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August, 2015:

Trams for Clean Air

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DOE event marks beginning of landmark ecosystem experiment

By controlling the temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the test chambers, scientists hope to learn how microbial communities, moss populations, various higher plant types and some insect groups respond.

By controlling the temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the test chambers, scientists hope to learn how microbial communities, moss populations, various higher plant types and some insect groups respond.

Scientists are getting a glimpse of the future with a Department of Energy large-scale experiment designed to answer questions about how carbon-rich peatlands will respond to projected warming of the climate and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

SPRUCE, which stands for Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Climatic and Environmental Change, was launched today at the experiment site about 25 miles north of Grand Rapids. Among those attending the ceremony were Gary Geernaert and Daniel Stover of DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research; Thomas Schmidt, assistant director for research, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Northern Research Station; and Martin Keller, associate laboratory director of Energy and Environmental Sciences at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The site consists of about seven acres of raised bog in the peatlands of the Chippewa National Forest. The natural spruce bog in northern Minnesota contains more than 10,000 years of carbon accumulated from peatlands and answers to questions related to the predicted warming of ecosystems.

Ten open-topped transparent enclosures – 12 meters in diameter by 8 meters high — are the laboratories for the experiments to assess the ecological responses. The enclosures, superimposed on a belowground corral that isolates the peatland, will host measurements of microbial communities, moss populations, various higher plant types and some insect groups.

“The SPRUCE experiment continues ORNL’s involvement in environmental change studies that are conducted in the real world at scales relevant to an ecosystems stature, biodiversity and biogeochemistry,” said Paul Hanson, who leads the project and is a member of ORNL’s Environmental Sciences Division and Climate Change Science Institute.

With the ability to control heating of the air and soil within the enclosures to a depth of two meters, scientists hope to gain an understanding of the possible effects of projected higher temperatures on vegetation and ecosystems.

While peatlands cover about 3 percent of Earth’s land surface, they contain up to 33 percent of the global soil carbon pool. Although that carbon dioxide has been trapped in the cold oxygen-poor environment for thousands of years, warming conditions threaten to see peatlands release large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. This occurs through a combination of enhanced decomposition and aeration of surface peats.

“SPRUCE is the first experiment to test the combination of warming and elevated carbon dioxide on carbon-rich peatland ecosystems,” said Randy Kolka, team leader and research soil scientist with the Forest Service, a partner in the project.

“Peatlands contain a disproportionate amount of carbon compared to other ecosystems, and understanding their sensitivity to climate change will be critical to predict what happens to the balance between carbon stored in peatlands and the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere.”

The location in the peatlands of the Marcell Experiment Station, part of the Chippewa National Forest, was carefully selected by a team led by Hanson, who recalled how SPRUCE came about.

“SPRUCE represents ORNL’s response to a 2008 directive from DOE to take our group’s expertise in large-scale manipulations off of the Oak Ridge Reservation into a new ecosystem important to the global carbon cycle,” Hanson said.

Now, through SPRUCE, scientists from ORNL, the Forest Service, other DOE laboratories and universities can conduct experiments that couldn’t be done before.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the DOE’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

Adapting to air pollution with clean air stands in China

John Abraham

As with climate change, both mitigation and adaptation are needed to tackle air pollution in China

A traffic police officer standing on an expressway is barely visible due to hazardous pollution levels, in Hebei province, China, 26 November 2014. Photograph: Diego Azubel/EPA

A traffic police officer standing on an expressway is barely visible due to hazardous pollution levels, in Hebei province, China, 26 November 2014. Photograph: Diego Azubel/EPA

To adapt or to mitigate? That is the question that faces governments and industries across the globe as the impacts of climate change and pollution become ever clearer. It turns out, we will need to do both. The longer we allow pollution to be freely emitted, the fewer and more expensive will be the choices remaining to us.

Pollution adaptation can take many forms, but it generally means dealing with a pollutant after it has been emitted, or it can mean changing infrastructure to make it more resilient to heavy rains, floods, or more intense storms.

One great example of adaptation is being developed in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia by a major engineering company (Arup Engineering) and the CSR arm of a Hong Kong property developer (Sino Green). Arup and Sino Green are dealing with the environmental problem of localized airborne pollution.

In many parts of the world, airborne pollution levels are very high and can be elevated for long periods of time. These high levels of pollution can pose health problems to people and animals, particularly people with other health problems or those who are young or the elderly. In some cases, the airborne pollution levels can be at high levels for 8,000 hours (90%+) in a single year.

There are many sources of pollution; for Arup Engineering, whose East Asia headquarters is in Hong Kong, much of the pollution is from nearby heavy industries across the border in mainland China and from vehicle emissions. At other locations, high levels of airborne pollution may be caused by burning of wood or dung for fire, slash-and-burn agricultural practices (particularly for countries near Indonesia), or from other causes. But, regardless of the cause, companies such as Arup are trying to find ways to reduce human exposure even when the airborne pollution levels are high.

Arup is embarking on an effort to provide filtered air zones for people who are street side, perhaps waiting for public transportation. Much like a bus stop, the proposed structure (called City Air Purification System) provides clean air flow to create a cocoon around bystanders, shown in the following photograph.

Dr. Jimmy Tong (right) and colleagues from Sino Group. From right to left, Mr. David Ng, Executive Assistant to Chairman, Mr. Daryl Ng, Executive Director, and Mr. Vincent Lo, General Manager, showcasing a patent-pending clean-air stand in Hong Kong.

Dr. Jimmy Tong (right) and colleagues from Sino Group. From right to left, Mr. David Ng, Executive Assistant to Chairman, Mr. Daryl Ng, Executive Director, and Mr. Vincent Lo, General Manager, showcasing a patent-pending clean-air stand in Hong Kong.

The stand is able to accommodate approximately 20 people and washes them with filtered air, protecting them from particulates from passing traffic. The company has shown by both experiment and by numerical simulation (similar to a climate model), that the occupants breathe significantly healthier air.

Not only is the Arup/Sino Green structure very energy efficient, but by providing clean air to residents, it is possible to counteract the deleterious health effects on the human body, particularly the respiratory and cardiovascular system.

An installed Arup/Sino Green clean-air stand in Hong Kong.

An installed Arup/Sino Green clean-air stand in Hong Kong.

I asked the lead inventor, Dr. Jimmy Tong (with whom I worked in the past) about this project. He told me,

The system tested in Hong Kong had demonstrated an effectiveness of reducing particulate matter by 30–70%, and the system is moving to Beijing, China for further testing. Its success could also have huge effects when used in other cities around the world struggling with air pollution.

My view is that it is always better to deal with pollution by reducing the emissions. Adaptation is more expensive and less certain than mitigation. However, when the will to mitigate is not found, adaptation is the only plan B. Arup/Sino Green’s device is a bit of a window on the future to local solutions for a global problem.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interests in Arup Engineering nor Sino Green or in any of their products or services.

A new study suggests that air pollution is even worse than thought


THE capital’s “airpocalypse”, the choking smog that descended on Beijing in the winter of 2012-13, galvanised public opinion and spooked the government. The strange thing is, though, that information about air pollution—how extensive it is, how much damage it does—has long been sketchy, based mostly on satellite data or computer models. Until now.

Responding to the outcry, the government set up a national air-reporting system which now has almost 1,000 monitoring stations, pumping out hourly reports on six pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, ozone and (the main culprit) particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter, or PM2.5. These are tiny particles which lodge in the lungs and cause respiratory disease. The six are the main cause of local pollution but have little to do with climate change, since they do not include carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Scientists from Berkeley Earth, a not-for-profit foundation in America, have trawled through this recent cloud of data for the four months to early August 2014, sieved out the bits that are manifestly wrong (readings where the dial seems to be stuck, for instance) and emerged with the most detailed and up-to-date picture of Chinese air pollution so far.

Pollution is sky-high everywhere in China. Some 83% of Chinese are exposed to air that, in America, would be deemed by the Environmental Protection Agency either to be unhealthy or unhealthy for sensitive groups. Almost half the population of China experiences levels of PM2.5 that are above America’s highest threshold. That is even worse than the satellite data had suggested.

Berkeley Earth’s scientific director, Richard Muller, says breathing Beijing’s air is the equivalent of smoking almost 40 cigarettes a day and calculates that air pollution causes 1.6m deaths a year in China, or 17% of the total. A previous estimate, based on a study of pollution in the Huai river basin (which lies between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers), put the toll at 1.2m deaths a year—still high.

The sliver of good news is that pollution levels are better in some places than in others. They are worst in the corridor between Beijing and Shanghai and least bad in the south (see map—the study covers China east of 95ºE, accounting for 97% of China’s population), probably because that area was washed by monsoon rains during the period of the study. More importantly, levels of PM2.5 in large western cities such as Chongqing and Chengdu are about half the national average. Figuring out what they are doing right would be a first step towards reducing the smog elsewhere.

Clear the Air’s view on meetings with the non-negotiable HK Airport Authority

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Air pollution in China is killing 4,000 people every day, a new study finds

Physicists at the University of California have found 1.6 million people in China die each year from heart, lung and stroke problems because of polluted air.

Air pollution is killing about 4,000 people in China a day, accounting for one in six premature deaths in the world’s most populous country, a new study finds.

Physicists at the University of California, Berkeley, calculated about 1.6 million people in China die each year from heart, lung and stroke problems because of incredibly polluted air, especially small particles of haze. Earlier studies put the annual Chinese air pollution death toll at one to two million but this is the first to use newly released air monitoring figures.

The study, to be published in the journal PLOS One, blames emissions from the burning of coal, both for electricity and heating homes. It uses real air measurements and then computer model calculations that estimate heart, lung and stroke deaths for different types of pollutants.

Study lead author Robert Rohde said 38% of the Chinese population lived in an area with a long-term air quality average the US Environmental Protection Agency called “unhealthy.”

“It’s a very big number,” Rohde said. “It’s a little hard to wrap your mind around the numbers. Some of the worst in China is to the south-west of Beijing.”

To put Chinese air pollution in perspective, the most recent American Lung Association data shows that Madera, California, has the highest annual average for small particles in the United States. But 99.9% of the eastern half of China has a higher annual average for small particle haze than Madera, Rohde said.

“In other words nearly everyone in China experiences air that is worse for particulates than the worst air in the US,” Rohde said.

In a 2010 document the EPA estimated between 63,000 and 88,000 people died in the US from air pollution. Other estimates ranged from 35,000 to 200,000.

Unlike the US air pollution in China is worst in the winter because of burning of coal to heat homes and weather conditions that keeps dirty air closer to the ground, Rohde said. Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Outside scientists praised the research. Jason West at the University of North Carolina said he expected “it will be widely influential”.

Allen Robinson at Carnegie Mellon University said in an email that parts of the United States, such as Pittsburgh, used to have almost as bad air but have become much cleaner “through tough regulations combined with large collapse of heavy industry”.

As China started to clean up its air, limiting coal use, it would also reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the chief global warming gas, Rohde said.

Hong Kong’s $1bn recycling fund to be overseen by new committee

An Advisory Committee has been selected by the Hong Kong government to oversee the $1 billion Recycling Fund established last year to promote the recycling and recovery of waste.

Set up by the Environment Bureau, the committee will advise and make recommendations to the Government on matters relating to the overall administration and operation of the Recycling Fund.

The committee comprises experts, academics and people with experience in business management and community service, as well as representatives from various business and industry associations.

Committee members will remain for a term of three years from August 1, 2015. The Hong Kong Productivity Council will be serving as the secretariat.

Secretary for the environment, Wong Kam-sing, said, “In view of the imminent waste challenge, we aim to promote the effective operation and sustainable development of the recycling industry to enhance waste recycling and reduce disposal at landfills, which is vital to the overall waste management policy in Hong Kong.”

Straight to landfill? Conspiracy theories about Hong Kong’s recycling are a load of rubbish

Christine Loh

On July 29, Hong Kong Free Press carried a story referring to a video uploaded onto Facebook: “video of workers throwing glass bottles intended for recycling into rubbish bins”.
The video shows workers emptying glass bottles from small bins into bigger ones. The assumption behind the caption was the glass bottles collected from recycling bins were being transferred to bigger bins heading for the landfill.


This assumption was likely made because of a belief that there is no point to separate recyclables because they all end up in landfills in Hong Kong. After all, this is a belief held by a lot of people.

But the facts were quite different in this case.

The workers filmed had unloaded the collected glass bottles into bigger bins in order to optimise the carrying capacity of the collection vehicle. In other words, they were transferring the bottles from smaller to bigger bins to make the onward transport more efficient.

We have GPS records and written receipts showing that after consolidation of the glass bottles, the collection vehicle then went to Tuen Mun to deliver over two tonnes of recyclable glass bottles to the designated recycler, who uses waste glass for remanufacturing.

How do we know this? These are government-hired contractors.

Glass recycling is one of our priorities. Over the past two years, we have consulted and got public support to implement a mandatory producer responsibility scheme (PRS) for glass bottles; and we have now presented how the scheme should work to the Legislative Council. We have put legislation to the Legislative Council on 8 July 2015 and we look forward to its passage in the next legislative year.

At the same time, we have expanded the glass collection network from covering 13% of the population to 70%. If you want to find recycling bins near where you are, have you tried our Waste Less app?


We are also actively collaborating with non-governmental organisations, as well as with major mall operators with large numbers of eateries and restaurants to place recycling bins at the best locations so that more glass bottles can be collected.

While Hong Kong generates about 50,000 tonnes of waste glass beverage containers per year, we have the capacity to process most of this quantity locally into useful materials, such as eco-pavers (CTA: Tiostone, run by an incinerator promoting Professor from HK Poly U uses flyash mixed with glass in a cold process that does not kiln bake the pavers, hence they will leach into the ground) , construction materials and sand.

You may also ask what happens to other types of recyclables, such as paper and plastics, which together make up about 38% of Hong Kong’s total municipal solid waste of about 9,500 tonnes per day.

We estimate about 60% of Hong Kong waste paper are recovered for recycling (CTA: by 80 year old scavengers) , with most of the recyclable paper being exported for reprocessing. What still ends up in landfills include contaminated newsprint and tissue paper. On average, about 360 tonnes of tissue paper end up in landfills every day. It will help if everyone uses a handkerchief to wipe hands after washing instead of using paper (CTA: then carry the germs around with you all day, touch your face and shake hands with others, then take the handkerchief home for washing and use electricity to operate the machine.)

Plastic is a major problem. To reduce waste plastic ending up in landfills, Hong Kong has to organize waste plastic collection in such ways that help to increase its commercial value. Waste plastic that has been contaminated (e.g. plastic bottles still with drinks inside, plastic that has been mixed with other non-recyclable waste) will not be collected. The cost for sorting it all out once more is just too costly; hence they end up at landfills.


To enhance the quality of recyclables, we are running a new campaign to encourage clean recycling and help people to understand the importance of separating recyclables without contamination. (CTA: yes we know what we should have done a long time ago already was to mandate source separation of recyclable items, but we want to just burn everything instead) We have also just set-up a HK$1 billion Recycling Fund to help the local collection and recycling trade to improve their skills, organization and methods so that more recyclables can be collected, reused and recycled. An advisory committee has also been established to facilitate the operation of the newly set up fund.

To strengthen the effectiveness of our efforts in recycling, the Government has also revised its contracts with cleaning contractors to collect the recyclables at each recyclable collection points. The contractors are also required to sort out refuses mingled with the recyclables and deliver the recyclables to the designated recyclers on the same day. Moreover, the contractor is required to use transparent bags to facilitate public monitoring.

Everyone can help too. If you do see any questionable activities, please let us know (contact no: 2838 3111). We will check it out like we did with the video.

Hong Kong people as a whole need to change our habits if we are to transit from a wasteful society to one that is much more careful about the use of resources, as well as one that is committed to turn waste-to-resources.

Kai Tak Cruise Terminal is a stellar example of government misallocation

Regina Ip says that although the Hong Kong government insists it prefers to let the market allocate resources, the disaster of the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal bears witness otherwise

China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy awakened little interest in Hong Kong after President Xi Jinping put forward the ideas for a Silk Road economic belt in September 2013 while on a visit to Kazakhstan, and for a “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” the following month in Indonesia. Gradually, as news of the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank spread, civil society organisations in support of the initiative mushroomed while talks and seminars on the subject became daily events.

Clearly, Hong Kong should join the infrastructure bank, probably along the lines of its membership in the Asian Development Bank.

Government officials are no doubt working behind the scenes on the format of Hong Kong’s participation. Beyond planning its participation in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and canvassing views from business leaders on how Hong Kong could benefit from China’s latest mega-strategy, it is unlikely that the government would play a leading role in spearheading Hong Kong’s involvement.

Plagued by poor transport links, the facility continues to attract few local visitors, and the deserted lounges and shopping areas attest to its lack of attraction

That is because if the financial secretary’s words are to be taken as gospel, the government would refrain from playing any significant role in mapping out Hong Kong’s participation.

At a recent international forum on “One Belt, One Road”, lifting words from the government’s tired, old “free market” playbook, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah stressed that “we must abide by market rules, and let the market decide what is the most efficient way to allocate resources, to pursue reasonable returns, and to manage risks in a prudent manner. The government, on the other hand, should play the part of a facilitator, and engage itself in a more active role only when the market has found it difficult to operate.”

The financial secretary’s pronouncements were typical, stock phrases drafted by bureaucrats who have stopped thinking about whether the narrative still rings true or is still relevant. Is it really true that the Hong Kong government has always left it to the market to decide how best to allocate resources and to pursue reasonable returns?

The government can certainly be credited with prudent financial management and risk avoidance (not necessarily a good thing for an economy in need of more dynamic growth), but it is definitely untrue that the government has always avoided intervening in the market or directly allocating resources.

While the government has few “winners” to speak of, it has an unenviable track record of picking “losers”. A case in point is the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal. At 850 metres long and three storeys high, ever since the first cruise liner, the Mariner of the Seas, called at the terminal in June 2013, this sprawling, snake-like structure along the Kai Tak waterfront has sparked more and more queries over its underutilisation, whether by locals or tourists.

For locals, the location and the design of the terminal are such that getting to the restaurants, the duty-free shopping area, the rooftop garden and the bicycle lane is a hassle. Plagued by poor transport links, the facility continues to attract few local visitors, and the deserted lounges and shopping areas attest to its lack of attraction.

While the number of cruise ships calling at Kai Tak has doubled since its opening, the numbers are still low, and the terminal practically goes into hibernation during the winter months. At the price tag of HK$8.2 billion, in hindsight more and more taxpayers are querying why the government had decided to gamble taxpayers’ money on developing Hong Kong as a “cruise hub”.

Hong Kong compares poorly with the Mediterranean, Singapore and even Shanghai as the hub of cruises with multiple port days on any voyage. Hong Kong’s nearest ports, whether north or south of the city, are a few sea days away. Recently, when a cruise ship destined for Osaka diverted to Vietnam to avoid stormy weather, it testified to Hong Kong’s disadvantageous geographical location on the South China coast.

Even if cruise visits could be increased, it is still questionable whether the return is worth the investment. Cruise passengers typically do not stay in hotels when they dock, and have limited time to shop around. Unlike Mediterranean ports such as Positano or Taomina, both in Italy, where a single-day outing would be adequate, Hong Kong, with plenty of diversity and interesting historical and natural sites, warrants a visit lasting two to three days.

It is unlikely that the per capita spending of cruise ship passengers would come anywhere close to that of visitors in the “meetings, incentives, convention and entertainment” category.

Even more troubling is the fact the government has not only thrown away HK$8.2 billion, but has also misallocated to the terminal 7.6 hectares of prime, waterfront land that could have been put to far more productive use. In a land-hungry city such as Hong Kong, the opportunity cost arising from such misallocation is unforgivable.

Who says the government does not engage in allocating resources? What it has failed to do is to allocate resources smartly, based on a well-thought-through and holistic vision of what it wants the city to be in the future.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People’s Party

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