Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


Hong Kong was dirty (Dec09)

Photo I took of the smog in Hong Kong – it should have been a sunny day!


Air conditioning in Hong Kong is having a huge impact on climate change

Christmas tat in street market

We flew through a brownish smog as we descended into Hong Kong airport. During my four days in the city I was horrified by the pollution. As the Star Ferry belched its way across the Harbour towards Kowloon, the high rise towers of Hong Kong were shrouded in a thick mist.

Most people blamed the Chinese factories a little way across the border. When the wind blew from that direction, they said, it was far worse. And, apparently, there was some reprieve when the recession began to bite – but now it’s full steam ahead. However, I did speak to one person who thought that at least 50% of the pollution came from the city itself. (See Clean Air Foundation video on pollution in Hong Kong) For a start, Hong Kong harbour is apparently one of the few places in the world where there are no restrictions on burning the dirtiest of fuels. And going back to the Star Ferry – I heard that they were planning to renew the boats shortly but have said that they can’t afford the clean technology to reduce emissions. Shipping is becoming a bit of an issue.

A couple of weeks ago it was reported that just 16 of the world’s largest ships can produce as much sulphur pollution as all the world’s cars. Regulations to control emissions from shipping seem to be rather lax even though vast quantities of goods are being transported this way. The focus to date has been on airlines.

Another shocking thing about Hong Kong was the sheer consumerism. So much useless stuff for sale that I felt totally overwhelmed. I had thought I might make the most of my few days in the city and buy some Christmas presents. I spent about £2 on a holograph picture of fish!

And then there’s the air conditioning. My residing memory of the city from my first and only previous visit was the huge contrast between the outside humidity and the freezing temperatures inside the buildings. At this time of year the weather is perfect – not too hot or too cold. But that didn’t stop the chilly buildings and taxis. Taxi drivers weren’t too impressed when I opened the windows but it made for a much more comfortable ride.

I’ve discovered that if the air conditioning is set at a moderate 27C, they will use about half the amount of energy than at 21C. But it’s not just the energy that’s a real shocker for air conditioning, it’s the cooling fluids. The old systems are leaky and the coolants used have a global warming impact several thousand times worse than CO2. I reckon that about one third of the carbon footprint of the whole of Hong Kong could come from their air conditioning systems alone. But I have to admit that this is a complete guess. I’d really like to carry out a survey and get the real figures – it might be even worse.

You may be wondering why I was travelling to the other side of the world and creating my own huge carbon footprint. The answer is that I went to make a speech to Hong Kong businesses on climate change. Perhaps, what I said and the follow up on air conditioning and shipping will make amends. It’s too early to tell.

On the positive side, the people I met in Hong Kong were great. There was a real energy about the place and the connections were amazing – introductions to people working in the same area as me, meeting up with people that I hadn’t seen for ages and finding out that unconnected friends knew each other.

One organisation that was doing some very interesting work both on child poverty and environmental issues is ADM Capital Foundation. As well as campaigning on rainforests, climate change and air pollution they’re also trying to raise awareness in China about the negative impact of shark fin soup.

Hong Kong is apparently the shark fin capital of the world. Unfortunately the soup has become a symbol of weath – a pound of shark fin can sell for more than $300 – and it is considered to be an integral part of celebrations and banquets. But shark fishing is hugely wasteful – the fisherman cut off the fins and throw the bodies, which may still be living, back into the sea. It is estimated that about 20% of sharks and related species are on the verge of extinction. I was amazed at its prevalence in both shops and restaurants – even at the airport.

My house is quite cold but the air is clean and I’m glad to be back.

Lizards on the menu

Toads in a net

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