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July 21st, 2008:

Wetlands Could Unleash Carbon Bomb

Wetlands could unleash ‘carbon bomb’: scientists

Reuters in Washington – Updated on Jul 21, 2008

The world’s wetlands, threatened by development, dehydration and climate change, could release a planet-warming “carbon bomb” if they are destroyed, ecological scientists said on Sunday (early on Monday HK time).

Wetlands contain 771 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases, one-fifth of all the carbon on Earth and about the same amount of carbon as is now in the atmosphere, the scientists said before an international conference linking wetlands and global warming.

If all the wetlands on the planet released the carbon they hold, it would contribute powerfully to the climate-warming greenhouse effect, said Paulo Teixeira, coordinator of the Pantanal Regional Environment Program in Brazil.

“We could call it the carbon bomb,” Teixeira said by telephone from from Cuiaba, Brazil, site of the conference. “It’s a very tricky situation.”

Some 700 scientists from 28 nations are meeting this week at the INTECOL International Wetlands Conference at the edge of Brazil’s vast Pantanal wetland to look for ways to protect these endangered areas.

Wetlands are not just swamps: they also include marshes, peat bogs, river deltas, mangroves, tundra, lagoons and river flood plains.

Together they account for 6 per cent of Earth’s land surface and store 20 per cent of its carbon. They also produce 25 per cent of the world’s food, purify water, recharge aquifers and act as buffers against violent coastal storms.

Historically, wetlands have been regarded as an impediment to civilization. About 60 per cent of wetlands worldwide have been destroyed in the past century, mostly due to draining for agriculture. Pollution, dams, canals, groundwater pumping, urban development and peat extraction add to the destruction.

“Too often in the past, people have unwittingly considered wetlands to be problems in need of a solution, yet wetlands are essential to the planet’s health,” said Konrad Osterwalder, UN Under Secretary-General and rector of United Nations University, one of the hosts of the meeting.

So far, the impacts of climate change are minor compared to human depredations, the scientists said in a statement. As is the case with other environmental problems, it is far easier and cheaper to maintain wetlands than try to rebuild them later.

As the globe warms, water from wetlands is likely to evaporate, rising sea levels could change wetlands’ salinity or completely inundate them.

Even so, wetland rehabilitation is a viable alternative to artificial flood control for coping with the larger, more frequent floods and severe storms forecast for a warmer world.

Northern wetlands, where permanently frozen soil locks up billions of tonnes of carbon, are at risk from climate change because warming is forecast to be more extreme at high latitudes, said Eugene Turner of Louisiana State University, a participant in the conference.

The melting of wetland permafrost in the Arctic and the resulting release of carbon into the atmosphere may be “unstoppable” in the next 20 years, but wetlands closer to the equator, like those in Louisiana, can be restored, he said.

Teixeira admitted wetlands have an image problem with the public, which is generally well-disposed to saving the rainforest but not the swamp.

“People don’t have a good impression about wetlands, because they don’t know about the environmental service that wetlands provide to us,” he said.

Olympic Shutdown Begins With Traffic, Factory Curbs

Associated Press in Beijing – Updated on Jul 21, 2008

Morning haze hung over Beijing on Monday, the first workday for restrictions on car use under a bold plan to clear the Olympic city of its notorious smog-choked skies.

Under a two-month plan that started on Sunday, half of the capital’s 3.3 million cars will be removed from city streets on alternate days, depending on whether the license plate ends in an odd or even number.

It could be several days before a trend in the clean-up plan – which includes cutbacks on construction and factory closures – appears, for both traffic use and the skies over Beijing.

Drivers with odd number plates were forced to take public transportation, but said it was not as crowded as they had expected.

Besides the traffic plan, chemical plants, power stations and foundries had to cut emissions by 30 per cent beginning Sunday. Dust-spewing construction in the capital was to stop entirely.

Those caught driving on days they shouldn’t will be fined 100 yuan (about HK$114) a pricey penalty even for Beijing.

Despite architecturally adventurous venues and US$40 billion (about HK$311) spent on improving infrastructure, China’s greatest challenge has been keeping the city’s air clean for the world’s greatest athletes participating in the Aug 8-24 games. Instead of blue skies, Beijing’s skyline is normally shrouded with a thick grey haze.

Already, many competitors are choosing to train away from Beijing, and International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge has said outdoor endurance events lasting more than an hour will be postponed if air quality if poor.

The world’s greatest distance runner, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, has decided not to run the marathon event because the city’s pollution irritates his breathing.

Some 300,000 heavily polluting vehicles — ageing industrial trucks, many of which operate only at night — were banned beginning July 1.

The government has also improved public transportation options for the estimated 4 million extra people who will be off the roads because of the traffic plan, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

The subways may not have been as crowded on Monday as originally expected because employers have been asked to stagger work schedules, and public institutions will open an hour later than normal.

The city plans to add up to 3,000 more buses by the time the Olympics start, raising the daily capacity for passengers from 12.5 million to 15 million, it said.

Two new subway lines and an airport rail link were opened on Saturday, with the projected number of passengers on the three routes expected to reach 1.1 million daily during the Olympics.

Experts say the city cleanup measures could still go wrong because unpredictable winds might blow pollution into Beijing, or the lack of wind — common in August — could enable local pollution to build up.

Clear View For The Games

Clear view for the Games? It’s too early to tell

Shi Jiangtao and Al Guo in Beijing – Updated on Jul 21, 2008 – SCMP

Beijing kicked off massive traffic restrictions and building bans yesterday in a bid to clean up the city’s air ahead of the Olympics, but the real test of the measures is yet to come.

While traffic eased slightly yesterday and the sky appeared clear after thunderstorms, authorities admitted it was too early to tell whether the stringent new measures had worked.

“It’s a Sunday and there are not as many cars on the roads as during the week,” said Zhou Zhengyu , deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Committee of Communications. “The real test comes tomorrow during the morning rush hour.”

After shutting down polluting factories in and around the capital and restricting Beijing-bound cars from neighbouring provinces, Beijing yesterday banned construction work and imposed an odd-even licence plate restriction for the next two months.

Drivers whose cars have licence plates that end in an odd number were banned from the road yesterday and those with even numbers will be off the road today.

Beijing also opened three new subway lines, including an Airport Express line, and began operating 286km of Olympic traffic lanes designated for athletes, officials, dignitaries and the media.

But the Olympic lanes vexed drivers. Many complained they had worsened traffic jams in main streets, such as the Second Ring Road, and they expected things would get worse today.

Beijing also launched 10 Olympic shuttle bus lines to competition and training venues and opened a new transport hub in Dongzhimen , which is only half-finished.

The 28km Airport Express line, similar to the one in Hong Kong, will run every 15 minutes between the new Terminal 3 at Beijing’s airport and Dongzhimen station. The line can carry a maximum of 30,000 passengers a day.

Although the scheduled in-town check-in will not be ready until after the Games, the new airport line was widely praised for its convenience. “I think this is great. It’s a much preferred alternative to driving or taking a taxi,” said Robert Burrahm, a Beijing representative of US Southwest Research Institute.

The new traffic restrictions are estimated to take about two-thirds of the city’s 3.3 million cars off the roads.

But indications on the first day of the traffic ban were inconclusive because the traffic was light in the morning and early afternoon but congestion returned to some busy areas later in the day.

Meanwhile, thousands of building sites within the Sixth Ring Road were also ordered to halt work yesterday, forcing hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to leave the city.

Additional reporting by Edwin Lee

Buildings Silent

Buildings silent as workers exit, cranes stop

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – Updated on Jul 21, 2008 – SCMP

Building sites across the capital fell silent yesterday and the last of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers began leaving the city in Beijing’s last-ditch effort to curb pollution and ensure Games security for the Olympics.

As part of a flurry of sweeping measures taking effect during the countdown to the Olympics, thousands of construction sites within the city’s Sixth Ring Road came to a standstill and will stay that way for 60 days.

Infrastructure projects, including interior decorating operations at office buildings and residential areas, have also been banned since yesterday in Beijing.

But Olympic-related projects have been exempted, with workers being kept busy adding final touches or cleaning up construction sites.

The building sites, a major source of dust, have been blamed for the widespread, thick air pollution in the capital, along with the private cars that clog its roads. Restrictions on driving came into effect yesterday that should see about half of Beijing’s cars off the road each day.

Halting construction across the city has left hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers jobless and seen them virtually forced out of the city.

The municipal government gave assurances last year that this would not happen.

Building sites were deserted throughout the city yesterday, steel bars reaching skywards and cranes and other construction machinery eerily silent.

Although most migrant workers had already left for home or transferred to sites in other cities, some remained at a few sites, packing up or doing a final cleanup for the Olympic Games.

“We were told to leave Beijing for 60 days. Most people have already left,” said Li Yinchao, a native of Shandong province working at Sanlitun Soho, a large commercial and residential complex next to the popular Sanlitun bar district. “The rest of the workers will leave in the next few days.

“Only a few will be allowed to stay to keep the site clean and I am one of those lucky ones,” he said.

He said cranes at the site had to be lowered by at least 20 metres by noon today.

Liu Jie, another migrant from northeast Jilin province who worked at a residential project near the East Fourth Ring Road, said he would leave the downtown area as soon as he got his wages.

“My fellow workers have all gone back to their hometowns. But I am still waiting for my wages.

“I will have to go soon and I hope I can find some jobs in Tongzhou district in the city’s eastern suburbs,” he said.

“We were told to have some rest at home, but we did not get a penny in compensation for our losses.

“We need to make money to raise our children rather than take holidays at our own expense.

“Few of us are willing to go home so most of my co-workers decided to go to other cities to find temporary jobs,” he added.

He noted that the traffic restrictions affecting trucks – the major means of transporting building supplies – had dealt a heavy blow to projects and workers.

“All construction sites are short of building materials after the traffic restrictions and prices of those items necessary for infrastructure projects have been pushed up drastically in the past few weeks,” he said.

Migrant workers are not the only ones paying dearly for the sake of the Olympics.

Dai Jie, an engineer at machinery supplier Zoomlion, said his company, which operated over 100 concrete mixing stations for building sites across the city, has been deeply affected.

“Our customers have received written notices informing them of the two-month ban. Fines up to 10,000 yuan (HK$11,460) will be levied for sites that dare to violate the ban,” Mr Dai said.

Olympic-related projects were unfazed yesterday by the cleanup deadline announced in March. Glaziers were still working on the walls of China Central Television’s twisted glass-and-steel tower, while the giant transport hub at Dongzhimen, which opened during the weekend, was only half-finished.

But some projects that are not linked to the Olympics have also been given an extended deadline till the end of the month, according to Mr Dai.

Like the building ban, stringent traffic restrictions, including the use of special lanes for Olympic traffic in some congestion-plagued streets, were also criticised by many, especially motorists.

“I don’t see any reason to enforce the Olympic traffic lanes so early, as the Olympic village has yet to open in a week,” said Wu Baolin, a taxi driver.

“It may be well-intended, but it will definitely not help ease the city’s traffic jams.”

Games organisers have cordoned off 286km of lanes, which cover Changan Avenue, the second, fourth, fifth ring roads, to reduce congestion for athletes, officials, dignitaries and accredited media.

Drivers have been warned of fines between 200 yuan and 1,800 yuan or even arrest for being caught in the wrong lane. Officials said the lanes were clearly marked, but drivers yesterday complained that signs were difficult to recognise and confusing.

Additional reporting by Woods Lee

Pedestrian-Friendly Planning

Pedestrian-friendly planning solves more than traffic woes

Updated on Jul 21, 2008 – SCMP

The next phase of railway projects in Hong Kong will improve our mass transport system and ease traffic congestion and air pollution, but only if motor vehicles are controlled. The motorist is favoured over endangered pedestrians and extinct cyclists.

While the system of aerial walkways and footbridges in Central is convenient, it cannot be built everywhere. At street level, footpaths are narrow and increasingly congested. Pedestrians must wait interminably for traffic lights to change to cross safely. Drivers rarely respect pedestrians where zebra crossings are not protected by traffic lights. In some countries, drivers who do not stop at pedestrian crossings are penalised. The mutual courtesy and social harmony that results from such laws is obvious to visitors.

It is dangerous for cyclists to ride on Hong Kong roads. Traffic is dense, drivers are tense, aggressive and distracted. In urban areas there are few dedicated cycle, bus and taxi lanes, nor cycle paths. Air pollution further discourages potential cyclists from attempting such a risky ride.

Many health problems could be reduced by making it easier to walk in our streets and for bicycles to be used as a regular means of local transport rather than a weekend activity exiled to country parks or villages.

European cities encouraged pedestrians and cyclists decades ago. Copenhagen created pedestrian streets. Paris has its public bicycle hire service. People are thus encouraged to use public transport rather than private cars. Citizens in Holland, Germany and Belgium often use bicycles for local transport. Mainlanders once rode bicycles, too, until they became obsessed with the car.

We should favour rail transport and introduce road pricing right now to keep non-essential road traffic out of the city centre, and build a rail link to the container port from the mainland. We need a flexible, city-wide road traffic management system, more pedestrian streets, green spaces and bicycle lanes, to encourage citizens to walk or ride bikes.

Unfortunately, our decision-makers prefer cars and schemes like the Central-Wan Chai bypass, with its regrettable harbour reclamation.

D. Brett, Central