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July 2nd, 2008:

Rise or Demise?

Updated on Jul 02, 2008 – SCMP

Thirty-five years ago, when I made my first visit to mainland China, I was appalled by what I took to be the backwardness and poverty of the place. People lived simply, dressed simply and rarely threw anything away.

On the rare occasion when they visited a restaurant, they invariably took the leftovers home, with food from various dishes all dumped into one metal container. And when they went shopping, they brought their own string bags. Shops did not provide plastic bags and purchases were wrapped in newspaper.

In the summer, people endured the heat since virtually no one had air-conditioning, certainly not at home and, usually, not in the office either. Paper fans were ubiquitous. At night, many people moved their beds out on to the streets to get away from the ovens that were their homes.

In the north, in winter, piles of cabbages were piled up outdoors, with refrigeration provided by nature ensuring that the vegetables would not go bad for months. By and large, people lived in walkups. Lifts were virtually unknown, except in government offices.

Bicycles were the king of the road, with a few cars carefully threading their way through the traffic, their honking drowned out by the tinkling of the bicycles.

Paper tissues were unknown; people used handkerchiefs that could be washed and reused. In fact, there was very little garbage of any description because nothing was thrown away that could be used again in some way. The consumer society had not reached China and, it seemed, Chinese were being left behind.

Fast forward a few decades and you now have a country that is as much into conspicuous consumption as anywhere else. Today, highways crisscross the country and bicycles have vanished from avenues, to be replaced by cars. Restaurants in the big cities throw away uneaten food even though many of the poor who live in the interior would be grateful for the scraps.

China has now caught up with the modern world. After three decades of rapid economic development, the soil is now poisoned, as is the water and the air. In the race for modernity, China has even overtaken the United States as the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases.

Environmental protection, which was not talked about much 35 years ago, is now on everyone’s lips. And, ironically, it turns out that the way Chinese were living in the 1970s, before the country launched its industrialisation drive, was far healthier than the way people live today, squandering nature’s resources. The 1970s lifestyle, it turns out, was sustainable while the present one is not.

Instead of China learning from the outside world then, the outside world should have learned from China. Then, we would not be faced with the dire threats not just to our way of life but to life itself.

It is ironic that use of plastic bags, which I saw as a sign of modernity 35 years ago, should now be a sign of the ignorance and backwardness of a society where the people do not appreciate the damage that they are doing to the world and their descendants.

Paper, it seems, is really much better for wrapping up purchases, since paper is biodegradable but plastic bags stay around for years. They clutter up drains and pollute the soil as well as the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Now, I realise that the proliferation of plastic bags is not the sign of a developed society, but of gross stupidity and selfishness.

It is good to see that China, which entered the age of plastic bags later than most societies, is moving decisively to reduce their use. Starting this month, retailers are not allowed to give free plastic bags to their customers. In addition, China has made it illegal to produce and distribute ultra-thin plastic bags which are normally only used once and then thrown away.

The legislature in Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, apparently responding to the Chinese action, urged residents on Thursday not to use thin plastic bags and to replace them with paper or cloth bags. Isn’t it time that Hong Kong followed suit?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.

Pollution In China Is A Concern For Olympians – BY BRIAN GOMEZ – July 2, 2008 – 8:04PM

Cars will come off the roads. Factories will close. Construction will stop.

And persistent pollution might still hang over Beijing, enough to sour the Summer Olympics that begin next month.

Less than 40 days until the Opening Ceremony, an estimated 600 U.S. Olympians are devising plans to combat pollution as Beijing officials scramble to turn gray haze into blue skies and 550,000 foreign visitors hope for the best.

Some Americans won’t arrive in the Chinese capital until a few days before they compete. Others will wear masks designed at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs or use asthma inhalers under International Olympic Committee exemptions.

Athletes in outdoor endurance events lasting more than an hour, such as cycling, marathon and triathlon, face the prospect of delays in competition if air quality is poor, according to IOC president Jacques Rogge.

“The key is preparing them for the high level of interest,” said Steve Roush, chief of sport performance of the Colorado Springs-based USOC. “Letting them know they need to stay focused and keep their mind set on what they need to do to perform on the field of play.”

China contains 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities by World Bank Web site estimates, hampered by vehicle emissions, dust from construction sites and soot particles from factory smokestacks.

China challenges the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and Beijing rivals Mexico City as the world’s most polluted city. Pollution levels in Beijing are five times over the safety benchmark of the World Health Organization.

Half of the 3.3 million private cars in Beijing will be banned during the 17-day Olympics. More subway lines have been built and millions of trees have been planted between the Gobi Desert and Beijing to curb pollution.

Plus, 153 gas stations and oil depots will cease operations, more than 1,000 coal mines will shut down, construction will halt throughout the city of 17.4 million and hybrid-electric buses will serve Olympic venues.

“The health of the athletes is absolutely not in any danger,” Rogge told The Associated Press. “It might be that some will have to have a slightly reduced performance. But nothing will harm the health of the athletes.”

The USOC isn’t leaving anything to chance.

Swimmers will train in Singapore before the Olympics, triathletes will practice in South Korea and canoe and kayak athletes will travel to Japan. Three-time world champion sprinter Tyson Gay is expected to prepare in Hong Kong.

Triathletes Matt Reed of Boulder and Jarrod Shoemaker hope to sport masks that cover their noses and mouths when practicing but not when competing. The masks include an activated carbon filtration system, eliminating most pollutants.

“Never have I felt my performance or the team’s performance was affected by the pollution,” said soccer player Heather O’Reilly, who has been to China six times. “We’re confident in our team. We’re going to focus on the things we can control.”

O’Reilly’s coach, Pia Sundhage, dismissed the pollution, saying, “The two teams have the same air to breathe. It’s the same problem for both teams.”

Marathon runner Deena Kastor pointed to pollution concerns heading into the 2004 Athens Games that vanished once the Olympics started.

“The conditions weren’t as bad as we thought,” she said. “The best three people are going to be the three people on the awards stand, regardless of what the conditions are presenting.”

Fast Growth Derails Plan To Cut Emissions

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – Updated on Jul 02, 2008 – SCMP

Robust economic growth, and expanding energy intensive and heavily polluting sectors have seriously hindered efforts to achieve key environmental targets, a State Council meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao has concluded.

Meeting energy and pollution control targets by 2010 was a “grave challenge” halfway through the current five-year plan, Xinhua said.

The harsh warning, which did not come with any updated statistics on economic growth, energy use or pollution emissions in the first six months of the year, came about a week before President Hu Jintao’s departure for the Group of Eight meeting in Japan, which will place climate change high on its agenda.

Joining the United States as the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, China has faced enormous pressure to cut greenhouse gases and accept binding emission caps.

But Beijing has so far defied international pressure for fear that the caps would devastate the country’s economic development, as Mr Hu said at a recent gathering of top Communist Party leaders.

Instead, Beijing set ambitious targets two years ago to cut energy consumption by 20 per cent and reduce air pollution by 10 per cent by 2010.

Although authorities reported progress in curbing the emission of major pollutants and promoting energy efficiency last year for the first time in years, it appears to be far from enough to reverse environmental deterioration.

The situation at the moment is rather grim, featuring faster-than-expected economic growth, especially so in industries with high energy consumption and high pollution emissions,” the meeting in Beijing concluded.

To achieve the targets on energy use and pollution control in the remaining 2-1/2 years will be “a formidable task” and require key breakthroughs in scaling down energy-intensive sectors, Xinhua said.

Renewing the government’s commitment to combating pollution, the meeting said Beijing would shut down small thermal power generators with a total capacity of 13 million kW this year.

Energy-consuming industries such as cement, steel, metal and paper manufacturing would be subject to stricter checks, and environmental assessment would be strengthened before new industrial projects were approved.

Also, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon added his voice yesterday, calling on China to make bigger efforts and accept its global responsibilities in tackling climate change.

“It is important that we have China on board for this common effort to address climate change,” he said just before leaving Tokyo for a three-day visit to China.

“Now China is also a very important global power. They have a global responsibility.”

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

The Costs Of Cooling

The naked truth about the costs of cooling

Air-conditioning is hard to avoid in this climate, but there are other methods to keep the heat down in homes

Elizabeth Horscroft – Updated on Jul 02, 2008 – SCMP

Academics and environmentalists say if it is too hot in the home take off your clothes because it is less damaging to the environment than air-conditioning.

Li Yuguo, of the University of Hong Kong Department of Mechanical Engineering, said the problem was that people in Hong Kong were overdressed – they wear stifling formal business wear in a sub-tropical climate which should be shed as soon as they get home from work.

“People need to make the transition when they get home and shed a layer of clothing,” Professor Li said.

Use common sense to keep cool this summer. Professor Li said air-conditioning accounted for about 60 to 70 per cent of electricity consumption in Hong Kong, so using more efficient alternatives would save money.

Dressing for the climate is a good start. An open window (with insect screen) is another free and easy option.

If it is hot and humid outside an open window will not cool your home, but it will ventilate it, which has health benefits.

He said keeping windows open was a good way to replenish stale air, and people should not be too concerned about pollution because, from the 10th floor up of a building, the air was cleaner and the sun’s radiation killed bacteria.

“We still need to be careful about the particulates in the air though,” he said, adding that east-facing flats benefited from prevailing easterly winds, so leaving windows open helped ventilate and cool.

According to Professor Li, flats in Chai Wan benefit the most. “[People living in] flats facing west spend a lot more money on cooling,” he said.

Diane Urmeneta, an interior designer at I. F. Collection, said cross-ventilation was the best way to make the most of a natural breeze. “Having windows on two sides of the room, or opposite sides of the home, will allow this. But casement windows do not work well because strong winds can easily blow them shut. Sliding panels with screens work best and offer maximum exposure.”

Tinted windows also cooled the home by blocking the sun’s rays, but they toned down views so most people did not like this option.

More popular were heavy curtain materials or curtains with detachable blackout linings, and the use of energy-saving light bulbs that did not emit too much heat, Ms Urmeneta said.

According to Professor Li, Hong Kong buildings suffer from poorly sealed windows which let in hot air.

Properly sealing windows and doors helped keep homes cool in summer and warm in winter. Carefully chosen accessories cooled the home too.

“Indoor plants help because they are a natural way of keeping the air clean and fresh … as long as they are taken care of properly,” Ms Urmeneta said. She suggested that rooms be finished in shades of blue and green because they had “a more calming and cooling effect” compared with warm reds and yellows.

Another alternative is roof gardens. Sam C. M. Hui of the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said that building owners could improve thermal comfort and reduce energy consumption of air-conditioners by taking advantage of the thermal insulation that a green roof provided.

“Green roofs contribute positively to the improvement of the thermal performance of a building because they can reduce solar radiation, daily temperature variations and annual thermal fluctuations,” Dr Hui said.

Using natural cooling methods, however, only goes so far. So, according to the CLP Power website, ceiling or table fans are a good alternative because they consume only 5 to 10 per cent of the electricity that air-conditioners do.

Professor Li said fans cooled rooms by two to three degrees Celsius. As good an alternative as fans are, they cannot replace air-conditioning. But the toxic coolant, high energy consumption and their pollution impact on the environment continue to be a problem.

Environmental educator Jenny Quinton suggested looking at the problem through the eyes of a child. “Children are surprised when they find out that we are getting most of our electricity from burning coal, but they can quickly make the connection between how running the air-con 24/7 equates to the power companies shovelling more coal into the system and that that equates to yucky air and global warming,” she said.

Ms Quinton, who leads environmental programmes for children at the Ark Eden project in Mui Wo on Lantau Island, said: “Air-con is what we should try to avoid if we want to be part of the solution.”

But, given that air-conditioning is a must, look for models with a “grade one” energy label. According to the Hong Kong government’s Electrical and Mechanical Services Department, these will use less electricity than a grade three and significantly less than a grade five air-conditioner.

Using air-conditioners with fans is also a good alternative.

Professor Li said: “Setting air-conditioning at 24 degrees [Celsius] will be comfortable. But, additional air movement from ceiling fans will make the room temperature about 26 to 27 degrees [Celsius] which may be perfectly fine for many people.”

Setting the temperature slightly higher when sleeping – because the body temperature is lower – also helps. According to Friends of the Earth, setting the temperature slightly on the high side can save 3 per cent of electricity costs.

But leaving air-conditioners on when not in the home is a no-no. Ms Quinton said: “Leaving an air-conditioner on for an hour uses the same amount of electricity as leaving a light on for four days.”

Hard-core energy users can cut down by monitoring their electricity bills as they change their consumption habits. “Cut energy bills month by month, year by year and continuously educate yourself, family and company [on saving power],” Ms Quinton said.

This article is the first in a two-part series on how to cool a home in an energy efficient way. Next week: How installing green roofs can help cool buildings and reduce energy consumption.

Crude Awakening

The energy crisis requires a conservation strategy, not a public relations response

Joseph Cheng – Updated on Jul 02, 2008 – SCMP

The sharp rise in oil prices recently prompted hundreds of truck drivers to block traffic in Central, demanding the government to scrap the tax on diesel. This has been a worldwide phenomenon. Many governments were confronted with protests from drivers, fishermen and others whose livelihoods are threatened by high oil prices.

It is expected that the government will concede to the demands of the truck drivers who have seen their incomes slashed. Scrapping the tax on diesel, however, goes against the principles of energy conservation and environmental protection, and reinforces the perception that interest groups that exert pressure on the government can secure concessions.

The coming Legislative Council elections in September mean that even pro-establishment political parties are eager to please certain interest groups. The decline in the government’s popularity, and its recent controversies, have weakened its political will to stand firm.

According to government statistics, the price of diesel for vehicles rose 12 per cent between January and April this year, and at present the tax on diesel amounts to only 5 per cent of its retail price. Scrapping the diesel tax will not significantly cut overall fuel prices, and its impact on truck drivers’ incomes will be very limited. If oil prices continue to rise, the impact of dropping the tax will disappear.

In contrast, the government seemed to have adopted a more reasonable policy in responding to applications to raise ferry fares. It allowed the ferry companies to lease the ferry piers for commercial purposes, thereby giving the operators an extra source of profit and creating less pressure to raise fares. The benefits to consumers are direct and obvious.

There is no way of telling how scrapping the diesel tax would benefit truck drivers and consumers. It might favour logistics companies instead: the government has no mechanism to monitor the process.

Much more significant, if we believe that rising energy prices is a permanent global trend, and if we all support the principle of environmental protection, then the government must have a long-term strategy for energy conservation. Hong Kong is a sophisticated metropolis; but in comparison with major European cities, we are obviously behind in energy conservation and environmental protection.

If oil prices approach US$200 or even US$225 a barrel by 2012, what will be the impact on our economy and society?

Cities in Western and Northern Europe have absorbed the lessons of the two oil crises in the 1970s, and they have spent great efforts on energy conservation. They have developed satisfactory mass transit systems and discouraged the use of private cars. Urban planning facilitates pedestrians and cyclists.

To achieve the objective, the metropolitan authorities have to develop long-term plans. They also have to change people’s lifestyles and values. Transport reform not only aims to conserve energy, but also to reduce pollution and promote healthy living.

Oil prices have quadrupled or quintupled in the past five years or so, but neither the government nor the community have given it much serious thought. Air pollution in the central business district has been deteriorating. Private cars are an obvious source of pollutants, but Hong Kong people generally have done little to improve the situation. We cannot put all blame on the government; we all have our share of responsibility.

From a purely economic point of view, the transport industry is in deep trouble. Truck drivers work fewer and fewer hours and their incomes have plummeted. The diesel tax is certainly not the main issue. The government, however, still considers logistics one of the territory’s four pillar industries.

At the very least, a review is needed. The government should initiate a large-scale study of the problems and challenges facing the industry, especially its future development on a cross-border basis.

The government subscribes to the principle of “small government”, and normally does not want to interfere in the economy. This is well supported by Hong Kong people. But it lacks vision, and often considers major issues from a public relations point of view. This can only lead to an erosion of its legitimacy.

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