Tue, Aug 28, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Can Hong Kong help `green' China?

By Christine Loh

Two countries -- the US and China -- remain unconcerned with global efforts to create a new post-Kyoto framework on climate change. Fifty years ago, the rest of the world might have carried on with remedying the problem of greenhouse gas emissions and let China and the US stew in their own waste. But the world is now so interdependent that what happens in one place affects everywhere else.

For example, visitors and residents alike have long thought of Hong Kong as a beautiful city on the South China coast. But for at least five years Hong Kong's residents have found themselves coughing and wheezing from the city's increasingly degraded air. Corporate employers are even complaining that they are not able to attract overseas talent.

Pollution from Hong Kong's own power generation plants, vehicles and burgeoning shipping industry can certainly be reduced. But the lion's share of this industrial haze -- like the worsening pollution of its coastal waters -- is a direct result of the rapid industrialization of the Pearl River Delta across the border in China's Guangdong Province. China is exporting not only more and more goods, but also its environmental degradation.

The inescapable truth is that the futures of Hong Kong and China are inextricably linked. There are roughly 58,000 factories in the Pearl River Delta with Hong Kong connections, and together they employ more than 10 million workers. Guangdong accounts for approximately 30 percent of China's total foreign trade, while Hong Kong is China's international finance center.

Officials in both Hong Kong and Guangdong seem powerless to clean up environmental problems on their own. In fact, development plans in China may be heading in the opposite direction.

Political heavyweights in Guangdong still favor a form of development that relies on quantity and speed while ignoring overall environmental quality.

And Hong Kong's economic blueprint also focuses heavily on accelerating large infrastructure projects even when their environmental impact has not been rigorously examined. It will not be easy for leaders on either side of the border to reverse gears, but there is still a chance that people and companies can make a difference.

Increasingly loud complaints about deteriorating air quality have goaded Hong Kong and Guangdong into embarking on a joint program in which a series of monitoring stations now provides emissions data. Hong Kong's data has been released regularly, and last year, Guangdong's data was made public for the first time. There is now talk about monitoring water quality. These are laudable steps for China, given its poor record on transparency.

Indeed, the joint air-monitoring network provides a foundation for the region to develop a sophisticated regional air management program. Furthermore, new coal-fired power plants may no longer be allowed on either side of the border, necessitating greater use of natural gas and renewable energy sources.

The first challenge for authorities is to regulate power generation very differently. People are used to paying for the electricity that they actually use. But, to optimize efficiency, utilities need to be rewarded for what they help consumers save. In other words, utilities must be given incentives to help consumers use less power.

This idea is clearly feasible. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has proposed what he calls the "negawatt," or energy that is never used. All that is needed are the right financial incentives to induce utility companies to produce less electricity (and still be profitable) and consumers to reduce their use (and gain savings without sacrificing comfort). This can be done by refitting households with high-efficiency light bulbs and other technological improvements, and by retrofitting industrial plants with energy-saving technologies.

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