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Hong Kong pollution fight can be model for world, says environmentalist

Efforts in Hong Kong to reduce air and water pollution can serve as a model for the rest of the world, a leading environmentalist believes.

“Hong Kong is an extraordinarily important city for the world, for financial and intellectual reasons. If we can come up with solutions here, then that model can be exported to the other parts of the world,” said Peter Seligmann, founder and chief executive of Conservation International (CI). The charity, set up in 1987, opened an office in the city this week.

Seligmann, who is in Hong Kong for CI’s local launch, said the state of the environment in China was a concern for the world because of the number of people it affected – nearly a fifth of the world’s population – and China’s impact on global air and water quality.

Conservation International plans to conduct a case study in Hong Kong for its new Freshwater Health Index.

“It will work much like a Dow Jones index, tracking and recording the health of freshwater sources,” says Seligmann. “It will provide concrete metrics to governments so they can make smarter decisions.… It will show any depreciation in water quality so we can find the causes and take action to solve the problems.”

If you’re a government and the air quality is so bad that people can’t breathe or the water is tainted and undrinkable, it really is a concern for the stability of communities

Peter Seligmann

The format follows the group’s Ocean Health Index, an assessment tool that scientifically measures key elements of oceanic health around the world. Set up in 2012, the index has been embraced by governments including those of China, the United States, Brazil and Colombia.

Seligmann says environmental deterioration has become a matter of “life and death” for companies, governments and communities and is a reason why governments and organisations are much more receptive today.

“A food business that is selling poisoned food will go out of business. If a fisheries business can’t find fish, it goes under. If you’re a government and the air quality is so bad that people can’t breathe or the water is tainted and undrinkable, it really is a concern for the stability of communities.”

Jude Wu, Conservation International’s managing director for Hong Kong, said the charity sought to balance the demands of nature and development and ensure wise decisions are made today to secure a better future for the world.

“That future is attained by securing the parts of nature that Hong Kong depends on within and outside its borders,” Wu said. “Hong Kong is one of the mega urban centres of the world … but people often don’t think that Hong Kong is extremely dependent on nature. The city imports 80 per cent of its water and 90 per cent of its food.

“Our vision is to work with partners, businesses and governments to ensure the city’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have clean and abundant fresh water, clean and abundant food.”

Wu said education is key, with CI looking to boost green thinking among the city’s next generation of leaders. “We aim to work with schools and students in Hong Kong and show them how they can become change agents.”

It has teamed up with the Chinese International School to set up an Environmental Heroes Leadership Programme for the next generation of conservationists and has established a partnership with CSR Asia to advance Hong Kong’s leadership in corporate environmental sustainability.

“When living in a mega city it’s easy to forget that we are part of nature and not apart from nature.”

Conservation International is working in 30 countries around the world, including the Asia Pacific region.

In 2007 it established a fund in Sichuan province offering incentives to provide sustainable livelihoods and fresh water to villagers along the upper reaches of the Yangtze river. In 2014, it helped the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia pass legislation to create the Natural Park of the Coral Sea, the world’s largest protected area, covering 1.3 million square kilometres of ocean and remote islands. The park’s waters generate 2,500 to 3,000 tonnes of fish each year, providing food to 250,000 people, and help make the territory’s economy sustainable.

In Indonesia, manta rays, a major tourist draw, have been declining in number due to fishing. Manta rays are often killed for their gill plates, which are in high demand in China, where they are used in a health tonic in traditional Chinese medicine.

Conservation International and partners provided research showing that a single manta ray is worth about US$1 million in tourism revenue over the course of its lifetime, benefiting the community more than if caught and killed. This data helped persuade the Indonesian government to ban the fishing of manta rays in its waters – nearly six million square kilometres – which contain one of the world’s largest populations of the giant fish.

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