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March 2nd, 2015:

It is possible to wage war on waste without killing porpoises

Martin Williams

Christine Loh Kung-wai, undersecretary for the environment, writes that she and her colleagues see no conflicts between plans to build a “waste-to-energy project”, that is, a massive trash incinerator, and Hong Kong’s contribution to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (“Vital project for waste management”, February 18).

Well, perhaps I can add to the explanation of Paul Melsom in his letter (“Environmental officers should seek to protect, not ruin”, February 4). I anticipate that while invisible to Ms Loh, the conflicts will be crystal clear to most people.

Essentially, the conflicts arise from waters just west of Shek Kwu Chau being a key habitat for finless porpoise, which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classes as globally vulnerable to extinction, so should merit strong government protection efforts; yet this is the very site where the government plans to build an artificial island for one of the world’s largest waste incinerators.

As any conservationist would tell you, the best way to protect an endangered species is to safeguard its habitat. Yet the government plans to destroy a key place for the porpoise, and make a currently tranquil area busy with boat traffic plus round-the-clock work on feeding the incinerator.

Ms Loh writes of mitigation measures, such as designating nearby waters as marine park, and releasing fish fry. These may appeal to bureaucrats and engineers seeking to railroad the incinerator project through, but fail to impress conservationists such as Mr Melsom. The increasingly dire situation of the Chinese white dolphin shows that such efforts cannot compensate for the devastating effects of reclamation schemes.

Then, along with producing fumes too poisonous for it to be sited in the city, the incinerator will create highly toxic ash, and there are notions for dumping this in a landfill island to be built south of nearby Cheung Chau. So as well as severely impacting porpoises, the incinerator island will harm other wildlife and threaten human health.

Of course, Hong Kong does need to tackle its waste crisis, but should also protect biodiversity. Though officials are blinkered, there are more options than the government’s burn or bury strategy. From reducing ridiculous packaging, through increased reuse and recycling, to adopting less harmful and more advanced treatment technologies, it is possible to wage war on waste without killing porpoises.

Dr Martin Williams, director, Hong Kong Outdoors

Source URL (modified on Mar 2nd 2015, 12:01am):

Pollution Documentary ‘Under the Dome’ Blankets Chinese Internet

A new documentary on the pall blanketing China’s skies by a former state television reporter swiftly commandeered the attention of tens of millions online over the weekend.

Titled “Under the Dome,” the film is an impassioned production by Chai Jing, a well-known journalist who left China Central Television last year shortly after the birth of her first child. Since its release online on Saturday, it has racked up some 100 million views on major Chinese video portals such as Tencent and Youku.

The film’s release comes just days before the start of China’s most public annual political event – the meetings of the national legislature and a government advisory body. The environment is expected to figure prominently among the topics discussed.

The film shows Ms. Chai showing a sonogram of her unborn baby daughter, who was diagnosed with a benign tumor at birth and had to be swiftly operated upon.

“Before, I never paid attention to pollution. Wherever I went, I never wore a mask,” Ms. Chai says. But with the birth of her child, — whom she likens to a prisoner for most of her first year, kept inside away from the smog – Ms. Chai says she felt compelled to investigate the issue.

An analysis led by the Boston-based Health Effects Institute estimated that the country’s smog was responsible for some 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 alone.

Deeply emotive, the film draws on a number of materials, from footage of her time as a reporter to official interviews to cartoon depictions of various pollutants, each wielding tiny axes directed at the human nose and throat.

“You don’t have any choice about breathing, there’s no way to avoid it,” Ms. Chai tells her audience in the documentary, throughout which she paces before a screen showing video clips or charts in a manner reminiscent of Al Gore’s call-to-action film on climate change, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

In one particularly harrowing scene in “Under the Dome,” a doctor pulls out pieces of lymph node from a female lung cancer patient in her 50s. They are filthy and blackened from breathing the air, though the woman has never been a smoker.

The newly appointed environment minister, Chen Jining, told reporters on Sunday that he sent Ms. Chai a text to thank her for her work. The official China News Service reported that Mr. Chen drew parallels between the film and Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which helped galvanize the environmental movement in the U.S.

Many others took to social media to praise Ms. Chai’s piece, which rapidly became one of the top-trending items Sunday. “My respect to the brave Chai Jing,” wrote Chinese real estate mogul Pan Shiyi on his verified microblogging account on Weibo. “She’s a heroine.”

China has begun taking more aggressive steps against pollution. But while in 2014, concentration of PM2.5 in 74 major Chinese cities fell by 11%, according to official data, only eight of them met national standards, which are considerably laxer than World Health Organization ones.

Over the past few years, China’s growing middle class has grown increasingly more vocal and concerned about air pollution, especially since 2013, when the government began releasing PM2.5 information following public pressure. Air masks have become a more common sight in big cities, while apps tracking daily smog levels have proliferated.

Ms. Chai didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. In an interview posted to the website of People’s Daily, she said she spent about 1 million yuan of her own funds on the project.

A journalist who built a reputation for herself investigating the SARS pneumonia outbreak and coal mine accidents, Ms. Chai tackles questions such as why air pollution spikes in Beijing overnight. She finds that despite being marked as meeting national standards, many diesel trucks don’t carry the required emissions-control equipment, something that a Beijing environmental official acknowledges on camera is a widespread problem.

While laws may be stringent in China, enforcement is another question: to date no manufacturers of such lorries have yet been punished under the law, Ms. Chai says.

Ms. Chai’s film also drew attention for its focus on state-owned oil firms and her criticism of the country’s lagging fuel standards. An official she interviews on camera tells her that’s because industry representatives dominate the committee charged with helping set such standards.

The film has moments of small uplift, such as when Ms. Chai reports a nearby vendor cooking meat-filled pastries for failing to install the required equipment to minimize its emissions; the equipment is subsequently added. She concludes by exhorting viewers to do the same and help alert authorities to any violations.

“This is how history is made. With thousands of ordinary people one day saying, ‘No, I’m not satisfied, I don’t want to wait…I want to stand up and do a little something,’” says Ms. Chai in the film’s closing moments.

– Te-Ping Chen with contributions from Yang Jie