some even believe the conspiracy theory that western countries have used climate change as an excuse to derail the mainland’s economic growth – why should China, which embarked on industrialisation only 30 years ago, take the blame when western countries have polluted the climate for the past 200 years.

That means it is of the utmost importance that this country’s leaders launch a national campaign to educate the public on the impact of global warming on China.

Evidence abounds: persistent smog over Beijing despite efforts to clean up the air for the Olympics; recent reports of algae outbreaks in Qingdao’s harbour, where the Olympic sailing events are to be held; and abnormal weather in recent years that has included the February snowstorm that paralysed southern parts of the country, as well as serious flooding in the south and dried riverbeds in the north.

But before the public can take the issue seriously and government can act, the leaders should know what they are dealing with. That is why the Politburo session is a step in the right direction.

Air Pollution vs. Allergies and Respiratory Illnesses

Choke hold

Hong Kong’s increasingly polluted air could be to blame for more allergies and respiratory ills than we realise

Hazel Parry – Updated on Jun 30, 2008 – SCMP

It may start with a few sneezes and a runny nose, progress to a cough and then turn into a full-blown hacking wheeze. At first you may think you’re suffering from a chest infection brought on by a cold, but when the cough fails to show signs of abating two weeks later, you consult your doctor. The problem: Hong Kong’s bad air. You’re suffering an allergic reaction to pollution.

The smog that regularly cloaks our skyline is getting worse, and it’s not only annoying tourists who make the trip up Victoria Peak only to see nothing and driving businesses to other Asian cities, it is also interfering with the quality of life and the general health of people who work and live in the city.

A recent report by the think-tank Civic Exchange claimed poor air quality was responsible for 10,000 premature deaths and 440,000 hospital bed days a year in the Pearl River Delta, at a cost of 6.7 billion yuan (HK$7.6 billion) annually.

And it’s not just the very young, old or those with existing respiratory problems such as asthma who are paying the price for pollution. Ear, nose and throat experts claim they are seeing an increasing number of seemingly healthy people seeking help for problems of the upper respiratory system caused by pollutants in the air they breathe.

Some are suffering in silence – blaming their symptoms on colds, stress or being overtired, and letting the problem affect their life, sleep patterns and working day. They may be dangerously self-medicating or dosing themselves with cold remedies. Others are seeking help from their GPs, only to find there’s little they can do.

The Civic Exchange report claims pollution is behind 11 million doctor visits a year. A separate study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong published in 2005 found a significant link between people making first visits to their GPs with upper respiratory tract problems on days of increased pollution. This led the researchers to conclude that “air pollution, besides affecting at-risk populations [those with existing problems], also affects the relatively healthy population.”

The Chinese University study monitored more than 300,000 consultations from 13 participating GP surgeries across Hong Kong between 2000 and 2002 to assess the risk of less serious or short-term effects of pollution on health (as opposed to the serious effects, which require hospitalisation). Researchers say about three-quarters of the consultations were first visits for new health problems – and of those, two thirds were for respiratory disorders. They also found that as the concentration of pollutants such as ozone and nitrogen dioxide in the air increased, the greater the number of first-time visits there were for upper respiratory disorders.

“Although these illnesses are minor in nature with minimum long term effects on health, they represent a substantial proportion of overall morbidity in the community,” the study concludes, adding that the problems are a financial drain on Hong Kong in terms of escalating medical costs and loss of productivity.

According to ear, nose and throat (ENT) expert John Woo Kong-sang, in most cases an allergy to pollution manifests itself as rhinitis or rhino-sinusitis – inflammation of the mucous membrane lining of the nose or sinuses – causing symptoms such as runny noses, sneezing and coughing. A sore throat, phlegm, loss of smell, watery or itchy eyes are also common reactions to pollution.

Woo, an honorary clinical associate professor in the department of otorhinolaryngology at Chinese University, estimates that patients with allergic rhinitis or rhino-sinusitis account for about 30 to 40 per cent per cent of cases at the ENT clinic, up from about 10 to 15 per cent a decade ago.

“We don’t know for sure whether the increase is due to the growth in population in Sha Tin [the area the clinic serves], but judging from the number of people turning up at our clinics, I am quite sure the problem has become worse as pollution has grown worse, and it is affecting the health of the population in general,” he says.

Woo says the nose, as the air filter for the lungs, is the first to suffer from exposure to pollution. “When it’s working properly, the nose filters out about 90 per cent of pollutants. But when you have a lot of pollutants in the air, it has to work harder,” he says.

In people with allergic tendencies who have become sensitised to pollutants, a slight increase in pollution may be too much for the nose to bear, resulting in an allergic reaction – the inflammation and all the symptoms which come with it.

“You may think you have a cold and the symptoms may be the same. But the difference is that an infected condition, even without treatment, is self-limiting. It may last one or two weeks and then you get over it,” says Woo. “With allergic rhinitis, the symptoms will linger on.”

It’s the lingering nature of the symptoms that distinguishes an allergy from a cold, and which eventually leads many people to their GPs. Likewise, it’s the fact that symptoms occur year-round that makes many experts believe the problem is more likely to be pollution than pollen.

Respiratory specialist Lam Bing, an honorary assistant professor at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, says rhinitis is known to affect about 20 to 30 per cent of the world’s population.

A recent report by the multi-centred International Study into Allergies and Asthma in Childhood claims that although cases of asthma appear to have reached a plateau, rhinitis is on the rise.

“I would say in Hong Kong the number of people with rhinitis is a similar number to the worldwide figure,” says Lam. “If you were to ask people a simple question such as, `Do you suffer from nasal discharge, blockage or congestion in the morning?’ you would probably find many people suffer some kind of complaint.”

“It’s a common problem, but many people ignore it. Especially as a typical feature of rhinitis is that the symptoms are worse in the morning but gradually improve during the day, so people tend to think they can cope with problem. If they have a sore throat they think it’s because they have talked too much or that it’s an infection.”

To what precise extent pollution is to blame for the growing number of minor respiratory problems is difficult to say because of the lack of research, says Lam, although studies have also shown that people living nearer highways have far more chance of developing respiratory problems than those living in urban areas.

Johnny Koo Tak-ching is in no doubt pollution is partly to blame for Hong Kong’s worsening coughs, sniffles, sneezes and sore throats. He’s an ENT expert at a private clinic in Central, the majority of whose patients are expatriates who move from city to city in their work.

“Those patients who have long-term rhinitis, sinusitis and nasal polyps get worse when they’re working in a city with higher pollution. They can tell which city has the worst pollution by how bad their symptoms get,” he says.

“They feel much better in places like the Mediterranean and some northern Chinese cities, such as Harbin, but feel worse when they move to places like Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. Singapore is better than Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur is better than Singapore.”

The bad news for everyone living and working in central Hong Kong is that there’s little we can do while pollution remains a problem.

Antihistamines, which reduce allergic reactions, can alleviate itching and sneezing, steroid-based nasal drops can reduce some of the inflammation and clear the nose, and pain killers provide relief for a sore throat. But all of these treatments only address the symptoms and not the cause, and, in the long term, nasal allergies can lead to nasal polyps, which may require surgery.

Koo says: “Reduce your exposure to very polluted areas. If you know you’re going to a more polluted area, then start the preventive medicine for the allergy before you go. If you have minor symptoms such as throat discomfort or more phlegm, keep an eye on your health, drink more water and take some vitamin C, and you should be fine.

“However, if symptoms last more than a week, you had better see a doctor to see if there’s a more serious problem.

“Unfortunately, my impression is, generally, there is no escape – unless you move to another country that’s less polluted.”

Koo’s observation is reflected by the experience of Elaine Tse, who has suffered from a sore throat that has persisted for months despite the installation of a HK$12,000 air purifier in her home. “Nothing was working, so I went to the ENT specialist, who stuck a camera up my nose and down the back of my throat,” she says. “He asked me if I’d visited any toxic plants in China. I hadn’t, of course. He concluded that it was allergies to the pollution and gave me antihistamines.”

That conclusion was borne out when Elaine took a trip to Australia. “After just 24 hours the sore throat went away,” she says. “Now I am back in Hong Kong, it’s back again.”

Sole Survivors

Monday, June 30, 2008 – The Standard

German and Japanese machines whirl endlessly in one of Hong Kongs few remaining spinning mills as the droning sound of raw US cotton being spun into thread for clothing made in the mainland hums 24 hours a day.

The mill is one of only two remaining in the city where more than 30 thrived just 20 years ago.

This one has only been able to survive the exodus towards cheaper labor in the mainland because it is so heavily mechanized.

But mill owner Woo Pat-nie, the third generation of his family to run the company, now faces another challenge to maintain his competitive edge slashing his carbon footprint.

The companies that are going to make the best of the material resources are going to survive and everyone else is not going to survive. Reducing your impact on the environment is crucial, Woo said.

Woos company is at the vanguard of a realization among a currently small number of factory owners in Hong Kong and elsewhere in southern China that greenhouse gas emissions must be dramatically cut to prevent catastrophic global warming.

He has joined with environmental pressure group WWF in developing a carbon labeling system, which aims to provide a simple measure of how effective factories have been in reducing emissions of carbon dioxide.

The system will be similar to the labeling system used to measure the efficiency of refrigerators.

Chinas rampant industrialization in recent decades has meant it is set to overtake the US as the worlds number one source of greenhouse gas emissions, prompting criticism it is not doing enough to halt global warming.

But Woos move, along with around a dozen fellow factory owners, is not simply an assertion of green credentials he is hard-headed enough to recognize the financial advantage of cutting his energy output as costs rise on rocketing oil, gas and coal prices.

Everyone is facing severe cost pressures. On one side we have the commodities increasing in price, on the other side we have a slowing economy, but buyers are still asking for discounts, Woo said.

Early indications show that the scheme could reduce the companys energy bill by between 10 and 20 percent, the equivalent of the energy needs of almost 2,000 homes, said Woo.

To save 20 percent on your electricity bill and to be able to reduce energy consumption when the whole of China is lacking energy? It is a no brainer.

Liam Salter, head of WWF Hong Kongs climate and energy program, said that the scheme, which he believes is the first of its kind in the world, will allow participants to prove to Western buyers their carbon credentials.

Salter said commitments from US retail giant Wal-Mart and British supermarket Tesco to reduce the carbon footprint of their entire supply chain had created an opportunity for such innovation.

The nightmare scenario for manufacturers is that buyers come out with five different requirements on carbon, which just pushes up costs. This project gives a chance for manufacturers to differentiate themselves in front of buyers, he said.

Initial signs are positive.

Since Woos Central Textiles and fellow manufacturers launched the Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium, a group which aims to promote sustainable development in Chinas clothing industry, this year, they have been contacted by Tesco about their work, he said. The scheme will assess a factorys systems and technologies and the success it has made in reducing its overall carbon dioxide emissions.

WWF hope to trial the system this year before encouraging factories across the Pearl River Delta to use it.

More than 30 percent of the worlds clothes are made in China, mainly in the belt of factories across the border from Hong Kong.

Alex Yeung, from the Hong Kong- based Clothing Industry Training Authority that will train industry workers to use the program once it has been tested, said the initiative showed that Chinese factories were keen to promote a more positive image, following safety and labor scandals that have dogged them over the past two years.

We want to show that we can do more than be pushed, that we can be more proactive [in dealing with problems], Yeung said.

Salter concedes the program will initially be small scale, but insists that if a robust, easy-to-use system can be developed, it could have a significant impact, on both manufacturers and buyers.

This mechanism will help us see how serious the Western companies are, he said.

This is not about bullying your factories into becoming low carbon. You are going to have to offer support to factories wanting to improve.

Woo, who also owns a huge spinning and weaving operation in Guangdong, played down the need to satisfy Western buyers and insisted the move was not just motivated by the need to survive.

It is every factory owners responsibility to be sustainable on an ongoing basis. It has to be sustainable in a business sense, but also in an environmental sense, he said.