World Environment Day: Three steps for a cleaner, greener Hong Kong
Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Deal provoked fury around the world, but it has also opened the way for China -- once the bad boy of environmental issues - to attempt a rebrand as a green leader.
The mainland has already invested billions in clean energy infrastructure, and has vowed to uphold the “hard-won” 195-nation Paris Accord, which set out measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
And yet Hong Kong, which has long prided itself as more forward thinking, is falling behind. On World Environment Day, we look at what needs to be done for a cleaner, greener city.
Step 1: Slash Fossil Fuel Use
The majority of the city’s energy is provided by fossil fuels, while investment so far in greener options has been lackluster with the government failing to hit even miniscule targets. It was recommended that 1 percent of the city’s energy be from renewable energy by 2012 – five years on that still has not been met.
According to the WWF, if everyone on the planet adopted the kind of high consumption lifestyle common in Hong Kong, it would take 3.9 earths to sustain us.
What can be done?
Invest: Currently, Britain, famed for its grey skies, produces more solar power than Hong Kong does. Industry experts, scientists, and researchers all agree harnessing the sun’s energy could be a boon for the city. And while panels do require space, utilizing the city’s rooftops could be the answer.
“Solar panels atop residential buildings can generate electricity for the shared facilities in the buildings such as lifts as well as air-conditioning and lights in communal areas,” professor Lu Yichun of the Chinese University of Hong Kong said in a recent interview.
The city’s skyscrapers could also be a boon: The sides of buildings could be utilized by using Photovoltaic (PV) cells, which sit between glass layers in windows. They generate less energy than the rooftop panels, but given the vertical nature of the city there is more surface area to exploit.
Reduce: Government, corporations and consumers all need to take responsibility. Our energy consumption is unsustainable. From phasing out old-fashioned energy guzzling street lights, and better designing our municipal and private buildings, to the turning off of individual workstations – everyone has a role to play in reducing consumption. Small changes can bring about big differences. For example, last year a survey found 50 per cent of fridges in retail stores did not have doors, wasting 90 million kWh of energy and emitting 51,000 tonnes of extra carbon into the atmosphere annually.
Incentivise: Changing habits is hard, but the WWF suggests a “Feed-In” tariff which enables individuals and business to get a rebate when they use electricity from renewable sources. Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Macau already do this.
Step 2: End Food Waste
Food waste, another huge contributor to carbon emissions, remains at a grotesque high with around 3,400 tonnes – equivalent to around eight Airbus 380s, or 235 double decker buses – sent to landfill every day in the city. It’s an enormous waste of a valuable resource, not least because Hong Kong has to import so much. We are literally flying food in from all over the world to effectively throw it away. It’s a huge waste of money, yes, but few people realise that food waste is an enormous contributor to our polluted skies. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation says: “If food waste were a country it would be the third biggest producer of greenhouse gases, behind the US and China.”
What can be done?
Incentivise: People don’t want to waste food, but our busy lives don’t allow much time for conscious consumption. So the first stage is to give people ethical options – and this is starting to happen in HK. The Zero Waste alliance is a group of restaurants that are committed to ensuring a more sustainable approach in the F & B industry.
New social enterprise Food Savior connects consumers with restaurants offering last minute deals and special offers on their surplus dishes at the end of each service or day. For example, Cali Mex sells their burritos, tacos etc at $25 through the site, Commissary puts their pastries at more than 50% and Shragels sell their delicious bagels at half price. The aim to curb food waste but with a carrot rather than a stick – consumers get great dishes for bargain prices, restaurants get a second chance to sell perfectly good dishes that might otherwise have gone to waste, and less ends up in landfill so the environment benefits.
Co-founder Liz Thomas says: “We’d love it if people checked the site whenever they were feeling hungry (or bored) to see what they could “save” near them. If we all changed the way we think about and consumed food, it would make a difference to our skies. It’s a global issue, but Hong Kong is behind other key cities in tackling it.”
Educate: Consumers play a big role in this – residential areas produce the biggest amount of waste, although supermarkets, restaurants and hotels are rapidly catching up. Whether its shopping in the supermarket or ordering in a restaurant, people need to become more conscious in their choices and stop buying more than they need.
Buy one, get one free is not a good deal if the items rot in your cupboards or fridge. Many don’t realise the connection between the mountain of food waste in Hong Kong, and our polluted skies. Restaurants understand that throwing food out is a waste of money, but are fearful of not having enough of what customers want. But a growing number are simply are opting for the “when it’s gone, it’s gone approach” – so that they don’t have surplus.
Penalise: While everyone agrees it is bad to waste food, the amount produced is still growing. Yes, it’s partly down to our busy lives but it’s partly because the problem does not appear to directly impact us. Sometimes it takes a financial charge to change behavior – plastic bag use dropped by 95 percent after the introduction of the $0.50 charge.
The government plans to bring in a “polluter pays” penalty on the amount of waste produced by consumers, restaurants and businesses.
“Quantity-based waste charging aims to create financial incentives to drive behavioural changes in waste generation,” Environment minister Wong Kam-sing explained.
Step 3: Curb Car Use
Hong Kong has a robust public transport system but private car ownership is rapidly growing. In the 12 months to November 2015, the number of cars on the street jumped up 17,000 to 567,886. Over the past few years the average increase has been around 4.5 percent a year. But a recent government survey found scaling back growth to around 1.5 percent a year could make a huge difference to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
What can be done?
Charge: Environmental advocates suggest bigger charges for car owners – from increases in registration fees and the price of petrol to hiking parking meter rates.
Share: Hong Kong has an excellent MTR network but there are areas for which a car is still necessary. The city needs to encourage car-pooling and the sharing of resources. Apps such as Ryde, which connects private car users, and Hopsee, which links taxi customers going in the same direction, are starting to cut through, but authorities need to do more to encourage this kind of enterprise.
Uphold: It might surprise you to know the government has already brought in legislation to stop idling engines. But it is poorly enforced and acts as little deterrent, with only a tiny fraction of offenders brought to court or even issued with fines.