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October, 2015:

Third runway could be another disaster in the making

With the skies over the Pearl River Delta region heavily congested and uncertainty over the mainland's willingness to open up its airspace, the third runway is likely to be the biggest white elephant Hong Kong has ever seen. Photo: HKEJ

With the skies over the Pearl River Delta region heavily congested and uncertainty over the mainland’s willingness to open up its airspace, the third runway is likely to be the biggest white elephant Hong Kong has ever seen. Photo: HKEJ

Under Leung Chun-ying’s dysfunctional regime, the large infrastructural projects in our city have gone wrong one after another, and the administration has yet to pick up the remnants of its blunders.

First, the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, a project to which the Hong Kong and mainland authorities have attached so much importance, is now threatened by what could amount to an estimated HK$20 billion (US$2.58 billion) in cost overruns, and it is very likely that the overspending on this project is far from over.

Then the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which costs HK$7 billion and is already seriously behind schedule, has also been plagued by fundamental flaws lately, as an artificial island that anchors a sea tunnel crossing along the bridge has drifted out of position, threatening further delays in the project.

Unfortunately, the people of Hong Kong are likely to face even bigger woes in the future, as the Leung regime is set to build a third runaway at Hong Kong International Airport, despite strong public opposition and well-founded skepticism from the engineering sector.

The fact that our government is once again obstinately going it alone on a major infrastructural project regardless of public opinion suggests it is very likely the HK$141.5 billion third international runaway will turn out to be the biggest white elephant project this city has ever seen, constituting a waste of public resources of catastrophic proportions.

The only ones who will benefit from this project are the big companies that are given the contract to build it.

As far as the ordinary taxpayers are concerned, all they are left with will be an astronomical bill.

I have already written numerous articles on why we shouldn’t build a third runway.

I have said over and over again that Hong Kong might eventually need a third international runway, but definitely not now, because the operational capacity of the existing two runways is far from being fully utilized, thanks to our incompetent Civil Aviation Department, which can’t even hire enough air traffic controllers to do the job.

So why would we need a third one when the existing two aren’t fully used?

Besides, there are now five airports in the Pearl River Delta region, and the airspace is already overcrowded.

An extra runway will only exacerbate the traffic congestion over our heads.

Another grave concern of mine is that the Hong Kong government has repeatedly claimed it has reached an agreement with mainland authorities under which airliners heading for or leaving Hong Kong will be allowed to use airspace in the mainland once the third runway is completed, thereby increasing the total number of inbound flights to and outbound flights from Hong Kong.

However, so far, we haven’t heard any confirmation from the mainland authorities, casting doubt on whether any agreement between Hong Kong and the mainland on this fundamental issue has been reached at all.

The Civil Aviation Department says that to coordinate the rapidly increasing air traffic in the region, the airport authorities of Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland set up a task force in 2004 known as the PRD Region Air Traffic Management Planning and Implementation Tripartite Working Group (TWG).

In 2007, the TWG reportedly came up with a Pearl River Delta Region Air Traffic Management Planning and Implementation Plan to coordinate airspace planning and air traffic control in the region to meet the rising needs of the five existing airports in the Pearl River Delta area until 2020.

Yet, nobody knows whether the TWG is still in operation today, nor do we know whether it has ever discussed the potential challenges posed by the proposed third runway in Hong Kong and helped all the major stakeholders to reach any formal agreement on this matter.

I think the government still owes the public an answer as to whether it has concluded an official and formal agreement with mainland authorities under which they would open up their airspace to our flights if we were really going to build our third runway.

Because, without the mainland’s green light to use its airspace, the third airstrip would be completely useless and be nothing more than a damp squib, no matter how nicely built it is.

I really hope the TWG can make public details of its agreement, if there is one, concerning the third airstrip, to reassure the people of Hong Kong that the mainland is willing to cooperate with us over the expansion of our air traffic and that our city will truly benefit from this huge investment.

Without this reassurance, I see absolutely no reason why our taxpayers should agree to spend a whopping HK$141.5 billion on some extravagant project that is bound to fail from the outset.

Incinerator is important but planned for the wrong location

Oskar Joensson

I would like to add to the discussion about Hong Kong’s soaring waste problem.

As noted by many articles and comments on these pages, the government lacks a holistic perspective for tackling the issue. A charge on household waste is far from being implemented, there is a lack of recycling bins and sometimes cleaners even pour the separated waste into the same black bag anyway.

However, the plans for waste incineration plants seem to be quite advanced, judging from the Environmental Protection Department’s website.

The proposed incineration plants would be equipped with state-of-the-art technology, especially making a difference to the pollutant concentration in the exhaust air, which would no longer contain high dioxin levels as the plants previously operated in Hong Kong did. By now, the metals in the bottom ash can be recycled, yielding mostly iron but also valuable copper.

As easing the pressure on the landfills becomes increasingly important, waste incineration is able to play a vital role by reducing the volume of the landfill-destined waste to a fraction of the original and at the same time producing electrical energy for some 100,000 households. Yet, the progress on the projects of building waste incineration plants has been halted mainly due to opposition concerning the proposed sites of the plants. Especially, the site at Shek Kwu Chau is highly controversial, with critics arguing that reclaiming more land will have severe impact on the largely intact environment of the island as well as scaring off tourists in the area.

Another disadvantage that has gone largely unnoticed, is that it is also very inefficient to place the plant on a remote island. The plant should ideally be positioned where the waste is produced, which is in the city itself.

In Switzerland, waste incinerators are operated just next to city centres without plaguing residents with any foul smells. An elaborate smoke cleaning system, the same as proposed by the Environmental Protection Department, leaves the exhaust almost free of pollutants. Thus the often-mentioned and harmful dioxin emissions are way below the European Union threshold value, posing no health risk to the people living close to the plant.

Building the waste incineration plant in the city would diminish the environmental impact and increase the efficiency of the system dramatically. The high chimney would go largely unnoticed between the skyscrapers, leaving Shek Kwu Chau and neighbouring islands beautiful places to visit.

Oskar Joensson, Clear Water Bay

Where Our Trash Goes

Readers take issue with a Sunday Review essay that said recycling has failed in economic and environmental terms.

To the Editor: Re “The Reign of Recycling” (Sunday Review, Oct. 4):

John Tierney’s article fails to understand the psychology of recycling. The habit of recycling encourages people to consider their personal impact on the environment, and, yes, it makes people feel good about themselves. Decades of research in psychology has shown that recycling behavior has positive spillovers; it makes people more likely to help the environment in many other important ways.

A garbage tax (on trash that goes to the landfill) will likely do the exact opposite. Behavioral research has taught us that giving people the option to “buy out” of their environmental responsibility undermines their personal motivation to help.

Long-term environmental problems call for long-term changes in human behavior. Advising people to stuff their garbage deep inside the earth because that’s what we have always done is exactly the type of thinking that got us here in the first place. Just because societies had open sewage systems for over a thousand years doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Whatever the inefficiencies of the recycling process may be, misinforming people that recycling is a waste of time is not going to help the environment.


Princeton, N.J.

The writer is a researcher, lecturer and social psychologist at Princeton University who directs the Social and Environmental Decision-Making Lab.

To the Editor:

“The Reign of Recycling” and its attack on the benefits of recycling could not have been more off-base.

Recycling and composting are cost-effective and efficient ways to fight climate change and provide other social and environmental benefits.

For example, San Francisco’s pioneering composting program uses food scraps and yard trimmings to produce rich soil for farmers in California instead of sending them to the landfill, where they would produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In addition, soil produced from compost retains up to 20 times its weight in water, a significant benefit during California’s drought.

It only makes sense for the State of California to effectively eliminate the disposal of organic material by 2025 by turning it into more useful products. Moreover, processing recycleables can create 20 times as many jobs as sending material to landfills.

After more than a thousand years of burying our trash in landfills, it is time to update the use and disposal of precious resources for the 21st century.


San Francisco

The writer is the mayor of San Francisco.

To the Editor: John Tierney’s sadly shortsighted essay on recycling completely misses the key problem in our consuming society: the front end. With the production side held completely unaccountable, recycling becomes an impossible game of catch-up. Mr. Tierney, as he’s done so often before, scorns the left hand for trying to clean up a horrific mess that the right hand has created.

A sane solution would be to require everything that our society produces and consumes to be reusable or compostable, with a clear plan where it will all go once it’s served its initial purpose. Is that really so hard to do?


Bexley, Ohio

To the Editor: Recycling does seem very costly compared with its supposed benefits.

Some readers are old enough (as I am) to remember when soda and beer bottles were returned to the store where purchased and, instead of being crushed, were refilled with the same product and then resold. With modern means, couldn’t chips be incorporated into appropriate containers to expedite the process? Is it really necessary to destroy and remake containers, particularly energy-intensive glass and aluminum?

Refilling instead of recycling could provide local jobs and avoid the costs, economic and environmental, of transporting the recycled material vast distances to be reutilized.

New labeling could be applied to help alleviate the American abhorrence of “used” containers.


Arlington, Mass.

To the Editor: John Tierney misses the point of recycling by largely limiting his viewpoint of its benefits to monetization of waste. Surely the question of whether money can be made from recycling is of interest only to corporations in the business of processing waste.

Few countries in the world are blessed with both enough space to hide waste in landfills and the infrastructure needed to move waste from consumers to landfills. In traveling the globe, I’ve been struck repeatedly by scenes such as the vast numbers of plastic bags blowing across the Moroccan desert and household waste simply dumped in many Asian villages.

Many people living in or close to poverty simply have no options for getting rid of inorganic household waste that cannot be processed locally. Recycling is one important channel in a comprehensive program for waste management that delivers a clean, safe living space.

While first-world countries can pat themselves on the back for progress with paper, metal and plastics, the record is not good for many other kinds of waste, much of it dangerous. In the United States, options for handling toxic fluids such as automotive oil and paint thinners are inconvenient to consumers and not widely available. The same is true for pharmaceuticals, which when flushed into bodies of water endanger wildlife and whole ecosystems.

Globally, there remains much to be done, and making a buck should not be anyone’s priority.


Stow, Mass.

To the Editor: While it is true that recycling post-consumer plastics has been a tough nut to crack technologically, and recovery rates have plateaued at about 30 percent nationally, tremendous progress has been made in just the past few years.

I am chairman of a recycling company that has spent the past eight years developing a sustainable business model, driven by new technology and no government handouts, to take unsorted post-consumer plastic waste from residents and separate everything automatically so that every single resin type and plastic form is usable by a paying customer.

Just last year, we signed our first contract to supply 300 million pounds of previously nonrecyclable plastic to a Fortune 500 company. Our projections are that this technology, when rolled out nationally, will be diverting three billion pounds of plastic waste from our city streets, oceans and landfills by 2020.

With so much blood and treasure spent to secure the petroleum-based resources to make plastics, it is thoroughly immoral to simply throw them back into a hole.


Wilton, Conn.

To the Editor: Incredibly, John Tierney fails to mention the most obvious, and most important, alternative (or complement) to recycling: reducing waste to begin with. It’s not that hard.

Ten years ago I started carrying around a stainless steel water bottle everywhere I go. This one easy step dissolved my need for not only bottled water, but most other to-go drinks, too. Same goes for my trusty morning thermos — my coffee stays hotter, there’s no leaching from cheap Styrofoam or plastic-lined cups, and no waste. Same for take-out: Eat there or cook at home, and forgo the mountain of waste.

The list goes on: reusable grocery bags, buying bulk dry goods rather than individually packaged, forgoing the plastic bag at the corner store. You get the idea. These few strategies dramatically reduce the amount of trash and recycling I generate on any given day. It’s not hard; just do it.


Boulder, Colo.

To the Editor: The elephant in the room in John Tierney’s article is: Why do we continue to manufacture plastic for spurious purposes? We hear about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, about microplastics that are poisoning the sea, about turtles shaped like hourglasses because they grow inside a six-pack ring.

We can drink tap water out of nondisposable containers rather than bottled water; we do not need to drink coffee from a Styrofoam cup with a half life of hundreds of years; and we do not need large plastic toys for children. Plastic should be treated as a special material that can be a life saver in medical uses (stents) and marvelous for things like flexible plumbing pipe. But pretending that we can throw it away without consequences is criminal.


Ocean Springs, Miss.

To the Editor: While John Tierney is correct is describing the current economic plight of the recycling industry, he doesn’t mention how the recycling industry — and the solid waste industry of which it is a part — is changing.

Driven by technology and economics, parts of the country are moving away from the current recycling model. Optical sorting, computerized scanning and enhanced mechanical devices have made such developments possible. Montgomery, Ala., established a new system in which residents no longer sort their trash. Instead, the material goes to a sorting facility, where organics are separated from inorganics, and metals, paper, glass and plastic are sorted. The plan is for the organics go to an anaerobic digester; only the residue from the process will be landfilled.

In California, localities such as San Jose are experimenting with a system in which “wet trash” (organics) are placed in one bin, and “dry trash” (everything else) in another bin. The dry portion is mechanically and optically sorted for recyclables of value, and the organic fraction is diverted to an anaerobic digester and used for energy.

While neither of these approaches achieves zero waste, 60 to 70 percent of the stream is being repurposed.


Westport, Conn.

The writer is president of Governmental Advisory Associates.

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Green China: Why Beijing Fears a Nascent Environmental Protest Movement

Worried about the health effects of China’s out-of-control pollution, citizens are starting to take action.

By Jennifer Duggan

Sometimes in the middle of the night, a pungent odor permeates the suburb of Asuwei, outside Beijing. A chemical tang mixed with the rotten smell of garbage, it can be so strong that it awakens Hu Jun from her slumber. She says that when the wind blows in a certain direction, she knows the smell is coming and closes the windows before going to bed. But it still gets in. “I can smell it when I’m asleep. It comes through the cracks. It can permeate the room and wakes me up,” says Hu, a university professor in her late 50s. (Her name has been changed, as speaking negatively about the government in China can result in harassment, persecution, or imprisonment.)

Asuwei is past the end of Beijing’s sprawling subway line, where the city meets the countryside, close to a river and a hot spring resort. The stench comes from an overflowing nearby landfill; opened in 1996, it has grown with the Chinese capital’s population and wealth to exceed capacity. Hu knew about the landfill when she left the city center a decade ago but believed the upmarket development of neat houses with tidy lawns where she was making her new home would be a quiet, idyllic place to live. But soon residents were complaining about the garbage smell, and five years ago, the local government installed giant chemical-spraying guns, a kind of enormous version of a Febreze air freshener. But instead of solving the problem, the putative deodorizers created another. Hu says that now she can almost taste the chemicals in the air. “It is not merely a bad smell; it is a smell that is a mix of the chemicals and the garbage.”

Beijing now produces almost 15 billion pounds of municipal household waste each year; the landfill at Asuwei receives 7.2 million pounds. In an effort to deal with the growing amount of trash generated by China’s expanding middle class and increasingly consumerist society, Beijing and other cities are building huge incinerators—including one close to the landfill in Asuwei. Hu is worried; once fully operational, the new incinerator will reportedly burn 6 million pounds of garbage a day. Environmental authorities have said the project passed the required assessments, but Hu and other residents are mistrustful, fearing the emissions that will come from the plant. “The environment cannot tolerate it, and our health would be at risk,” she says. She maintains that everyone in the area is against the incinerator, though only a few—including Hu—are taking action, organizing and participating in public protests. She spends a lot of time reading and analyzing reports and environmental assessments, trying to find a way to stop the incinerator from opening.

China’s leaders appear fearful that the many, small localized bands of discontented citizens like Hu will coalesce into a larger movement; it now spends more money on internal security, which includes managing and suppressing these protests, than it does on its military. The unification of what are now disconnected grassroots actions against specific pollution sources into a national environmental movement is perceived as a threat to the rule of the Communist Party. The Internet, used by activists and protesters as a tool for sharing information, is often quickly scrubbed of evidence of any protest actions or criticism of the government. Earlier this year, a documentary film on China’s environmental ills received hundreds of millions of hits in just one week before being taken down by government censors, presumably out of fear that it could become China’s Silent Spring moment, sparking a nationwide outcry. At the same time, citizens are fearful too—of the rash of toxins that threaten their lives, and of the government that has shown it is willing to punish those who dare complain about the threat. Nevertheless, complaining they are, in increasing numbers and with increasing boldness—and impact.

Over a traditional lunch of shared dishes, Hu explains her motivation. “Our main disagreement is that the government believes the pollution can be under control, but we don’t,” she says, getting animated and waving her chopsticks. “The government said they could control the pollution in the landfill, but the stinky air is constantly there. I’m told the landfills in the U.S. don’t have any smell at all. Golf courses, parks, and cafés are right around them. But our government doesn’t have good management ability. It’s actually a public trust issue.”

Such fears seemed to be confirmed on the night of Aug. 12, when a series of explosions at a chemical warehouse rocked the port city of Tianjin, 75 miles from Beijing. Cell-phone video broadcast around the world recorded a fiery red ball exploding from a building, a flash, and then a massive bang as a second, even bigger fireball engulfed the sky. More than 150 people were killed.

Criticism and anger have since been expressed across China, with users on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, questioning how hazardous chemicals could be stored so close to residential areas in violation of national safety standards; facilities with hazardous chemicals are forbidden from operating less than one kilometer from residential and public buildings, though it’s not clear whether the warehouse owner will face fines or criminal penalties. Residents whose homes were destroyed in the blast also took part in protests, demanding compensation. The warehouse that exploded was found to have been holding 40 types of chemicals, which according to state media included 700 tons of sodium cyanide, 800 tons of ammonium nitrate (the fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing of 1995), and 500 tons of potassium nitrate. Residents fear pollution in the area since the explosion, and reports surfaced of chemical rain falling afterward and thousands of dead fish washing up nearby.

The outrage expressed around the Tianjin disaster reflects significant and growing concern about the state of the environment and pollution caused by the country’s coal-fired power plants and industrial operations. According to a Pew Research Center poll published in September, air pollution and water pollution are Nos. 2 and 3 on the list of Chinese citizens’ top concerns. (No. 1—corruption—is itself linked to pollution, as those in a position to do something about it have connections to industry, and if air and water pollution are counted together they dwarf corruption as the chief concern). Air pollution is a visible and highly publicized problem, and the burgeoning middle classes, well educated and with newfound leisure time, are becoming increasingly upset and outspoken about toxic water and soil. Last year, almost 90 percent of China’s biggest cities failed to meet air-quality standards, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (even as emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide fell slightly, the ministry reported in September). Despite gaining worldwide attention for its “airpocalypses,” when pollution levels have reached 755 on a scale of 500, Beijing isn’t even in the top 10 of China’s most polluted cities. While emissions from coal-fired power stations cause choking air above, polluting factories leak chemical-laden wastewater, poisoning rivers and farms. Only recently did the full scale of China’s environmental degradation come to light: After years of keeping the results of a soil pollution survey a state secret, the Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2014 admitted that almost 20 percent of the country’s farmland is polluted, mostly with toxic heavy metals from heavy industry and petrochemicals from intensive agriculture. Nearly 60 percent of groundwater is polluted. A study published in the scientific journal PLOS One in August estimated that air pollution contributes to the deaths of as many as 1.6 million people in China each year.

People are now making their voices heard in the form of protests, mostly against site-specific issues such as incinerators or chemical plants. Hu has written to authorities expressing concern about the Asuwei incinerator and in September 2009 took part with around 100 of her neighbors in a protest against it. Hu is smartly dressed, with jewelry and fashionable dark-rimmed glasses. She was at the vanguard of a new class of protesters—well-informed citizens concerned for their health and their families’ future. When construction plans were delayed soon after they first protested, some thought their actions may have had an effect, but blueprints for the incinerator were later revived—it would now be double the size originally planned. Residents say they weren’t consulted; the first they heard about it was when an environment assessment paper was published. “We started to fight against it again,” says Hu. Construction has begun anyway.

Maya Wang, a researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, says that although these protests focus on local issues, they are connected to the bigger environmental problems facing the nation. “Chinese people in general are more concerned about pollution. In big cities in particular there have been large scale protests, often because the environmental pollution in China has increased quite dramatically,” she says.

Protests have been growing in number and size over the past decade. According to Yang Zhaofei, vice-chair of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences, a Beijing-based NGO, the number of environmental protests has increased by an average of 29 percent every year since 1996; in 2011 the number of major demonstrations rose 120 percent.

Lu Yuyu runs a website that tracks protests in China using search engines and information gathered from social media and also sees the number of environmental protests rising drastically. Lu tracks all types of demonstrations, but, he says, “protests about environment and pollution are increasing not only in number but also in scale. Environmental protests are seen across the country in every province, in both cities and the remote countryside.”

The government appears worried. The first year China spent more on internal security than on military defense was 2011; the gap widened over the next two years, and in 2014 Beijing stopped reporting the numbers separately. Official figures put the number of “mass incidents”—protests over corruption, abuse of power, pollution, and other issues—as having risen more than tenfold between 1993 and 2010. Beijing has also since stopped reporting those figures.

Lu says one thing he’s noticed over years of tracking public protests and demonstrations is that environmental protests “are usually by far the largest.” They’re also the ones that see the most violent crackdowns. “Pollution is something that affects everyone,” he says. “It can easily gather the whole village, town, or city onto the streets.”

Hu is cautious when discussing the protest she took part in, outside the Agricultural Exhibition Center in the center of Beijing, where she and her fellow demonstrators unfurled banners calling for the incinerator project to be scrapped. Such acts are controversial in society and therefore a sensitive topic for Chinese. She says local authorities and the Beijing government opposed the action—a polite way of saying there was retribution. According to media reports at the time, the protest was deemed illegal and broken up by police; five protesters were arrested and detained.

Incinerators are a particular flash point of public opposition. So are chemical plants, particularly those producing paraxylene (PX), which is used in the manufacturing of plastic and polyester. People living nearby worry about cancer, asthma, and local water and soil quality—doubtful, as Hu is, that the facilities will be run properly and that potentially toxic emissions will be kept within safe limits.

In June, a series of large-scale protests took place in Jinshan, a suburb of Shanghai, just on the rumor that a PX plant was to open in the vicinity. The local government issued assurances that there would be no such plant, but according to Chen Liwen, an environmental activist, few people believe such statements. “The local government tell the people there are plans for a park or a temple and after they get the land they change the land use,” she says.

Thousands took to the streets. Protests continued for more than a week; many came out several days in a row. Local and national media, controlled by the state, are thought to have been ordered not to report on the protests, as few news stories about them surfaced in China—only the local government’s official statements—and a camera operator for an international news outlet was blocked by police from filming. However, photos and video circulated widely on social media before they were deleted, presumably by censors. Photos showed protesters filling four lanes of a highway. Some wore symbolic face masks; others carried banners reading, “Give us back our Jinshan,” “No to PX,” and “Protect the environment.” Around 40,000 people took part, according to one report. A small number of protesters managed to get to the municipal government offices in the center of Shanghai but were hauled away after scuffles with police.

One protester, who did not want to be named, said by WeChat, a messaging app popular in China, that a number of chemical plants are already in Jinshan, and many feel the emissions are a problem. She said locals are worried about their health, as a lot of people in the area suffer from cancer. “Our main request in this protest is asking the government to stop building new chemical factories; do not expand the chemical area in Jinshan,” she said. “The chemical factories are swallowing our living space and emit poisonous air.” One statistic widely circulated in China puts the rise in lung cancer deaths over the past 30 years at 465 percent. “People are concerned about their health, particularly from heavy metals and dioxins from emissions,” says Chen.

Hu says she has suffered respiratory illnesses a few times a year ever since the chemical sprays began. “It starts with a cough, then fever,” she says, touching her throat. “One time I was in the hospital for several days. The doctors asked me if I do some kind of job that exposes me to dust.” Hu can’t prove her illnesses are linked to the landfill and the deodorizing chemicals but says many others in the area have also fallen ill. “The landfill has had a great impact on nearby residents’ health,” she says. “Most of the diseases are related to air or water pollution. With the incinerator there will be two pollution sources.”

For many years, the focus for China’s citizens has been to increase wages and living standards. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, but the country’s industrialization has taken a tremendous toll on the environment. Ironically, the huge increase in disposable income has expanded health consciousness and spurred a growing awareness of those ecological ills. In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, sales of air purifiers and face masks are booming, as are sales of organic and imported food and bottled water as people try to ensure safe food and water and clean air for their families.

These worries were both confirmed and animated earlier this year when the documentary film Under the Dome, researched and presented by a popular former television news anchor, Chai Jing, went viral and gave encouragement to environmentalists and momentum to their cause. Chai, who lives in Beijing, took a stark look at air pollution’s sources and effects. She tells the story of how her daughter was born with a benign tumor. While she doesn’t link her daughter’s condition with air pollution, she says the experience made her aware and “afraid” of pollution, reflecting the fears of parents in cities throughout the country. In one scene, Chai asks a young girl in Shaanxi province, China’s coal heartland, if she has ever seen stars. “No,” the girl replies. Chai asks if she has seen blue sky. “Slightly blue sky” is the answer. Chai asks if the girl has ever seen white clouds; the girl says, “No.”

The minister of environmental protection, Chen Jining, initially praised the documentary, and within days it had been viewed and shared online hundreds of millions of times, blowing up on social media and messaging apps like WeChat. Ma Jun, China’s best-known environmentalist, described the documentary as “one of the most important pieces of public awareness of all time by the Chinese media.” But Under the Dome proved to be a little too popular, and just over a week after its release it was removed from Chinese websites.

Protests like the ones in Jinshan are almost always focused on a particular plant or project. Though significant because the concerns are real and direct—a persistent cough, a daughter’s asthma, a river that no longer produces fish—they are essentially NIMBYish in nature. There is no organized network attempting to address environmental policy at a national level. Protesters to this point, says Daniel K. Gardner, professor of history at Smith College, “are not saying, ‘Down with the government.’ They are saying there has been no environmental assessment or consultation with the public, and the government promised that. And they want the government to do something about it.”

Under the Dome may have changed that. Gardner, who is writing a book on environmental pollution in China, says that while the government admits that pollution is a real problem—state media reported in August that legislators concerned about water pollution “grilled” members of the cabinet, who promised to address it—the popularity of Chai’s film made officials nervous. “Now there was the possibility of some sort of organized movement,” he says. “Chai Jing galvanized what is already an awareness, and that is what the government is afraid of, this galvanization of the public.”

China’s environmental ills are now high on Beijing’s agenda, with Premier Li Keqiang, in March, going as far as to say the government was “declaring war on pollution.” He further declared the government was “determined” to tackle smog and environmental pollution, admitting that the progress made so far “falls far short of the expectation of the people.”

The government knows that a widespread environmental movement could lead to the development of an organized civil society and sees this as a threat to the power of the Communist Party. “If you look at some of the former republics of the Soviet Union or countries in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, or other countries in Asia,” says Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, “you find that in a number of cases, an environmental issue was the trigger or a contributing factor to the social discontent in large-scale protests and the eventual overthrow of the government. The Chinese government is well aware that the environment can be part of a broader social movement for change.”

Protests are kept local both by officials’ sometimes giving in to the demands of protesters or portraying them as motivated purely by self-interest. “Some of these protests have been quite successful, but none has coalesced into pressure on the government to engage [or] to change the abuse of power and corruption that lead to these environmental problems,” says Wang of Human Rights Watch. “The government have been good at ensuring that these do not spread beyond the local areas that they occur in, [even though] these issues are remarkably similar across the country.”

While some environmental protests appear to be tolerated and at times can be successful in their aims at getting plans for a plant delayed or cancelled, in general protests are not welcomed and can be put down by the authorities. To keep a protest from spreading, local authorities try to stop the flow of information. Chinese media are squelched, and censors delete information shared on social media. While a public action is taking place, mobile communications can be cut (there were reports of this happening during the protests in Jinshan).

During the reporting of this article, I tried, using WeChat and Weibo to make contact with a number of protesters who had been involved with the demonstrations in Jinshan. Most were reluctant to talk, especially on WeChat, perhaps because of reports that the app is monitored. Months afterward, it was still difficult to talk to anyone who took part. One woman who had posted a lot of information and photos on social media during the protests had seemed eager to talk. We exchanged messages over a number of weeks, and she invited me to Jinshan to show me the chemical plants.

A few days before we were to meet, though, she stopped replying to messages. Another protester, who had agreed to talk by telephone, also stopped responding. While I can’t know for sure why these individuals shut down our correspondence, it seems likely—as other sources have expressed similar concerns to me and other journalists here—that they were worried about the consequences of talking to a foreign journalist about protests against the government. Wang of Human Rights Watch says it is likely there have been some repercussions for those involved in the Jinshan protests, especially as civil society and activism across all areas—from labor to freedom of speech to ethnic autonomy to religious rights—have seen crackdowns in the last couple of years. “It’s quite common to expect that the authorities take measures that have to do with intimidation and harassment of people who were involved in [the Jinshan protests],” Wang tells me when I ask her why she thinks these sources might have gone silent. “From NGOs to activists to the participants of these protests, the amount of pressure has generally increased.”

Chen Liwen echoes this sentiment, saying it has become riskier for people to take part in protests in recent years. “It is more and more dangerous than before. Because the control in China is very strict, after the protest the police will find out the organizer and they will detain them,” she says.

As if to prove Chen’s point, the night before I was to meet with an environmental activist, the source received a phone call warning her not to meet with me. The caller knew the time and place of our meeting, which had been arranged over email. We made alternate plans, but the day after we met she received a visit from two men believed to be public security officers, wanting to know what we had discussed. A military parade—for which the government slowed or ceased operation of more than 12,000 power plants, factories, and cement plants in the region to ensure blue skies—commemorating the end of World War II was to take place the following week, and activists frequently come under increased pressure and surveillance before such official spectacles.

Despite potential consequences, Hu has not ruled out organizing or protesting against the incinerator in Asuwei now that it isunder construction. She sighs heavily at the suggestion, indicating it is not something she wants. “It’s still a long way to go,” she says. In the meantime she is trying to fight by legal and administrative means. She and her neighbors have consulted experts and activists on strategy. “It’s very tough,” she says. “I need to read a lot of paperwork. It’s a learning process.” Nevertheless, she’s not giving up. “This is for the common good. So I’m not afraid of anything.”

Hong Kong authorities must reveal airspace plan before building third runway at airport

Albert Cheng says Hongkongers are right to demand some proof of a regional deal on air traffic management before a costly third runway is added to Chek Lap Kok

Officials are asking Hongkongers to take a blind leap in supporting the new runway at Chek Lap Kok. They say by the time the facility is operational in about a decade, Hong Kong will have adequate access to nearby airspace to make the HK$141.5 billion investment worthwhile.

The aviation authorities of Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China started discussing in 2004 how to maximise their respective airspace to cope with the rapid growth of commercial flights in the region. Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department joined with the Civil Aviation Administration of China and Civil Aviation Authority of Macau to form a working group to manage the regional air traffic, keeping in mind future expansion of the five airports in Shenzhen, Macau, Zhuhai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

Their meetings from 2004 to 2007 culminated in a plan for the Pearl River Delta region.

The administration is, to put it mildly, ham-fisted in planning and overseeing large-scale engineering projects

Since then, the tripartite committee has been as transparent as a black hole. Legislators, industry experts and the news media have repeatedly asked the government to produce documents to assure the public the other two parties have indeed agreed to take concrete steps to help meet Hong Kong’s need for more airspace.

So far, officials can only regurgitate what they managed to get out of the working group eight years ago, with not a word about what the three sides have done or will do for Hong Kong’s third runway. The runway alone, without the reorganisation of the surrounding airspace, will not lead to any substantial increase in airport capacity. The plan is apparently little more than a statement of intent.

The last tripartite meeting was held in 2012. I dare say, to date, no substantive advancement has been made. The best that Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung and other officials can do is hide behind the so-called plan, the exact content of which has never been disclosed.

One can presume there is no agreement to reorganise Hong Kong’s surrounding airspace to accommodate additional flights arising from the third runway. Without this, the new facility is doomed to be a white elephant.

Among the experts who have already spoken against the scheme are two former directors of aviation, Peter Lok Kung-nam and Albert Lam Kwong-yu, and former director of the Hong Kong Observatory Lam Chiu-ying. They, too, have also demanded to see proof of any regional cooperation on airspace. One wonders how many bureaucrats will step forward once they are free to speak their minds.

Although the Executive Council has already rubber-stamped the project, public opposition has been snowballing. At least two judicial reviews have been filed to block the construction of the runway.

The administration is, to put it mildly, ham-fisted in planning and overseeing large-scale engineering projects. The track record of Cheung and his colleagues hardly inspires public confidence in the third runway proposition. The troublesome express rail link is also in his portfolio. The scheme has a budget overrun of over HK$20 billion, while its completion date has been repeatedly delayed.

Another major infrastructure project, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, is also in troubled waters . Various parts of the reclamation for the HK$7 billion artificial island that would house the immigration facilities have shifted “up to six or seven metres”, according to reports. The Highways Department admitted the works could not be completed as scheduled by the end of next year. It could not say how long the delay would be.

Given such bitter experiences, I would not be surprised to see the final bill for the third runway exceeding HK$200 billion. The Airport Authority is now promoting its plan to impose a levy on travellers to help fund the project. It has even worked out details on how to make business-class passengers pay more.

This is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. The new runway is heading for anything but a soft landing.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.

David Suzuki: Food Waste Is a Crime Against the Planet

Thanksgiving is a time to gather with friends and family to appreciate the bounty of the fall harvest. Eating is both a highly social and personal part of our lives and food preferences can even make for lively dinner table conversations.

In North America we tend to focus on how food is grown and harvested. Consumers face a myriad of labels when they shop for Thanksgiving feasts—organic, free range, cage-free, Marine Stewardship Council, fair trade, non-GMO, vegetarian-fed and locally grown among them. From a sustainability point of view, though, the most important question is missing from these labels: Will this food be eaten or will it end up contributing to the world’s growing food-wasteproblem?

We’re hearing a lot about food waste lately. Every year a staggering one-third—1.3 billion tons—of the world’s food is wasted after it has been harvested: 45 percent of fruit and vegetables, 35 percent of fish and seafood, 30 percent of cereals, 20 percent of dairy products and 20 percent of meat. Food waste ends up in landfills, increasing methane emissions and contributing significantly to climate change. A recent study found Americans waste close to US$200 billion on uneaten food while Canadians throw away $31 billion.

These figures only account for 29 percent of the full cost of waste. They don’t include factors such as labor, fuel to transport goods to global markets, inefficiency losses from feed choices used to produce meat and fish or food left unharvested. As methodologies are improved and accounting becomes more inclusive, we’re likely to find even higher waste figures. Dozens of studies across many countries with different methodologies not only confirm the increase in food waste but suggest food waste is even higher and on the rise. In Canada, food waste cost estimates increased from $27 billion to $31 billion between 2010 and 2014.

In a world where one in nine people doesn’t get enough to eat—many of them children—this is unconscionable. According to the World Food Program, poor nutrition kills 3.1 million children under the age of five every year. It’s the cause of almost half of child deaths in that age range. When it comes to feeding the world, distribution and waste appear to be greater problems than population. And yet we continue to destroy more forests, drain more wetlands and deplete the oceans of fish to meet the needs of a growing world population.

Not only that, the monumental economic losses from food waste represent money that could be used to fund much-needed social and environmental programs. Money lost in North America would cover most of Canada’s federal budget. Food waste in Metro Vancouver homes adds about $700 a year to a household’s grocery bill.

Every morsel of food wasted represents unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions, conversion of natural ecosystems to agricultural lands and disruptions to marine food webs. Based on 2007 data, the UN estimates that the equivalent of 3.3 gigatons of CO2 emissions globally can be attributed to food waste. Canada’s total emissions, in comparison, are about 0.7 gigatons. If food waste were a nation, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter.

We need to tackle food waste at all levels, from international campaigns to individual consumption habits. In September, the UN agreed to an ambitious global goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030 as both an environmental and humanitarian imperative. Earlier this year, Metro Vancouver joined the international effort Love Food Hate Waste to meet municipal waste goals and encourage individual behavioral change. A similar UK campaign led to a 21 percent cut in food waste over five years. Grocery stores in France and other countries are offering discounts for misshapen produce under an “ugly fruits and vegetables” campaign. Businesses are using audits to map out where food waste is affecting bottom lines.

Food waste is a crime against the planet and the life it supports. Reducing it not only addresses food insecurity, it benefits everyone. This Thanksgiving dinner, whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, carnivore, locavore or pescetarian, plan for a zero-food-waste meal. Show thanks for ecosystems, growers and harvesters by buying only what you will eat and eating all that you buy.

Hong Kong government launches HK$1b recycling fund, but industry figures have doubts about its effectiveness

Ernest Kao

But industry figures have doubts about the effectiveness of the scheme

Applications have opened for the government’s HK$1 billion recycling fund, with the first batch of grants set to be handed out to successful applicants in March.

Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing said the fund, announced in last year’s policy address and approved by the legislature in July, would help increase the quantity and quality of recyclables in the market and reduce pressure on the city’s overflowing landfills.

“The purpose of the fund is to support the healthy and sustainable development of the recycling industry and market,” Wong said at the launch yesterday.

The deadline for applications for the first batch is November 30.

The fund comprises two programmes – a matching fund for individual enterprises to upgrade and expand their waste recycling operations in which a HK$1of funding is provided for every HK$1 invested, and another targeted at non-profit and trade support organisations to “enhance the overall capability and productivity of the local recycling industry”.

The former offers grants equivalent to 50 per cent of approved expenditure for a two-year period for up to three projects with cumulative funding of HK$5 million. The latter offers 100 per cent grants with a cap set at HK$15 million.

Under the enterprise support programme, small and medium-sized recycling businesses can also apply for subsidies for smaller scale projects such as manpower training and occupational safety. These grants, requiring “less paperwork”, will be capped at HK$150,000 for a one-year project.

Scrap plastic recycler Lee Wai-man said he would apply for both programmes, but the biggest problem was not a lack of machinery but rising rents, a lack of land and a shrinking labour market.

“Sure you can give us a few million dollars to buy some fancy new machinery but in a few years our rents will soar,” he said. “My youngest employee is 47 years old and will probably quit in a few years. Who am I going to train with this money?”

Jacky Lau Yiu-shing, director of the Recycled Materials and Reproduction Business General Association, had earlier said that falling prices of plastic as a result of an economic slowdown and declining oil prices had caused frontline recyclers to stop collecting the material.

“We may have the machinery and processing capability, but we don’t have the stock,” he said.

Jimmy Kwok Chun-wah, who chairs the newly set up advisory committee to manage the fund, said it would be difficult to provide subsidies from the fund to prop up the prices of recyclables in the market. “There’s no way the fund can offer this right now as the prices of recyclables in the market will always be fluctuating,” he said.

Volkswagen: The scandal explained

What is Volkswagen accused of?

It’s been dubbed the “diesel dupe”. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that many VW cars being sold in America had devices in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results. The German car giant has since admitted cheating emissions tests in the US.

VW has had a major push to sell diesel cars in the US, backed by a huge marketing campaign trumpeting its cars’ low emissions. The EPA’s findings cover 482,000 cars in the US only, including the VW-manufactured Audi A3, and the VW brands Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Passat. But VW has admitted that about 11 million cars worldwide, including eight million in Europe, are fitted with the so-called “defeat device”.

The device sounds like a sophisticated piece of kit.

Full details of how it worked are sketchy, although the EPA has said that the engines had computer software that could sense test scenarios by monitoring speed, engine operation, air pressure and even the position of the steering wheel.

When the cars were operating under controlled laboratory conditions – which typically involve putting them on a stationary test rig – the device appears to have put the vehicle into a sort of safety mode in which the engine ran below normal power and performance. Once on the road, the engines switched out of this test mode.

The result? The engines emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US.

What has been VW’s response?

“We’ve totally screwed up,” said VW America boss Michael Horn, while the group’s chief executive at the time, Martin Winterkorn, said his company had “broken the trust of our customers and the public”. Mr Winterkorn has now left the company as a direct result of the scandal and has been replaced by Matthias Mueller, the former boss of Porsche.

“My most urgent task is to win back trust for the Volkswagen Group – by leaving no stone unturned,” Mr Mueller said on taking up his new post.

VW has also launched an internal inquiry.

With VW recalling almost 500,000 cars in the US alone, it has set aside €6.5bn (£4.7bn) to cover costs. The carmaker has said it will begin recalling cars in January.

But that’s unlikely to be the end of the financial impact. The EPA has the power to fine a company up to $37,500 for each vehicle that breaches standards – a maximum fine of about $18bn.

Legal action from consumers and shareholders may follow, and there is speculation that the US Justice Department will launch a criminal probe. Then, or course, there is the cost of fixing all the cars.

How widespread are VW’s problems?

What started in the US has spread to a growing number of countries. The UK, Italy, France, South Korea, Canada and, of course, Germany, are opening investigations. Throughout the world, politicians, regulators and environmental groups are questioning the legitimacy of VW’s emissions testing. France’s finance minister Michel Sapin said a “Europe-wide” probe was needed in order to “reassure” the public.

At this time, only cars in the US named by the EPA are being recalled, so owners elsewhere need take no action. However, with about 11 million VW diesel cars potentially affected – 2.8 million cars in Germany itself – further costly recalls and refits are likely. Half of the company’s sales in Europe – VW’s biggest market – are for diesel cars. No wonder the carmaker’s shares are down 30% since the scandal broke – with other carmakers also seeing big falls in their stock prices.

Will more heads roll?

It’s still unclear who knew what and when, although VW must have had a chain of management command that approved fitting cheating devices to its engines, so further departures are likely.

Christian Klingler, a management board member and head of sales and marketing is leaving the company, although VW said this was part of long-term planned structural changes and was not related to recent events.

In 2014, in the US, regulators raised concerns about VW emissions levels, but these were dismissed by the company as “technical issues” and “unexpected” real-world conditions. If executives and managers wilfully misled officials (or their own VW superiors) it’s difficult to see them surviving.

Are other carmakers implicated?

That’s for the various regulatory and government inquiries to determine. California’s Air Resources Board is now looking into other manufacturers’ testing results. Ford, BMW and Renault-Nissan have said they did not use “defeat devices”, while other firms have either not commented or simply stated that they comply with the law.

The UK trade body for the car industry, the SMMT, said: “The EU operates a fundamentally different system to the US – with all European tests performed in strict conditions as required by EU law and witnessed by a government-appointed independent approval agency.”

But it added: “The industry acknowledges that the current test method is outdated and is seeking agreement from the European Commission for a new emissions test that embraces new testing technologies and is more representative of on-road conditions.”

That sounds like EU testing rules need tightening, too.

Environmental campaigners have long argued that emissions rules are being flouted. “Diesel cars in Europe operate with worse technology on average than the US,” said Jos Dings, from the pressure group Transport & Environment. “Our latest report demonstrated that almost 90% of diesel vehicles didn’t meet emission limits when they drive on the road. We are talking millions of vehicles.”

Car analysts at the financial research firm Bernstein agree that European standards are not as strict as those in the US. However, the analysts said in a report that there was, therefore, “less need to cheat”. So, if other European carmakers’ results are suspect, Bernstein says the “consequences are likely to be a change in the test cycle rather than legal action and fines”.

It’s all another blow for the diesel market.

Certainly is. Over the past decade and more, carmakers have poured a fortune into the production of diesel vehicles – with the support of many governments – believing that they are better for the environment. Latest scientific evidence suggests that’s not the case, and there are even moves to limit diesel cars in some cities.

Diesel sales were already slowing, so the VW scandal came at a bad time. “The revelations are likely to lead to a sharp fall in demand for diesel engine cars,” said Richard Gane, automotive expert at consultants Vendigital.

“In the US, the diesel car market currently represents around 1% of all new car sales and this is unlikely to increase in the short to medium term.

“However, in Europe the impact could be much more significant, leading to a large tranche of the market switching to petrol engine cars virtually overnight.”

Cathay Pacific’s green campaign takes a nose-dive as it emerges it’s recycling less and emitting more carbon dioxide than ever

Danny Lee

Cathay Pacific’s green campaign appears to have slumped, with the volume of plastic bottles it recycles dropping by more than half in the space of three years.

And the amount of carbon dioxide its planes emit into the atmosphere has reached its highest level ever.

In unveiling the airline’s latest sustainability report yesterday, chief executive Ivan Chu Kwok-leung said: “As an airline, we unavoidably emit carbon when we operate, but it’s important we do things to compensate for that so that we can leave a good legacy for the future.”


In last year, Cathay Pacific and sister company Dragonair recycled 22,360kg of plastic cups, 20,797kg of plastic bottles, and 16,933kg of aluminium cans on Cathay Pacific inbound flights to Hong Kong. Cathay managed to recycle as much as 55,000kg of plastic bottles in 2011 but has failed to sustain that level.

On Monday night Cathay blamed the falling volume of recycled waste on suppliers using lighter materials.

A company spokeswoman said: “For example, the new 9oz plastic cup used in economy class is 33 per cent lighter than the previous cup and is more elastic, durable and recyclable. This would contribute to the falling weight of our recycling materials over the years.”

Hong Kong’s biggest airline said last month that it was ramping up efforts to reduce inflight waste and source more sustainable materials.

With rising emissions, the company defended the rise. The airline explained it is operating more flights than ever before to more destinations, and flying further. Cathay and Dragonair’s fleet of 188 aircraft are also filling up with more passengers and more seats are being added. All combined means carbon emissions per passenger is lower.

“While we expect our emissions to increase in relation to our business growth, our absolute emissions cannot be viewed in isolation of our fuel efficiency improvement. Instead both need to be viewed together to get the full picture,” a Cathay spokeswoman said.

The biggest gas-guzzling aircraft, including the four-engine passenger Boeing 747 aircraft and Airbus A340, will leave the fleet by 2017.

The rise in carbon dioxide emissions may slow or fall in coming years as Cathay is set to receive the first of 48 greener jets – the Airbus A350 – in February. These use around 20 per cent less fuel.