Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Uh, happy Earth Day? Fixing Hong Kong's smog

Photo by Jerome Favre/Bloomberg
An undoctored image of smog shrouding the ICC in West Kowloon last week, one MTR stop from where I live and take my baby to the park. No, that is not fog or precipitation. It was actually "sunny" that day -- all the grey is man-made.

This post was meant to celebrate Earth Day, though "celebrate" seems too positive, given record-breaking pollution readings last week. I've had a cough since Easter, and I  don't know if it's better to take my kid to the park or make her stay inside. (So far, we're still going to the park).

What to do about Hong Kong's air pollution? I had two deeply unsatisfying conversations with the people supposed to know such things.

I asked them: "Tell me in plain term what the average Hong Konger can do. What behavior - if practiced by the majority of the 7 million people who live here - can make the air better?"

I won't go into details, but both people -- someone at a green NGO and someone who sat on a government environmental board -- really couldn't answer well. All the NGO guy wanted was to push for donations and political lobbying. And all the board-member wanted was to complain that she hated turning her office air con off. (Then, she got into her chauffered car idling by the roadside).

Lacking decent answers, I've made up my own everyman's handy guide for battling smog.

This is not a broad guide to green living -- I don't want to get into other issues like wildlife conservation or organic food. I'm focusing on that grey soupy mess outside, and 8 steps on how to get rid of it.

1. Stop just complaining about China.
Complain about China all your want -- just don't use it as an excuse. When many Hong Kongers are faced with smog, they shrug and sigh "Mo ban fat," or "There's nothing we can do." The implication is "It's hopeless. It's those people up there."
Yes, Chinese factories are polluting and awfully close to us. But, unless you're a factory boss or someone with high-up government connections, grumbling about it into your face mask won't do anything.
Our own pollution -- created by our own cars and our own power plants -- are major problems, too. And we can fix those.

2. Take more public transport.
I am personally guilty of using too many taxis. While this is slightly better than using a private car, it's still not as good as the subway, bus, etc.
On the day that looked like the apocolypse last week, we had record-high nitrogen dioxide readings. This emission is caused by local cars (also power plants) and has risen 23% since 1999, according to the Environmental Protection Department.

I know it's not pleasant to walk outside right now, but unless more of us get walking to the MTR or bus stop, it's going to get worse. We have one of the cleanest, safest, fastest subway systems in the world -- we should use it.
My Earth Day vow is to at least avoid taxis during the day and on holidays. So I have to leave home 20-30 minutes earlier. I'll consider it my daily workout.
I will excuse myself for cabbing it home, though, when I get off work past 8pm and want to see my daughter to bed. (At night, it takes almost an hour). 
My personal goal: Halve taxi use.  
3. Use less power.
According to the E.P.D.: "Power generation is the main source of air pollutant emissions in Hong Kong." Domestic energy consumption has risen 80% since the 90s.
Coal is also what fuels Hong Kong. Every time you blast the air con, you're contributing to coal being burned. And every time coal is burned, more crap goes into our air.
Out of Hong Kong's 13 power plants, 7 burn coal -- either exclusively or in combination with oil or gas. Only one uses green energy (solar).

4. Turn down the air con. 
We use energy-sucking air con like crazy. I'm going to focus on it because it uses far more energy than other household appliances. While turning down the lights or doing less laundry might help, air con is the key.
Many Hong Kongers turn it on automatically, all the time, in all seasons. 
Ask yourself: Is it actually winter and I feel cold? In which case, I do not need air con, and should not believe some old wives' tale that I "need it to breathe." "If I'm feeling hot, is it because I'm inexplicably wearing a parka indoors in the summer?" Consider taking the parka off. No, I'm not kidding. Both Marc and I work with local colleagues who sit shivering under blasting air conditioners while in winter gear.
Hong Kongers have to get past this unscientific  - but widely held - belief that, without air con, you will suffocate and get sick. If we keep selfishly pumping pollutants into our air, then we'll really get sick.

5. Find other ways to make your home comforable.
Nobody is asking you to survive the Hong Kong summer with no air con, just to be logical and moderate about it.
I won't bore you with wattages and energy consumption figures. Suffice it to say that air con uses WAY more energy than a dehumidifier, ceiling fan, air purifier, or even keeping the air con on "fan only." 
Investing in a dehumifidier, fan and purifier are good ways to improve your home environment. Often times, when we crave that cool blast, what we really crave is simply drier, cleaner air.
Ask yourself: Is it really that hot in here? Can I get away with using air con at a lower setting, or opening the window and turning on a fan? (Note: Please don't use air con with an open window. You can't cool the whole city).
Consider closing the curtains and running a dehumidifier while you're away.

5. Complain as a consumer.
We're a strange people. We're not shy about protesting loudly over everything from a shoddy election system to "patriotic education." But we will not complain about a freezing restaurant. 
Entire dim sum halls of people shivering in jackets will not say a word. And if they do, they will accept blankets or shawls from the staff instead of pushing, logically, for the air con to be turned down for everyone's comfort. (Yes, the air con is so cold in the summer that most businesses carry extra wool shawls).
Usually, the waitstaff / store clerk will tell you: "We can't turn it down or off." This is a blatent lie. It is not HAL 9000. All machines can be turned off. It means they have to call the shopping mall management, and they're busy and don't want to bother. And their managers probably discourage this, too.
The only thing that motiviates HK businesses is money. If enough paying consumers complain, they will change. So, if you're cold, tell the mall / shop / cinema / restaurant management. Fill out a customer complaint card. If enough people do this, it will be just as efficient, if not more, than lobbying the government.
Don't be shy about bringing up clearly wasteful practices. One spa I frequented would prepare the rooms by simulteanously turning on a heated electric blanet AND the air con, which makes no sense, since it is hot and cold at the same time. After I told them, they stopped. Same with a car park that had outdoor heaters even though it's never cold in the winter here,.
If you can get one restaurant or shop to change its practices, you will save much more energy than adjusting behavior in your own home.
6. Complain as an employee.

Same as above. Those of us who work for big companies, or in big buildings, can do more than just fixing our homes.
Yesterday, I asked our office manager to tell the building management that they were blasting the air con into empty lift lobbies -- on every floor of a high-rise -- until at least until 9 pm. (Before I was a mom, I'd sometimes work past 11pm, and it was the same). This was not contributing to anyone's comfort, since the air cons within offices are a separate system. After my note, they said they would turn it down.
 Marc worked with a restaurant manager who ran the air con all night in an empty hall "to keep the cookies on the deli counter from getting soggy." Marc told him just to store the cookies in the fridge.
 Do you work for a company with a fleet of idling minibuses? Say something. Does your employer run a complex with vast concrete spaces? Recommend that they decorate with trees. Does the office staff have an easy way to recycle?

7. Plant things.  
Remember 6th-grade science class when you had to draw a picture of a tree and a man, with little arrows showing how the tree "inhaled" our waste and "exhaled" clean oxygen? 
Even a small amount of greenery - say, several houseplants or a windowsill herb garden - can help clean the air in your home. If you're lucky enough to have a balcony or rooftop, consider planting something instead of covering everything in concrete and wet laundry. If every person with outdoor space put one more plant outside, we'd have millions of extra plants producing oxygen and be in better shape.
Both gaseous and particulate pollution can be absorbed by leaves, stems and twigs. 

8. Reduce, Re-use, Recycle
Hong Kongers consume an awful lot of stuff -- clothes, shoes, food packages, furnishings for endless flat renovations --  and we have scant landfill space.
I don't want to veer off onto a recycling tangent. But there is one word that sums up how waste makes the air dirtier: incineration.
Our government takes our junk and burns it down into ash before disposal. And while they use high-tech solutions to do this with (relatively) less damage, no scientist has discovered a way to incinerate things without sending some pollutants into the air.


  1. 13 Power Plants - A bit less me thinks, bad Journalism or just sensationalism. You could mention the wonderful pollution free Day bay supply too. Every cloud.... :-)

    The rest is good but im my opinion it`s all just a feel good effect. Pollution needs to be tackled on a big scale.

    Force. Only allow new electric cars on the road. Make Fortress, etc only sell very enviro friendly A/c`s then go around HK and make every dripper get a new instalation. Ban old aircraft from Landing......etc etc

    It wont be popular and wont happen. The people wont stand for it.

  2. I truly hope Hong Kong can take the lead on this. China is investing so much money in technology and infrastructure - some of it could be on sustainability BEFORE this comes to affect even those with money.

    BTW, do you know of Peggy Liu? Green technology advocate?


  3. I read this whilst sitting in a chilly office, wearing a sweater when it's 23 degrees outside. >.<


  4. I read this whilst shivering in a chilly office, wearing a sweater een though it's 23 degrees outside. >.<

  5. This will sound awful but I am so glad it's not just us in the mainland that have to put up with appalling pollution levels. Although I do feel slightly guilty that the main cause of your suffering is because of us!