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December 14th, 2015:

Rights and wrongs: Hong Kong’s small-house policy for indigenous villagers is outdated and unfair

Government officials can no longer bury their heads in the sand; it’s high time they sorted out a mess that’s been brewing for decades

The much-criticised small-house policy is under the public spotlight again. This came after 11 villagers and a property developer were jailed for defrauding the government in a housing scam in connection with the policy. The case is being taken up by rural affairs body Heung Yee Kuk, which argues that the policy allowing each male indigenous villager to build a three-storey villa is part of the traditional rights protected by the Basic Law.

The villagers certainly have the right to appeal against the conviction and sentencing in a higher court. But whether the small-house policy is a constitutionally protected right is debatable. Villagers are adamant that the construction of villas under this scheme, commonly called Ding Uk, are part of their traditional rights. But critics say the Basic Law does not specify what the rights are, adding that outdated and unfair policies should be scrapped.

Until the constitutional issues are put to the court for a ruling, the policy will continue to be a subject of debate. But that does not alter the general perception that the scheme is unfair, unjustified and unsustainable.

Introduced in 1972 as an interim fix for housing in rural areas, the scheme is prone to abuses. Some villagers have violated the rules by selling their rights to property developers to build houses for sale. The latest court case involved 11 villagers who had illegally sold their rights to build “small houses” to the developer for a total of HK$4.3 million.

It is difficult to see how the policy can be sustained. As the scheme applies to adult male indigenous villagers descended through the male line of residents of the 642 villages in 1898, the demand for Ding Uk is potentially infinite. Given the limited land supply in Hong Kong, the policy is simply unsustainable. Thousands of applications are still waiting to be cleared.

The background of the scheme may have something to do with the way the British took over the New Territories. But it does not make sense to dwell on the so-called traditional rights for indigenous villagers when urban and rural areas have been reunited under Chinese rule for nearly two decades. The policy is utterly unfair to non-indigenous people. Not only is it outdated and discriminatory today, it also splits the community and goes against the core values of equality and fairness.

That officials are still dragging their feet is disappointing. Years have passed but a so-called review is still going nowhere. The task is not easy. But delaying tactics are hardly the way forward.

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Grand promises of Paris climate deal undermined by squalid retrenchments

By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.

Inside the narrow frame within which the talks have taken place, the draft agreement at the UN climate talks in Paris is a great success. The relief and self-congratulation with which the final text was greeted, acknowledges the failure at Copenhagen six years ago, where the negotiations ran wildly over time before collapsing. The Paris agreement is still awaiting formal adoption, but its aspirational limit of 1.5C of global warming, after the rejection of this demand for so many years, can be seen within this frame as a resounding victory. In this respect and others, the final text is stronger than most people anticipated.

Paris climate talks: governments adopt historic deal – as it happened

Live coverage from COP21 in Paris, as nearly 200 governments prepare to officially adopt a climate change deal on how to cut carbon emissions post-2020

Outside the frame it looks like something else. I doubt any of the negotiators believe that there will be no more than 1.5C of global warming as a result of these talks. As the preamble to the agreement acknowledges, even 2C, in view of the weak promises governments brought to Paris, is wildly ambitious. Though negotiated by some nations in good faith, the real outcomes are likely to commit us to levels of climate breakdown that will be dangerous to all and lethal to some. Our governments talk of not burdening future generations with debt. But they have just agreed to burden our successors with a far more dangerous legacy: the carbon dioxide produced by the continued burning of fossil fuels, and the long-running impacts this will exert on the global climate.

With 2C of warming, large parts of the world’s surface will become less habitable. The people of these regions are likely to face wilder extremes: worse droughts in some places, worse floods in others, greater storms and, potentially, grave impacts on food supply. Islands and coastal districts in many parts of the world are in danger of disappearing beneath the waves.

Can the sun cool down Earth?

A combination of acidifying seas, coral death and Arctic melting means that entire marine food chains could collapse. On land, rainforests may retreat, rivers fail and deserts spread. Mass extinction is likely to be the hallmark of our era. This is what success, as defined by the cheering delegates, will look like.

And failure, even on their terms? Well that is plausible too. While earlier drafts specified dates and percentages, the final text aims only to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible”. Which could mean anything and nothing.

In fairness, the failure does not belong to the Paris talks, but to the whole process. A maximum of 1.5C, now an aspirational and unlikely target, was eminently achievable when the first UN climate change conference took place in Berlin in 1995. Two decades of procrastination, caused by lobbying – overt, covert and often downright sinister – by the fossil fuel lobby, coupled with the reluctance of governments to explain to their electorates that short-term thinking has long-term costs, ensure that the window of opportunity is now three-quarters shut. The talks in Paris are the best there have ever been. And that is a terrible indictment.

People dressed as polar bears demonstrate near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, during COP21. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP
Progressive as the outcome is by comparison to all that has gone before, it leaves us with an almost comically lopsided agreement. While negotiations on almost all other global hazards seek to address both ends of the problem, the UN climate process has focused entirely on the consumption of fossil fuels, while ignoring their production.

James Hansen, father of climate change awareness, calls Paris talks ‘a fraud’

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In Paris the delegates have solemnly agreed to cut demand, but at home they seek to maximise supply. The UK government has even imposed a legal obligation upon itself, under the Infrastructure Act 2015, to “maximise economic recovery” of the UK’s oil and gas. Extracting fossil fuels is a hard fact. But the Paris agreement is full of soft facts: promises that can slip or unravel. Until governments undertake to keep fossil fuels in the ground, they will continue to undermine the agreement they have just made.

With Barack Obama in the White House and a dirigiste government overseeing the negotiations in Paris, this is as good as it is ever likely to get. No likely successor to the US president will show the same commitment. In countries like the UK, grand promises abroad are undermined by squalid retrenchments at home. Whatever happens now, we will not be viewed kindly by succeeding generations.

So yes, let the delegates congratulate themselves on a better agreement than might have been expected. And let them temper it with an apology to all those it will betray.