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A recent study gives fresh insights into the value of restoring oyster reefs to protect the coastal wetlands by investigating the ecosystem around abandoned traditional oyster farms in Hong Kong’s Deep Bay. 

Deep Bay, one of the most important wetlands in southern China, is located on the north-western border of Hong Kong and Shenzhen in the heart of the rapidly developing Greater Bay Area. The bay is also home to a traditional oyster farming industry that goes back 700 years and is listed as Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage. More than 37,000 birds visit the wetland each year, and the territory is identified as a priority area for joint efforts for protection and conservation by regional governments. 

In a recent study, scientists from The University of Hong Kong and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) discovered greater biodiversity in Deep Bay’s abandoned oyster farms compared to neighbouring mudflats. The research paper published in Frontiers in Marine Science in May 2022 quantified some of the ecosystem benefits of both natural oyster reefs and traditional oyster farming methods and compared the areas with nearby mudflats.

oyster farms

Abandoned oyster farm. Photo by Tom Chan

Hidden Habitat That Supports Ecosystems

Focusing on abandoned oyster farms near the mouth of Ha Pak Nai Stream in Deep Bay, scientists researched the potential ecological benefits of traditional “benthic” oyster farming techniques in the Pearl River Delta and how that could inform work to restore Hong Kong’s oyster reefs and benthic ecosystems.

Derived from the Greek word benthos, – which stands for ‘the depth of the sea’ – the benthic ecosystem comprises the many organisms that make their home on or close to the seafloor and the shallow water habitats such as the marshes and mudflats along estuarine coasts. 

Oyster reefs are historically a vital estuarine habitat providing multiple ecosystem functions and services. However, humans have over-harvested native oyster reefs worldwide, with an estimated habitat loss of 85%. Along many coastlines, native species of oysters and their reefs are functionally extinct.

People started cultivating oysters in the Pearl River Delta during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD) and continued as the harvest of natural oyster reefs declined. In the mudflats of Deep Bay, oyster farmers have nurtured magallana hongkongensis – the Hong Kong oyster – for centuries. Once an inexpensive food eaten by almost everyone, the shells were also an essential source of lime used in the construction and agriculture industry in the region.

The traditional method of oyster farming involved placing hard substrate materials such as rocks, concrete tiles, oyster shells, and posts in the soft mud to promote the settlement of oyster larvae. This approach is similar to the technique of using an artificial substrate that TNC practices in its oyster reef restoration projects in Hong Kong, Australia, and the US

By providing hard substrate among soft sediment mudflats, these traditional oyster farms provided a habitat for native oysters and other species. However, in recent decades, oyster aquaculture in the region has declined and what remains now is the method of using rope-suspended raft culture techniques that enhance production.

Oyster Farms

TNC staff sifting through the mud to collect samples for the lab. Photo by Pak Nai (TNC)

Vibrant Life on the Seabed

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) and TNC researchers found that the abandoned oyster farms provided habitats for a rich diversity of fauna and were home to 61 species compared to 26 species found in the surrounding mudflats. In particular, the numbers of epifauna species such as crustaceans and molluscs were six and 18 times greater, respectively, in the abandoned farms compared to the mudflats. 

Wildlife and birds are attracted to the wetland areas due to increased food availability by directly feeding on the cultured species or other estuary critters, from the tiny one-millimetre, micro-benthic invertebrates to rare marine worms, molluscs and mussels, crabs, and other crustacea.

The higher densities of crustaceans and worms provide essential sources of food for fish and birds such as waders, gulls, terns, egrets, the endangered black-faced spoonbill, and the vulnerable Saunder’s gull.

The nooks and crannies of the former farms and the build-up of old empty shells substantially increased the biodiversity and biomass of organisms around them. Scientific analysis also showed the abundance of species in Deep Bay’s abandoned farms is comparable to natural oyster reefs in the national marine park in Jiangsu Province, further north on the Chinese coast.

While oyster farms do not provide the same level of complexity as natural oyster reefs, they illustrate the potential for regenerative aquaculture to enhance the diversity and abundance of species by providing structures that resemble natural oyster reefs on previously structureless mudflats.

Learning From the Past and Nature

The long history of oyster farming in the Pearl River Delta means that not only have native oyster populations been prevented from functional extinction in the region, but the habitats left behind may also have provided us with the key to cost-effective local reef restoration. 

TNC Senior Conservation Program Manager Marine Thomas said, “In many ways, through the traditional oyster farming method of building hard structures on the mudflats, Hong Kong oyster farmers are one of the first restoration practitioners as they maintained and brought back wild oysters and reefs where they would have otherwise completely disappeared.”

Could traditional farms be revitalised to complement restoration and showcase an example of ‘restorative aquaculture’? While seafood, lime, and even pearls were the original products of traditional oyster aquaculture in the Guangdong region, revitalising the farms may offer the potential for creating shared value by facilitating and sustaining biodiversity and future ecosystem services.

Further research could inform ecologically conscious aquaculture techniques. For conservationists and scientists working to protect our coastlines, Hong Kong’s abandoned oyster farms may also show new ways to speed up reef restoration and enhance the rebuilding of native oyster populations. 

You might also like: 6 Biggest Environmental Issues in Hong Kong in 2022

Vertical farming is a modern farming technology that uses environmentally controlled agricultural technology to make the most of indoor farming techniques and many describe it as “future farming”. This is especially true given that by 2050, a major portion of the world’s population will have moved to cities. In such a setting and with an ever-expanding population, the desire for local food that is both organic and natural will grow, too. Here are 7 vertical farming companies that are paving the way for an agricultural revolution. 

Why Do We Need Vertical Farming?

Vertical Farming is an innovative agricultural practice that has the potential of solving the impending food crisis. Instead of growing our crops horizontally, produce is grown in stacked vertical layers. By doing so, crops require less or even no soil at all, and water efficiency is increased at the same time. Vertical farming can guarantee regular output of produce and boost crop yields based on its controlled environment including temperature, light, humidity, as well as artificial intelligence.

This green technology can easily be built into buildings, cities and even shipping containers. It can also produce food closer to its consumers, reducing transportation costs and emissions.

Yet, vertical farming is still a relatively new technology. Maintenance costs of automation and watering processes are sky high, and most farms are limited to leafy greens, salad leaves and herbs based on these costs. Here are some vertical farming companies that are leading the way and helping the sector to expand globally.

You Might Also Like: Ways in Which Vertical Farming Can Benefit Our Environment

Top 7 Vertical Farming Companies

1. Futurae Farms (US)

Yaheya Heikal and Erin James – co-founders of Futurae Farms, a vertical farming company founded in 2021 and based in Los Angeles – are on a mission to find solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems through the use of urban vertical farms. These farms will bring more nutritious and sustainably made fresh foods to people around the world (mainly in urban centres) while helping lower global emissions. After traveling abroad and experiencing first hand the difference in quality of grown vegetables outside the US, Yaheya and Erin saw and tasted the difference in food that had less time from farm to table. The next-generation farming and technology company is now working to create food that is more accessible and nutritious, without sacrificing the environment. “We’re using vertical farms to reduce supply chain issues and mitigate the effects of climate change while ensuring we can feed future generations.” – the founders said. “Climate change is increasingly affecting our ability to produce food using traditional farming methods due to events including flooding, warming climate, wildfires, soil degradation, and desertification. We need to find large-scale alternatives to help supplement food supply.”

2. CubicFarms (Canada)

The origin of the company dates back to 2008, when Jack Benne and his son Leo Benne, both farmers, committed to developing indoor growing technologies to grow fresh produce while minimising their impact on the environment. One such technology is the HydroGreen Grow System, which can grow up to 25 million pounds (11.3 million kilogrammes) of fresh livestock feed every year using just one-tenth of the water needed in traditional livestock feed grown in irrigated fields. This way, they managed to save over 500 million gallons (1.8 billion litres) of fresh water per year – enough to give one glass to every person on the planet. The Canadian company also uses 54% to 62% less energy than typical vertical farms by moving plants according to the light rather than having dedicated lights for each one. 

3. AeroFarms (United Arab Emirates)

Since 2004, AeroFarms implements the latest breakthroughs in indoor vertical farming, artificial intelligence and plant biology to fix our broken food system and improve the way fresh produce is grown and distributed locally and globally. As a sector leader and owner of the world’s largest vertical farm for research and development – located in the Abu Dhabi and completed in the first quarter of 2022, AeroFarms was awarded the inaugural Global SDG Awards celebrating private-sector leadership in the advancement of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. The company partnered up – among others – with US retail giants Whole Foods and Walmart to sell its leafy greens, from baby bok choy and arugula to spinach and micro broccoli.

4. InFarm (Germany)

Founded in Berlin in 2013 by Osnat Michaeli and the brothers Erez and Guy Galonska, InFarm is one of the largest vertical farming companies in Europe. The company uses an innovative technique known as cloud farming – a network of high capacity, self-learning growing centres that improve plant yield, taste, and nutritional value constantly, while further reducing the use of natural resources. With over 1,200 farms in stores and distribution centres, InFarm has partnered with more than 30 major food retailers including German Aldi Süd, Kaufland, and Edeka as well as Amazon Fresh, Marks & Spencer, and Whole Foods Market in Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States and Switzerland.

5. Spread (Japan)

One of Asia’s leading vertical farming companies is Spread. Established in 2006 with the vision of “creating a sustainable society where future generations can attain peace of mind”, Spread is commitment to facilitate the mutually beneficial coexistence between conventional agriculture and local communities while reducing food waste and improving productivity. The company is known for its crispy and soft lettuce as well as its sweet strawberries, both of which are sold in more than 4,500 grocery stores across Japan. The innovative vertical farming technique implemented by the company ensures high quality and yield year-round, regardless of weather conditions. Moreover, this method only requires 1% of the water needed to grow food with conventional farming techniques and 30% less food is lost during production.

6. Farm66 (Hong Kong)

Sixth on our list of vertical farming companies is Farm66, one of Hong Kong’s largest state-of-the-art indoor aquaponics farms and in 2016, it was awarded the Technological Achievement Certificate of Merit (HKAI). Since its establishment in 2013, the company has been developing and practising the concept of urban farming. Inside its indoor aquaponics farming eco-system, free of weather impact, birds’ problems, pests and bacteria and huge space requirements, Farm66 grows products such as leafy greens, herbs (basil, dill) and fruits. These are then sold by many local retailers including CitySuper Hong Kong, SOGO and Pacific Coffee. Given its limited space and extremely dense population, Hong Kong is almost totally dependent on imports for its food supply. “Vertical farming is a good solution because vegetables can be planted in cities,” said Gordon Tam – co-founder and CEO – in an interview with Forbes. “We can grow vegetables ourselves so that we don’t have to rely on imports.”

7. iFarm (Finland)

Last on our list of vertical farming companies is the award-winning iFarm, founded in 2017 in Helsinki, Finland. Vertical farms built with the iFarm technology use 90% less water, 75% less fertilisers and zero pesticides. They also save huge amounts of energy by optimising technology and reducing the ‘human factor’ and labor costs. All this allows to grow crops in a sustainable and economic manner all year round. iFarm products, such as leafy greens and different types of vegetables but also fruit such as strawberries, are sold worldwide, from Switzerland and France to Saudi Arabia and India. In 2019, the company was awarded the “Best Social Impact Startup” in Nordic Startup Awards and in 2020, it was named Europe’s Hottest AgFood Tech startup by The Europas.

You Might Also Like: 10 Leading Sustainable Food Companies to Support

Research for this article was conducted by Earth.Org research contributor Chloe Lam

Following the latest IPCC report published in April 2022, warning that it is now or never to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the climate crisis is clearly accelerating at a pace like never before. From deforestation to plastic pollution, there are several factors that are causing the exacerbation of climate change. Here are some of the biggest environmental issues that we face in Hong Kong in 2022. 

Biggest Environmental Issues in Hong Kong

1. Outdoor Air Pollution

One of the top environmental issues in Hong Kong is air pollution. According to a study of global mortality and pollution levels published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal, 9 million people around the world die from outdoor air pollution every year. Long-term exposure to severe air pollution also poses serious health problems ranging from chronic respiratory infections and diseases to increased risk of cancer. 

Based on Hong Kong Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) records, street-level air pollution in densely populated areas including Causeway Bay, Central and Mong Kok often exceed WHO guidelines, reflecting a sizeable number of Hong Kong residents breathing in air that contains high levels of pollutants every day.  

Causes of air pollution in Hong Kong derive from sources like fossil fuel motor vehicles and regional smog, which is caused by pollutants from marine vessels and industrial power plants within the city and from mainland China. 

Though the Hong Kong government has announced plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, the current rate of carbon emissions shows no signs of slowing down. As for 2021, the number of private motor vehicles registered in Hong Kong reaches up to 657,000, nearly 30,000 more vehicles compared to the previous year. Despite being home to one of the best public transportation systems in the world, Hong Kong residents still heavily rely on private cars when commuting in the city and that proportion continues to grow with each passing year. Within the past decade, the volume of private cars has increased by almost a third, contributing massive amounts of carbon emissions in the city. 

While the government has made efforts to regulate emissions from industrial power plants and marine vessels that pass through our waters, smog from the Pearl River Delta region has proven difficult to control. Collaboration efforts with Guangdong authorities have been made in improving air quality in the Great Bay Area region, but improvements in air quality have yet to be seen. 

hong kong landfill waste

One of three strategic landfill sites in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong. Photo by: Edwin Lee/Flickr

2. Landfill Waste

One of the most glaring environmental issues Hong Kong currently faces is landfill waste. Every year, about 4.17 million tonnes of solid waste make its way to our landfills, and during to the coronavirus pandemic, local waste has exponentially grown thanks to the increased use of food takeout boxes, plastic cutleries and single-use masks. Landfill gases, which are emissions from landfills decompose organic waste, will continue to surge as a result and contribute towards global warming, especially when you consider 40-60% of landfill emissions are methane gases, and have 10 times the warming potential than carbon dioxide. 

As one of the most densely populated cities in the world with a population of almost 7.5 million people, Hong Kong is in an immensely difficult position to create new dedicated landfills sites. Reducing and recycling waste is the only viable long term solution in dealing with the city’s insurmountable landfill waste problem. And while the Waste Charging Scheme passed by the Legislative Council in late 2021 – 16 years after it was first proposed – is a good first step, much more is needed to tackle the issue.

3. Plastic Pollution 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong generate about 3.9 billion disposable food and drink containers every year. This amounts to 170 takeaway meals and 180 disposal drinks for every Hongkonger. As restaurants limit opening hours and seating capacities during the pandemic, people rely on takeaway options and the amount of plastic containers and cutleries used and disposed of has only soared. In 2020, plastics made up 21% of the city’s total municipal solid waste (MSW), accounting for the third-largest share of MSW after food waste and paper. The city’s beaches and waterways are drowning in plastic, and microplastic levels in the sea are 40% higher than the global average. According to estimates,  more than 5,000 pieces of microplastic can be found in every square metre of sea.

Some F&B companies have made the effort to adopt biodegradable and even compostable takeaway packaging and utensils, but a majority of local restaurants and small businesses still opt for low-cost materials like styrofoam. 

The lack of an efficient recycling infrastructure is a major contributing factor in the plastic crisis in Hong Kong. In 2019, less than 20% of plastic packaging waste was recycled due to the lack of adequate recycling facilities. Prior to China’s Waste Ban, where the country placed a ban on importing unprocessed materials, Hong Kong used to offload the city’s rubbish to the mainland for recycling. Since the policy implementation, Hong Kong has yet developed enough recycling plants to compensate. While some government interventions such as the Plastic Recycling Pilot Scheme seem to be working, as Hong Kong experienced a 27% increase in locally recycled plastics in 2020, plastic problem is still haunting the city.

4. Food Waste

Known as an international food paradise, Hong Kong has a reputation for affordable and a stunning variety of international cuisines. Consequently, this means that food waste is equally high in the city and without a doubt one of the biggest environmental issues that Hong Kong faces. 

Food waste in Hong Kong accounts for about 30% of municipal solid waste that goes straight to landfills. In 2019, a recorded 1,067 tonnes of food waste were produced from commercial and industrial sources such as restaurants, hotels and wet markets. The amount of food waste has also been on the rise especially in the F&B industry where it grew from 800 tonnes per day in 2012 to 1,000 tonnes of waste generated per day in 2019. 

While the government has introduced educational initiatives and an operating organic waste recovery center OPARK, over 3,600 tonnes of food waste are still being sent to Hong Kong’s landfills each day, contributing to over hundred thousand tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. 

environmental issues, hong kong land reclamation Land reclamation site for Central piers, Hong Kong. Photo by: Piqsels

5. Biodiversity Loss

Hong Kong has surprisingly rich biodiversity thanks to its large natural terrain and coastal waters. In fact, 40% of the city’s land belongs to country parks and protected areas, which supports more than 3,300 species of vascular plants, 57 species of terrestrial mammals, and more than 540 species of birds. Our waters also support over 1,000 species of fishes, too. 

However, in order to make space for the city’s already dense and growing population, Hong Kong has devoted much effort in urbanisation and land reclamation. Land development, be it deforestation or illegal waste dumping, is one of the growing environmental issues be in Hong Kong, and has led to significant impacts to the local biodiversity and habits. 

The pink dolphin, also known as the Chinese white dolphin, is a prime example of how local species are threatened by continued land development. The waters surrounding Hong Kong have been part of the dolphins’ habitat for centuries, with recorded sightings going back to the Tang Dynasty. The number of pink dolphins that frequent Hong Kong coastlines has dropped to about 300 in recent years due to heavy vessel traffic and most importantly, its shrinking habitat. The development of the Chek Lap Kok island, which is home to the Hong Kong International Airport, and the associated land reclamation have reduced the amount of fish dolphins can eat while dredging has unearthed pollution from the seafloor causing water pollution. A massive 1,700 hectares land reclamation plan near the easter waters of Lantau Island that was proposed in 2018 will further deteriorate the dolphin habitat as well as increase vulnerabilities to rising sea levels. 

Another serious threat to Hong Kong biodiversity is illegal wildlife trafficking. The city is home to one of the largest hubs for the illegal wildlife trafficking industry thanks to its free ports, geographical location in the Greater Bay Area and accessibility to other Asian countries. Every year, the city sees millions of live animals and their derivatives pass through its ports. In 2019 alone, more than 7,000 endangered animals were illegally traded in the city, including pangolins and live turtles. However a landmark bill was passed in August 2021 which will treat illegal wildlife trading and seizures as a serious crime while placing greater attention on organised criminals and networks instead of carriers and mules. The passage of the amendment aims to deter smuggling operations and supply networks in the city. 

6. Water Pollution 

Hong Kong is a unique city surrounded by the South China Sea, where marine waters cover about 1700 km² and home to a wide range of different marine environments. In the early 1970s and 80s, most of the city’s sewage and wastewater were discharged into the sea, with little to no treatment. As a result, Hong Kong waters experienced a surge in organic and inorganic pollutants, a reduction of oxygen content, and increased bacteria levels. By 2005, Hong Kong generated about 2 million tonnes of wastewater as well as industrial effluents every day, making it one of the main sources of water pollution in Hong Kong. 

Marine pollution has also been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of marine plastic waste made its way into the Hong Kong waters. An estimated 1.56 billion face masks were dumped into the ocean during this period, which experts have said will take as long as 450 years to break down. Microplastics from single-use masks are also incredibly harmful to marine life and the ecosystem, potentially killing up to 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, and over a million seabirds. 

In Hong Kong, there is growing research pointing to the disproportionate impacts of climate change on women. However, women’s voices continue to be marginalised and men continue to have the final say over climate policies. If Hong Kong wants to achieve gender and climate justice, decision-making processes need to be more gender-inclusive. But to do so, the city will have to recognise that gender inequality cannot be achieved merely through legislation but also through cultural shifts in how we conceive leadership. This involves challenging taboos and stereotypes that have acted as barriers to women’s ability to become leaders in Hong Kong.

On March 8, the world celebrated its 111th International Women’s Day, a day commemorating the cultural, political and socio-economic achievements of women. Like most parts of the world, Hong Kong has been a celebrant of the occasion. Building on global momentum, March has been an exciting month for organisations, charities and rights groups in Hong Kong to bring attention to issues like gender equality and reproductive rights, as well as to use the opportunity to promote awareness about violence against women in the city, following a recent study which found that almost 40% of Hong Kong women experienced sexual abuse in 2021.

Recognising that gender inequality is no trivial issue in Hong Kong, there is a growing awareness that citizens need to work together to actively protect and support women from all kinds of injustices. What reflections can the environmental sector make?

Women and Climate Change

The impacts of climate change on women are already well documented in the research literature. Take air pollution as an example. Air pollution is found to be a huge risk factor for breast cancer. High levels of exposure to pollutants, toxins and smoke can disrupt women’s menstrual cycles (e.g. early or late periods), which can have long-term impacts on reproductive health. For pregnant women, the risks are even higher. On top of the aforementioned threats, they are more likely to suffer from cardiac and respiratory disease and other mental health problems. Pregnancies may also be affected, as poor air quality has been found to lead to premature births and low birth weight. These can pose further health risks to mothers.

So not only are women being negatively impacted by climate change, but they are also disproportionately affected, as many of the health risks mentioned above do not apply to men. However, because of existing gender inequalities in society, the climate crisis has led to more women facing increased domestic violence, sexual intimidation, human trafficking and rape because of changing economic circumstances and agricultural practices, especially in developing countries.

In fact, many have described climate change as a “double injustice” to women. As a 2014 paper published by CARE International, a leading humanitarian organisation explains, not only are women disproportionately affected by climate change, but they also lack the resources, options and opportunities to overturn these inequalities. Men have a larger carbon footprint than women, yet climate action policies rarely acknowledge these gender differences.

Are women disproportionately affected by climate change in Hong Kong? While the city remains under-researched as a context, there is a growing body of research suggesting so. Studies have already shown that women in Hong Kong are more sensitive to extreme weather conditions than men. For example, consecutive hot nights can bring a 6% higher risk of death for women, because they tend to have a higher proportion of body fat, which makes them more susceptible to heat and weakens their ability to recover. Hong Kong also has a dreadful air pollution problem, as most pollutant concentration levels still fall short of WHO goals. While the impacts of climate change on local pregnancies are relatively unexamined, the replicability of findings from other contexts to that of Hong Kong is likely high.

Climate Inequality is More Than Just A Number

There’s no question that data and science have all pointed to the disproportionate impacts of climate change on women – climate change reinforces gender inequality. But numbers can be misleading and unhelpful.

Apart from the fact that inequalities can often go unquantified, attempts to quantify inequality through metrics are always reductionist. Take domestic violence against women in Hong Kong as an example. According to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Women’s Coalition of Equal Opportunities earlier this year, it found that almost 40% of women had experienced sexual violence in the past year. But a statistic like this says nothing about the true impacts of domestic violence. A single experience is great enough to create a cascade of consequences: from contracting sexually transmitted infections to long-lasting emotional problems, broken family relationships or long-term barriers in employment, all of which can never be expressed fully through a simple mathematical equation.

By the same token, the unique effects of climate change on women in Hong Kong can never be quantified in a way that will do justice to their gravity. They will always be omitted from the larger picture. As climate change becomes a bigger issue in Hong Kong, inequalities may only widen. Just because women in Hong Kong may be more resilient and better prepared for future risks today, does not mean that women’s bodies deserve to be continually put to the test.

The question is not why these inequalities have persisted – the reasons are crystal clear – but why it is so hard to disrupt them. To understand why women find it so difficult to effect change on a macro level, it is important to consider constraints to women’s abilities to spearhead Hong Kong’s justice movements.

hong kong female representatiionThe Marginalisation of the Female Body in Hong Kong’s Decision-making Circles

When it comes to decision-making in policy, women are completely outnumbered by men in Hong Kong. For example, female representation in the Legislative Council (LegCo) has never exceeded 20% in its two centuries of history, which is far below the global average of 26% (as of 2020). Most women engaged in climate-related work in Hong Kong reside in non-governmental organisations. Although they may occasionally have an opportunity to express their views in public consultations, they nevertheless do not have sufficient influence in the final stages of policy decisions. As a result, most policy decisions in Hong Kong, whether related to the climate or not, continue to remain in the hands of men who pay scarce attention to the importance of gender. 

As a result, the female body is marginalised in climate policy. As Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), argues, “male-dominated teams will [only] come up with male-dominated solutions”. There is still a tremendous legislative incapacity to recognise the existential impacts of climate change on women: climate change does not only “make life more difficult”; it can put their lives at risk. In the powerful words of Itumeleng Komanyane, International Programme Manager at Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa, “If [male policymakers] don’t understand gender, how can they pass anything progressive regarding women’s rights and empowerment?”

Given the dangers of not having enough female voices in decision-making, the case for more women in positions of decision-making should be clear. But this understanding has not been translated into  support for women to take up leadership roles in Hong Kong. Why is Hong Kong’s “double injustice” so hard to tackle?

Hong Kong’s Gender Inequalities in Leadership is a Cultural Problem

Hong Kong’s gender problem is more than just an institutional problem. Even if there are no structures that explicitly prohibit women from seeking certain advancement opportunities, women can still be disadvantaged culturally. 

In a detailed study conducted at The Women’s Foundation (TWF) in 2015, Marya Saidi found that gender stereotypes remain very prevalent in Hong Kong. They are further exacerbated by media representations, which lead to harmful portrayals of women and men and promote unhealthy perceptions, attitudes and behaviours.

The troublesome consequences of gender stereotypes on women’s career and leadership prospects have been helpfully highlighted by two comprehensive survey-based studies. One was conducted by TWF in 2011 and a more recent one was conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and released by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in 2020. Although there is no law that bans women from becoming leaders, the gender stereotypes in Hong Kong can have equally strong inhibitory effects. They can be considered in two dimensions:

According to the TWF survey, almost 30% of women did not wish to be very successful in their careers, because of family obligations such as housework and looking after children. The existence of a “work-family trade-off” for women has yet to be proven, and a trade-off need not exist in the first place if both mothers and fathers are equally involved in domestic responsibilities. Yet, the fact that these tasks are often considered “mainly for women” has unfortunately led to women being more reluctant to develop their careers and reach for leadership positions. It is also not very helpful when more than a fifth of women’s partners do not want their spouses to be successful in their careers for these reasons.

But just because some women rise to become leaders does not mean they are free from gender stereotypes. Women leaders continue to be “expected to take good care of their families regardless of their leadership roles”. For men, this is not an expectation but a bonus.

Often, the social expectations placed on women are also contradictory. In Hong Kong, women are expected to embody “feminine” traits of being empathetic and compassionate. In contrast, leadership qualities are often associated with “masculine” qualities of being dominant and assertive. The issue here is not role incongruity, i.e., a mismatch between their “nature” and their “jobs”, but the problematic assumption that women and men need to act “according to their gender”. When women cannot be seen as “good leaders” and “good women” at the same time, their desire to stay on as leaders can decrease drastically.

Gender Inequality in Hong Kong’s Green Sector

To what extent are these findings applicable to the environmental sector? While gender gaps are evident in Hong Kong’s male-dominated industries like finance, engineering or construction, gender gaps also exist within the so-called “socially responsible” and “purpose-driven” sectors (such as the sustainability or green sectors). While the social sector is perhaps one of Hong Kong’s most gender-balanced sectors (more than 40% are women), employment figures do not paint the full picture.

A series of interviews with sustainability professionals in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia conducted by Robin Hicks and Aditi Tandon from Eco-Business showed that in the green sector, women were not given the same respect as their fellow male counterparts. Many found their opinions frequently doubted and undermined, and people often did not know how to manage situations when a woman was in charge. Maggie Lee, currently Asia Pacific Regional Lead for Global Seafood Traceability for WWF, recalling an instance where she felt patronised by a director-level person when he commented on her “youthfulness” – and by implication, inexperience – shared that she would turn her camera off when speaking to top-level officials to avoid condescension. When women are not taken seriously, they are severely hampered in their ability to succeed, like attracting funding that is essential to much of their work.

Women are also subject to many other forms of leadership inequalities such as unexplainable pay gaps and unwanted public attention regarding their body shape, appearances and personal relationships. Together, they hinder women’s social and economic advancement and impede Hong Kong’s journey to becoming a more equal and inclusive society. With regard to climate change, this prevents women from being able to determine what is most important to protect and support themselves as they continue to disproportionately shoulder the impacts of climate-related injustices.

gender and climate justicePhoto credit: Mongkhonsawat Luengvorapant/Oxfam (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Hong Kong’s Climate Justice Must Begin with Gender

As shown, it is clear that climate change and gender inequality are interrelated. Their effects compound one another: women are more vulnerable to changing environmental conditions; at the same time, the silencing of women’s voices will only exacerbate Hong Kong’s climate change problems. While legislation has been a key promoter of gender equality in many domains of life in Hong Kong, these structural developments have not been enough to remove some of the city’s deep-rooted discrimination and stereotypes. They can be extremely harmful and are the main reason why women continue to experience frustration in their efforts to make a change. 

Women are the building blocks of society; in Hong Kong, they account for more than half of the total population. When they suffer, society suffers with them. Hence, as Sonalie Figueras, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Green Queen asks, “without lifting women up, what chance do we have of creating a fairer, kinder, greener world?”

Thus, Karen Ho, Head of Corporate and Community Sustainability at WWF-Hong Kong, urges Hong Kong needs to really realise and harness the value that women bring to society. The diversity that women bring, along with the unique traits that they offer, enrich organisations and businesses as they offer new perspectives, foster healthier communicative practices within the workplace and help develop more sustainable practices. Relating to climate change, having more women in decision-making positions allows a more inclusive approach to policy. Decisions can therefore be better informed.

The lesson is not that Hong Kong needs to “inject more femininity” into organisations, but that we need to discard those harmful gender labels that specify what a “man” or a “woman” is (not) supposed to be or do. When there is more representation at the senior level, men can also learn from their female colleagues and be encouraged to adopt traits that they believe are not “masculine”.

In fact, since COVID-19, there has been growing interest for organisations to embrace an “androgynous” style of leadership, which emphasises the need to blend these two traditionally diametrically opposed categories. In practice, leadership styles are adopted within organisations based not on who the leader is, but on what works best to support all employees and members.

Overall, Hong Kong needs to be a more receptive society. As David Smith, associate professor at the John Hopkins Carey Business School puts it bluntly, we need “more listening” and “less mansplaining”. For women to be able to speak for themselves, men, having historically been in positions of power, need to be responsive to the concerns of women and pay careful attention to their own practices so as to not let their own egos get in the way of others’ successes.

It is also crucial that gender inequality in Hong Kong is not simply used to reproduce pitiful and patronising narratives about women. Instead, inequality should be seen as an “artefact of absurdity” that can propel all actors in society to start interrogating their own worldviews, values, assumptions and habits to help create a new world.

There is no guarantee that achieving gender equality will lead to climate justice in Hong Kong. Many other inequalities and injustices (along the lines of skin colour, class, religion, age etc.) need to be addressed. Given the challenges of fighting climate change, having more diversity in leadership positions does not mean we will immediately make wiser decisions about our climate and environment – education will have to play a huge part. But if Hongkongers are determined to fight injustice, we must be open to new ideas and solutions – as the saying goes, two heads are better than one. Inviting more people to contribute would be a simple but good start.

Hong Kong has been dealing with a monumental waste problem and plastic pollution is getting out of control. The city’s beaches and waterways are drowning in plastic and nearly 6,000 marine species are now considered endangered. Mainland China’s recent refusal to recycle Hong Kong’s food containers amid its fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic exposed the underlying issues of the city’s waste management. Unsustainable packaging habits, low public awareness, and a worrisome lack of adequate recycling facilities are just some of the causes that led to a waste management crisis. Hong Kong needs to come up with a plan to deal with its plastic waste before it is too late. 

Why Are Hong Kong’s Streets Flooded with Plastic Containers?

The fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Hong Kong that began in the first weeks of 2022 saw the city overwhelmed by a myriad of problems. Amid growing criticisms of flip-flopping pandemic measures and low vaccination rates, plastic waste became one of the biggest problems to emerge in the city. The issue arose after mainland China declared they would not take back styrofoam food containers which Hong Kong relies so much upon to import its supplies of fresh food. Mainland wholesale markets, which typically receive most of the city’s containers back to reuse them, justified the decision by raising concerns over elevated risks of contracting the virus from the boxes. In a matter of days, hundreds of containers quickly started to accumulate outside of wet markets and supermarkets. During the Chinese New Year, Hong Kong’s environmental group Missing Link- Polyfoam Recycling Scheme finally publicly denounced the situation. 

Styrofoam is a popular brand name for polystyrene, a petroleum-based plastic commonly used to store and transport food supplies. While it is very cheap, extremely light (it is made of 95% air), and good for insulation, styrofoam is also incredibly challenging to recycle, mainly because of the large size of the boxes and because these are often contaminated and covered in tape. The cleaning and decontamination process represents a burden and brings logistics and recycling costs up.

Together with other small recycling organisations, the government-funded organisation started handling the containers that piled up across the city. However, with limited capacities and resources to deal with such a big amount of waste – growing by an estimated one tonne a day – and with little help from the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), boxes kept piling up. A clear sign that plastic waste management in Hong Kong needs stronger reforms. Let’s take a look at how the city has been dealing with plastic waste up until now.

Hong Kong’s Plastic Problem

For years, Hong Kong has been dealing with a massive waste problem, and the plastic pollution issue is at a crisis point. In 2020, plastics made up 21% of the city’s total municipal solid waste (MSW), accounting for the third-largest share of MSW after food waste and paper. In the same year, Hong Kong also experienced a 27% increase in locally recycled plastics, a promising sign that some of the new measures implemented by the government, such as the Plastic Recycling Pilot Scheme, are working. Yet, plastic waste is still a huge concern for the city: its beaches and waterways are drowning in plastic, and microplastic levels in the sea are 40% higher than the global average. According to estimates,  more than 5,000 pieces of microplastic can be found in every square metre of sea. Many factors contribute to Hong Kong’s plastic problem, from the city’s unsustainable packaging habits and low public awareness of the dangers of plastic pollution to a lack of adequate recycling facilities.

plastic waste

Figure 1: Composition of Municipal Solid Waste disposed of at landfills in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020 

The problem with styrofoam boxes has also been going on for years. In 2017, 30,400 tonnes of such containers were disposed of at landfills. Two years later, the amount of styrofoam waste grew to 49 tonnes, or about 0.4% of the total plastic trash accumulated in the city in 2019. Currently, Hong Kong lacks a large-scale commercial operation on styrofoam recycling and the only existing styrofoam recycling programme – a project supported under the Environment and Conservation Fund (ECF) – is getting overwhelmed by the number of containers that have been piling up in the past few months. For years, Hong Kong has dealt with its accumulating waste by exporting a large portion across the border every year. In 2016, the city exported nearly 1.78 million tonnes of recycled plastic waste to China, most than any other country in the world.

plactic waste, plastic exports

Figure 2: Top 10 Plastic Exporters to Mainland China, 2016

The EPD has been striving to encourage the public and different sectors to reduce the use of single-use plastic items, especially styrofoam products with various publicity and education efforts aimed at promoting the use of more environmentally friendly substitutes. And yet, as statistics show, Hong Kong is still far from solving the plastic problem.

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What is Next for Hong Kong in the Race to Solve its Plastic Waste Problem?

In August 2021, the Hong Kong Legislative Council passed the long-awaited Waste Charging Scheme: it is hoped that this move will help reduce per capita waste disposal by up to 45% and increase the recycling rate by 55% at the same time. However, the new scheme will not start until 2023, delaying hopes that the waste crisis will be solved any time soon. 

In the meantime, Hong Kong should look at how other countries are dealing with their trash to find new ways to reduce plastic waste in the city. A good example is Macao: in January 2021, the government banned all imports and trading of disposable takeaway boxes, bowls, cups, and dishes made out of styrofoam. Similarly, in 2021 the European Union banned the use of single-use plastics across all countries, a very important step in the transition to a circular economy. While a ban on plastic cutlery at restaurants is planned for Hong Kong, this will only come into force in 2025: too late according to many environmental groups who strongly believe that faster action is needed. Taiwan’s transition from garbage island to recycling leader is another example of a success story that could serve as a lesson for Hong Kong. The government introduced a new plastic waste management framework that encourages citizens and manufacturers to adopt practices that result in less trash generated. Finally, to facilitate the recycling of beverage bottles, Hong Kong should look at the Deposit Refund Scheme (DRS), a very effective scheme implemented by governments worldwide, from Australia and North America to several countries in Europe.

Featured Image by: Missing Link- Polyfoam Recycling Scheme

Climate change and public health are interconnected; as climate-related health problems proliferate across the world, healthcare systems around the world are faced with unprecedented challenges. The problems in Hong Kong’s collapsing healthcare system today serve as a perfect lesson for the world; not only do we need to put more effort into building up the resilience of citizens, but we also need to go beyond resilience to change the very social and climate conditions that affect our public health. This article argues that governments need to put health at the centre of social and climate action.

Given the overwhelming scientific evidence today that points to the health impacts of climate change, health policy agendas around the globe are now beginning to realise how big of a public health threat climate change is to humanity. It is understandable, therefore, that health emerged as a key topic in the COP26 discussions. The COP26 Health Programme was established to “prioritise health and equity in the international climate movement and sustainable development agenda.” Within the programme, an Adaptation Research Alliance (ARA) was created to “catalyse and scale investment in action-oriented research and innovation for adaptation that strengthens resilience in communities most vulnerable to climate change.”

It is also common to find research illustrating how the health effects of climate change are worse for developing countries. However, this has unhelpfully reinforced a kind of “developed-country complacency syndrome”: able to escape the worst effects of climate change, many developed countries do not feel like they need to do much.

Hong Kong also suffers from this syndrome. With an impressive score of 0.949 on the Human Development Index (HDI), Hong Kong’s standard of living is ranked 4th in the world. Many Hongkongers really do not have to worry about the effects of climate change in this city. Although Hong Kong is experiencing stronger and stronger typhoons and record-high temperatures are broken almost every year, most people are relatively unaffected.

But one need not have experience of something as serious as the destruction of their home to feel the health effects of climate change. In fact, they do impact our everyday lives, albeit subtly.

The Everyday Effects of Climate Change on Hong Kong Public Health

In Hong Kong, for every increase of 1C above 29C, hospitalisation rate increases by almost 5% and mortality by almost 2% –  which amounts to approximately 1,000 more deaths per year. This is because temperature rise indicates rising greenhouse gas emissions and these gases have significant impacts on cardiovascular (relating to the heart), respiratory (relating to lungs), and integumentary (relating to the skin) health. During the hot summers, many people feel dizzy too.

Climate change is also facilitating the spread of communicable (infectious) diseases in Hong Kong. Changing rainfall patterns have been conducive to the transmission of vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever, hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD), and malaria.

Rising temperatures can also affect mental health. According to a study, they can be “direct or indirect, short-term or long-term, … or even transmitted to later generations”. Consequences also vary in severity, ranging from “milder” symptoms of distress to more serious clinical disorders such as depression or even suicide. In fact, haze events (such as smoggy days) are already enough to increase mortality risk by almost 3 per cent in Hong Kong; for those with existing mental disorders, the effects are far worse.

However, while everyone is affected, certain social groups are disproportionately more affected than others.

The Health Inequalities of Climate Change in Hong Kong

As a report published by the Institute of Health Equity of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK IHE) finds, economic inequality is a huge determinant of health inequality in Hong Kong. With a striking Gini coefficient of 0.539, Hong Kong is in the top 10 in the world in terms of income inequality. As Hong Kong’s temperatures rise, the city ’s poorest suffer the most. Unable to afford quality housing, many live in terribly conditioned subdivided flats with poor air quality, hygiene and suffocating temperatures. These living spaces have also become breeding grounds for diseases as mosquitoes are found swarming them all the time.

More than 30% of Hong Kong’s elderly live in poverty; with the pandemic still in force, this figure has likely risen. Without a stable source of income and surging house prices, many have become “cardboard grannies and grandpas” with nowhere but a cardboard box to live in. Deprived of a decent environment to live in and without anyone to be looked after by, they are most vulnerable.

But these health inequalities only show half of the picture. For instance, while hospitalisation rates may be a useful indication of the severity of health problems, it fails to account for the fact that there are people who have health problems but do not/are not able to go to hospital. This is evident within ethnic minority communities, as cultural and linguistic barriers (on top of financial barriers) often hinder their ability to access local healthcare services.

climate change and public healthImage by: Hong Kong Hospital Authority

A Collapsing Hong Kong Healthcare System

Despite ranking 8th globally on the World Index of Healthcare Innovation, Hong Kong’s healthcare measurement in the “Quality” category has been labelled “poor”, as it suffers from overcrowding and a serious deficit of healthcare workers. According to local think tank Our Hong Kong Foundation (OHKF), there are less than two doctors for every 1,000 people, a statistic significantly below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 3.5 and lagging way behind regional rival Singapore (2.5). Hong Kong’s healthcare expenditure levels are also low in comparison with OECD countries: total health expenditure as a percentage of GDP is around 7% (2% points below OECD average). 

The OHKF has described Hong Kong’s healthcare system as “hanging on a rope stretched too thin”. The reasons show that such a claim is far from an exaggeration:

There is an increase in the attrition rate of doctors and nurses in recent years, partly because of growing emigration out of the city. As perceptions of job precarity grow (for work-related, economic and political reasons), the manpower within the healthcare sector faces more uncertainty than ever.

On one hand, this is a testament to the fact that Hong Kong has the world’s longest life expectancy of 85 years. On the other, it is projected that the proportion of citizens in Hong Kong older than 65 will be 27% by 2033 and a staggering 37% by 2066. Co-Director of PolyU’s Institute of Active Ageing under the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences Professor Teresa Tsien believes that, as people live longer, “the chances of dependency on medical, welfare and other services will be greater.”

Climate change will make things more complicated. More people today, young and old, require medical attention. Even if the number of medical staff continues to increase, it may still struggle to keep up with the rate of increase of vulnerable people in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has a dual public-private healthcare system. However, their disparities are great. The number of doctors in private and public hospitals is approximately the same – but public hospitals provide services to 90% of in-patients in Hong Kong. It is predicted that more doctors in the public sector will “defect” to the private sector because of better pay, working hours, and conditions. With decreased manpower, the workload of those who remain in the public sector will only increase, and this will lead to even longer waiting times. This creates a vicious cycle.

Hong Kong’s public healthcare focus is weighted significantly towards curative care, which is mainly concerned with curing and rehabilitating patients. In the case of climate health, curative approaches are certainly important, but they only cure the “symptoms” and not the “disease”, i.e. climate change itself.

Although the WHO describes primary care as being “the first level of contact of individuals, the family and the community with the national health system” and therefore fundamental to any healthcare system, Hong Kong’s primary care remains inadequately provided. Most providers are private (70% of market share) and are accessed exclusively by the rich. In contrast, there are only 73 public clinics that provide primary care to a population of 7.5 million; they also tend to be underfunded. Although vouchers have been introduced to support access, a lack of publicity has deemed the programme quite ineffective

It is no surprise that Hong Kong’s curative-oriented healthcare system is collapsing. So what can be done?

Mentality Shifts Needed for Hong Kong’s Healthcare System

Today, global health policy discourses are realising the need to build “climate-resilient health systems” that can “anticipate, prepare for, and respond to hazardous events, trends, or disturbances related to climate”.

In Hong Kong, health policy discourses have recognised the need to go beyond curative approaches towards preventive and promotive approaches. For example, public health academic Emily Chan argues that the government should devote more resources to enhancing Hong Kong’s risk reduction, preparedness response and recovery abilities, which involves workforce training and promoting public health literacy in light of growing climate-induced weather events in Hong Kong.

Government and non-governmental bodies have also stepped up efforts to foster public resilience. The Hong Kong Observatory’s “MyObservatory” mobile app, for example, allows citizens to access live weather information so that they can be better prepared for weather events. Another example can be found in the development of the Hong Kong Air Quality Health Index (HK AQHI) app by the Environment Protection Department (EPD), which provides citizens with live information about air quality when they travel.

But Hong Kong’s healthcare challenges are not simply issues of manpower and literacy. Even though the government has encouraged a lot more public-private partnerships (PPPs) to improve quality and efficiency, they only upgrade Hong Kong’s “defensive capabilities”. Professor Veronika Schoeb at the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at PolyU argues, “healthcare practitioners have only minimal control over health-related social issues such as education, work environment, or housing.” As a result, the underlying social determinants of public health remain unconsidered. In framing action only in terms of keeping pace with the rate of climate change (which is common around the world), it seems as if we are only trying to “delay the inevitable”.

Hence, healthcare systems need to be more active in other areas of policy. For Hong Kong, public health should be at the centre of different forms of social justice – which includes climate justice.

climate change and public healthImage by: GovHK

A Climate-Sensitive Healthcare System

The COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health provides useful suggestions for within-sector and cross-sector developments that may be appropriate for Hong Kong.

Apart from curative care, the best healthcare systems in the world have a robust primary healthcare infrastructure. Beyond expanding the capacity of hospitals or upgrading medical equipment, Hong Kong needs to diversify its healthcare services beyond curative care. It can learn from countries such as Canada and Finland in expanding and strengthening primary care services. The benefits are profound: as the OECD argues in a report published in 2020, Realising the Potential of Primary Care, “[p]rimary health care can save lives and money while levelling the playing field to achieve more equal access to medical treatment”.

For healthcare services to be used wisely, community engagement, which is found to be quite poor in recent years (because of politics and the pandemic), is important. The majority of community engagement today are organised by non-governmental organisations. Taking a backseat, the government has failed to create a coherent vision and provide appropriate support to these programmes. This might also explain Hong Kong’s poor health literacy.

A way to foster engagement is to increase involvement of health professionals, who often command more respect from the public (than the government) “to communicate the health risks of climate change, and to promote policies that protect public health from climate impacts”. Actions can be as simple as providing educational materials to patients or visiting vulnerable households. On a larger scale, health talks and forums can be organised within communities.

Hong Kong’s healthcare sector is often also criticised for its lack of coordination: services are often set up only reactively, resulting in a lot of redundancy. To improve governance within the healthcare sector, communication is important. A starting point, for example, is to develop health data harmonisation, which involves data sharing between health departments. This can improve the efficiency and quality of services by making the whole process a lot smoother for both the staff and the patient.

While within-sector changes are important, they are insufficient. As we have seen, (climate) health is very much socially determined. This is why the COP26 Special Report resolutely argues that we need to “include health in all policies”. Hence, in the words of IHE CUHK, “[t]he government should work with other sectors, including academia, social care and healthcare, professional bodies, businesses, charities and voluntary organisations, in developing policies across the board to mitigate the social determinants of [climate] health inequalities.”

Hong Kong needs a constructive approach to climate change-related public health. Apart from enhancing health resilience, how can we make our city a greener and more liveable place?

It is good to know that concepts of liveability are being recognised in Hong Kong’s newest Clean Air Plan 2035 and are increasingly connected to health and wellbeing. For example, the government has been trying to promote a low-carbon transport infrastructure by installing roadside air quality detectors and financially incentivising the use of electrical vehicles and public transport.

However, housing has been overlooked in the plans. As we have seen, the government needs to improve the living conditions of public housing in many areas such as by installing or updating their cooling and ventilation systems. To ensure continued accountability, assessment tools such as the Hong Kong Green Building Council’s BEAM Plus New Buildings should be actively employed to crucially ensure that future construction projects are “human-centric”, green, and practical.

Furthermore, according to a report by local think tank Civic Exchange, urban development is not just about infrastructural improvement but also about discovering their “vibrancy”. In a densely populated city like Hong Kong, this is not going to be easy. But as the authors Carine Lai and Antonio Da Roza show, vibrancy need not be about developing extravagant spaces such as shopping malls (which are also energy-intensive) but can also be achieved through the creation of accessible, green, open and user-friendly spaces for public activities such as street hawking and performance. As such, they can be enjoyable spaces – as the evidence shows, they are also opportunities for enhancing mental and physical health – without necessarily being environmentally damaging.

In line with global discourses on sustainability, talk of green and just transitions to renewable energy in Hong Kong have grown. However, discussions have primarily framed relevant strategies of decarbonisation or energy diversification only in economic or environmental terms, where public health is only of secondary importance.

Hong Kong’s climate action needs to be “people-centred”. The medical sector should be a bigger stakeholder in Hong Kong’s power discussions, so that future decisions and investments can be improved: they should consider not only the scarcity of natural resources – that humans can only exploit so much of – but also the potential health ramifications of such initiatives.

Finally, to sustain climate action, climate education needs to be transformed. Apart from learning about the adverse health effects associated with climate change so that people can protect themselves better, the education system should focus on cultivating sustainable mindsets and lifestyles that will enable future generations to imagine different pathways to a healthier Hong Kong.

Overcoming Hong Kong’s Healthcare Crisis: Lessons for the World

Hong Kong has all the expertise and resources it needs to make those changes possible – it has access to a remarkable pool of professional talent that not every country can boast of. However, Hong Kong’s poor management of the healthcare sector and its failure to situate health issues within climate discussions (and vice versa) are lessons that healthcare systems around the world can draw on.

The COP was created in 1992 with the noble aim of creating a globally coordinated strategy to tackle climate change and governments around the world will continue to bear this in mind and harness the opportunities provided by COP26 to develop more cross-regional collaborations to help improve public health around the world together.

Featured image by: Shutterstock

Textile and clothing recycling has the potential to alleviate fast fashion problems and absorb some of its impact on the environment. In Hong Kong, the Research Institute for Textiles and Apparel has developed a revolutionary technique to turn old garments into brand new clothing, and both the H&M Foundation and the Hong Kong government are betting on it. However, the lengthy process and the discouraging figures related to global fashion waste are making experts and environmentalists question the real impact of such technology. 

With a market value of USD$3,000 billion, the fashion industry accounts for 2% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product. (GDP). The sector, which has grown at an unprecedented pace over the past few decades, sees the US and China as its undisputed leaders. The latter currently accounts for the largest fashion market and e-commerce sector in the world and is leading exports of apparel worldwide.

China also dominates the ranking for retail purchasing worldwide. In 2020, the average Chinese consumer spent around RMB$1,645 – or approximately USD$260 – on clothes and footwear. It is, however, US consumers who purchase most items. It is estimated that on average, a US consumer buys one item of clothing per week or 53 garments per year. Along with other nine countries – India, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Italy and Brazil – China and the US account for three-quarters of all clothes sold each year worldwide. 

fast fashion problemsFigure by: Common Objective

The explosion in consumption and the rising purchasing rates of consumers are the root of the planet’s environmental crisis and the main drivers of fast fashion problems and the climate crisisIn recent years, new regulatory frameworks from governments worldwide as well as the pressure from increasingly environmentally conscious consumers have pushed fashion and e-commerce companies to put sustainability at the top of their agenda, developing strategies to achieve carbon neutrality and other green goals and thus reducing the devastating environmental impact of the fashion industry. Indeed, from the manufacturing and shipping of clothes to the vast amount of clothes thrown away every year – 26 million tons in China alone – the environmental cost of fashion is huge and accounts for approximately 10% of global carbon emissions.

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Some of the world’s largest clothing retailers have launched eco-friendly fashion lines and have adopted other strategies with the aim of showcasing developments in sustainable fashion. One of which is the Swedish multinational H&M. The world’s second largest global clothing retailer – known for its affordable fast-fashion clothing – started the non-profit ‘H&M Foundation’ in 2014 to improve humanitarian and environmental issues within the fashion industry. It was initiated – as the foundation states on its website – “to co-create, fund and share solutions for the world’s most urgent challenges” and “help safeguard the welfare of humanity” by promoting a “planet positive fashion future”. One of its core projects is promoting innovative technologies to recycle clothes. And the most prominent and successful example comes from the foundation’s partnership with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), the world’s first facility to turn recycled fabrics into new clothes. 

Hong Kong’s clothing industry is one of the most important manufacturing sectors, with a total of 490 establishments and nearly 3,000 workers as of 2020. Apart from production, the city is big on sourcing clothing, from fabrics procurement and clothing design to sales, marketing, and quality control. The nearly 13,000 garment companies across the territory helped turn Hong Kong into the 12th largest exporter of clothing worldwide. In recent years, the city has also emerged as a research and development (R&D) and commercialisation hub for sustainable fashion technologies, with the partnership between HKRITA and H&M Foundation leading the way. 

One of the most innovative projects brought on by HKRITA is the Green Machine’, an innovative hydrothermal separation treatment that can recycle blend textiles into new clean and wearable fibres without any quality loss. Requiring only heat and very little biodegradable green chemical, the method assures that no secondary pollution is created during the recycling process. The fashion brand Monki is the first one to release a sustainable collection with recycled textile materials created by the Green Machine. First tested in Hong Kong, this technology has now scaled up in Indonesia and H&M Foundation bets that it could eventually solve some of the industry’s biggest environmental problems. For this reason, it has invested millions of dollars in HKRITA. Along with the financial support of the Innovation and Technology Fund of the Hong Kong SAR, this money is helping to finance a four-year project that aims at discovering and developing other groundbreaking sustainable recycling technologies as well as scaling up the hydrothermal system.

But HKRITA also developed another system that does more than just recycle clothes. The award-winning Garment to Garment (G2G) Recycling System is a mini-scale, environmentally-friendly production line that recycles post-consumer garments into new ones adopting a mechanical treatment that does not require any water or chemical. The partnership with the H&M Foundation brought this system one step forward, by installing it in community spaces such as retail shops to showcase the garment recycling process to the public and most importantly to educate consumers on the immense value of clothes and the importance of recycling them. The “Looop” – this is the name of the retail model of the G2G Recycling System – was first installed in one of H&M’s stores in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2020.

There are, however, some downsides to this brand new technology. First, it takes approximately three days for the Looop recycling system to turn a garment into a new piece of clothing the size of a child’s t-shirt. Business Insider argues that it would take almost 50,000 years for the Looop recycling system to recycle just one week worth of waste from the fashion market. Furthermore, even though not many materials and products are required to turn old textiles into clothes, the lengthy process is also inevitably requiring huge amounts of energy. But the experts’ main issue is that the commitment of big fast-fashion retailers to recycling and other sustainable initiatives does not solve the core problems of what the retailer is promoting in the first place: fast fashion. Even though the promising partnership could lead to a revolution of textile recycling techniques in the long run, behind it there is still a company that promotes overconsumption in the first place. Additionally, environmentalists argue other issues such as child labour and poor working conditions typically associated with the fast fashion market would also not be solved.

What HKRITA’s small-scale retail model is doing in terms of promoting recycling and educating consumers on its importance is certainly a first step in the right direction and fast-fashion brands jumping on the sustainability wagon is great news. However, the main issue remains: there is simply too much clothing. Unless societies shift away from overconsumption and fast fashion retailers make room for smaller, more sustainable brands that produce more durable clothing with better fabrics, the fashion industry will not cease to damage the environment.

Featured image: H&M Foundation

Ocean plastic pollution is no news. Millions of tons of plastic enter our oceans every year and more than 5 trillion pieces are already floating in waterways all over the world. In Hong Kong, the plastic pollution issue is at a crisis point. The city’s beaches and waterways are drowning in plastic, endangering the over 6,000 marine species that populate them. However, Australian-born Angus Harris and his wife Ellen Ogren might have found a way to clean the waterways in Hong Kong, and all it takes is four tiny red boats.

Marine plastic pollution is growing rampant. Of the over 300 million tons of plastic produced in just one year, at least 14 million tons end up in the ocean. This not only endangers marine species, but also compromises the food chain and puts the health of 3 billion people that rely on seafood at risk. Researchers estimate that, on average, every person ingests 50,000 pieces of microplastics

Hong Kong’s Heavily Polluted Waterways

In Hong Kong, the situation is worrisome. The city’s sea is being swamped by plastic pollution and microplastic levels are 40% higher than the global average, with more than 5,000 pieces per square metre. The problem, experts believe, lies in Hong Kong’s unsustainable packaging habits, the lack of adequate plastic recycling facilities, and scarce public opinion’s awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis. In a city where more than 5 million plastic bottles are thrown away every day and a staggering 46 million single-use plastics are disposed  of weekly, it is no surprise that Hong Kong’s waterways are so polluted. However, not enough people understand the huge threat of heavily polluted waterways to human health and to the health of our planet. 

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The Clean Waterways Initiative

Established in 2019 by retired sailors Angus Harris and his wife Ellen Ogren, the non-profit Clean Waterways Initiative has massively improved the situation of Hong Kong’s waterways, significantly decreasing the pollution levels in the city’s trash hotspots of Aberdeen and Victoria Harbour. The original idea of the couple and the partnership with HSBC allowed the programme to collect more than 76,000 plastic bottles, 28,000 aluminium cans, and a total of 43 tonnes of landfill waste in less than two years. 

Image by Clean Waterways Initiative

The work is entirely done by four small solar-powered boats that can “efficiently collect, sort and unload trash” from Hong Kong’s waterways without generating emission output. By using electric engines, the Initiative was able to cut 16 tonnes of CO2 emissions per boat annually. The four vessels – Solar Explorer, Aqua Explorer, Harbour Explorer, and Wayfoong Explorer – operate 7 days a week and 24 hours a day in Hong Kong’s Victoria and Aberdeen Harbours to collect litter before it makes its way to the open sea. They have been designed to be able to move easily in the traffic of the port and collect all sorts of trash, from bulky to tiny items, and up to 2,500 litres of floating plastic per load. In addition, the on-board sorting deck allows for the sorting of collected waste for recycling and landfill.

Besides fighting plastic pollution and protecting over 6,000 local marine species, the Initiative aims at educating public opinion and raising awareness among the local community and younger generations about the trash disposal and the dangers of plastic pollution. They do this by partnering up with other non-profit organisations and schools to host educational tours, workshops, and talks to spread knowledge around the 4 R’s: Reduce, Rethink, Reuse and Recycle. Educational activities like these are, according to Ogren, a “fundamental part of tackling plastic pollution as an issue”.

 

Airport Authority Hong Kong has set out a plan to meet net zero emissions by 2050, including deploying a fully electric vehicle fleet on the ground and funding new green technologies. 

Hong Kong International Airport, the world’s busiest cargo gateway and one of the busiest passenger airports, has pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, with electric vehicles as the key to decarbonisation.

The Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) aims to cut absolute carbon emissions by 55% by 2035 compared to 2018 levels, a benchmark that is similar to the one set by London’s Heathrow Airport, which is working towards to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-2030s. 

“Our target is net zero instead of neutrality so it’s quite clear to us that we will try not to pursue any offset at all, in particular for the midpoint of 2035,” said Peter Lee, general manager of sustainability at Hong Kong airport. “In terms of the 2050 ultimate target, I think we need to wait and see what technology is coming,” Lee added.

The aviation industry currently accounts for only 2.5% of the global carbon emissions. However, with the projected growth trends, the sector’s emissions set to climb despite dropping to much lower levels during 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Decarbonising will be instrumental to help nations and territories, including Hong Kong, to limit global warming under 1.5C above pre-industrials and to avoid a climate catastrophe.

To meet the 2035 target, AAHK has set out roadmaps to reduce direct emissions at the airport as well as indirect emissions such as electricity consumption in a drafted carbon management action plan. For direct emission reduction, the airport will be electrifying all airside vehicles including tow trucks, container-loading and passenger-steps vehicles by the end of the decade,  making the switch towards more renewable diesel, and more than doubling the amount of airfield charging stations. Currently, a only fifth of the ground service fleet is electric. 

The airport will also install LED lighting and smart technology to better control energy efficiency and use for equipment such as air-conditioning, as well as develop new energy management solutions, to tackle indirect emissions. 

AAHK plans to introduce a Business Partner Carbon Support Programme that will include a USD$2.56m (HKD$20m) Green Innovation and Technology Fund, to support the development and testing of new technologies to help meet the 2050 net zero target. While the airport already features fuelling infrastructure to support the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), the fund could help scale up decarbonisation measures in aircrafts and at the airport. 

“Innovation, capacity building and collaboration hold the key to achieving the Net-Zero Carbon target,” Lee adds. “We are pleased to see the positive response from our business partners in support of decarbonisation.  With the collaborative effort of the airport community, we are fully committed to achieving this Net-Zero Carbon target in pursuit of our pledge to make HKIA the world’s greenest airport.”

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Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons

As young climate activists congregate around the world to mobilise climate action, Hong Kong’s youth are also urging the local government to take more ambitious action to curb the climate crisis. Nominated by CarbonCare InnoLab, six Hong Kong youth delegates to COP26 have published a petition and shared their thoughts with Secretary for the Environment Wong kam-sing regarding the city’s climate change policies. The delegates share their experience at the recent COP26 in Glasgow, pointing out lessons Hong Kong can apply to accelerate the transition to net zero. 

The global climate crisis has seen youth from around the world mobilise movements, take part in school strikes, and advocate for ambitious actions to curb the ongoing climate crisis. Climate activists such as Greta Thunberg and Mitzi Jonelle Tan are taking it upon themselves to urge world business leaders and governments to limit global warming to 1.5C pre-industrial levels, believing “the power is in us, not the leaders.” 

In Hong Kong, the environment and climate have never been front and centre in the socio-economic agenda, but the city’s COP26 youth delegates are trying to change this. 

Nominated by CarbonCare InnoLab, Hermia Chan, Mark Cheung, Ryan Fung, Blaire Ho, Ho Wai-fun and Priscilla Lin attended COP26, the UN climate summit, in Glasgow earlier in November. They were joined by four more delegates representing other Hong Kong-based political organisations and nonprofits. 

Hong Kong Needs More Ambitious Climate Change Policies 

Earlier in October, the six youth delegates published a petition urging the Hong Kong government to take more ambitious climate change policies and actions. The document began with an overview of why the city needs more ambitious climate change policies and ended with the delegates’ five key demands. Among other factors, the key demands included a call for the government to declare a climate emergency, to reach net zero emissions by the 2040s or sooner, and to increase the proportion of renewable energy in the energy portfolio to 20% by 2030. 

Before their departure to Glasgow, the delegates spoke to Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam Sing. Wong was open to the delegate’s opinions and asked for their suggestions on how to achieve carbon neutrality before 2050.

“Wong shared what he was proud of about Hong Kong’s climate mitigation and adaptation activities so far… he emphasised Hong Kong’s climate adaptation expertise, explaining that our experts are advising other Asian cities on strategies such as how to mitigate the urban heat island effect,” said Chan, one of the aforementioned Hong Kong youth delegates. 

Although the delegates agree with the Environment Secretary that flooding is the most significant risk to Hong Kong citizens, they believe more action on other aspects of climate change policies should be taken. For instance, they would like to see more detailed plans and a concrete timeline regarding how the government will increase the availability of renewable energy and implement a carbon trading scheme. Chan adds,The thing with climate change is that we don’t have time to waste. Do we have time to wait for the best model? Will the best model ever even exist?” 

You might also like: 6 Biggest Environmental Issues in Hong Kong in 2021

What Lessons Can Hong Kong Learn from COP26? 

Attending COP for the first time this year, the delegates did not have a specific agenda, intending only to observe and learn about climate initiatives that can be applied to Hong Kong. The delegates’ observer passes allowed them to sit in on panels happening in different ‘zones’, however, they expressed a desire to more actively participate and take part in negotiations. 

“Observer passes limit us to only being able to ‘observe’ and not actually submit questions during most events,” explained Chan. She also commented that because 

Hong Kong is not a ‘Party to the Convention’ at COP26, the city’s role at the summit was somewhat ambiguous. “The ambiguity made it difficult for us to apply for a ‘Party Badge’, which would mean more opportunities for more meaningful participation.” 

Hong Kong’s delegates took part in various youth events at COP26, including speaking at the ‘Asian Youth Dialogue on Carbon Neutrality’ event at Korea’s Pavilion. These panels were attended by youths as well as representatives from different countries and organisations, a platform that allowed youth delegates’ voices to be heard.  However, the delegates have reservations about whether their opinions would be taken seriously, or whether youth opportunities at COP26 is a form of ‘youthwashing’ or tokenism. 

“During some of the negotiations, some youths limited themselves to note taking although they have the right to voice their opinions. I’m not sure whether they chose to do this or were asked to take more passive roles,” Chan said. 

When asked what lessons Hong Kong can learn from countries and stakeholders at COP26, the delegates highlighted human rights considerations and green construction as two important factors.

Listening to Indigenous tribes speak about how some climate mitigation policies affected their rights, the delegates felt Hong Kong needs to put human rights at the forefront of climate policy. Similar to many other countries, Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan 2050 focuses on how to decarbonise sectors through measures such as transitioning to electric vehicles and waste reduction, whereas the effects our environmental footprint have on other areas around the globe are rarely considered. The delegates believe that as a city that imports most of our goods, we should also consider how the production processes of these goods are adversely affecting the livelihoods of citizens in the producing countries.

Secondly, the delegates think the Norwegian city of Oslo’s green construction practices can be adapted to Hong Kong’s construction industry. Globally, building and construction are responsible for 39% of emissions. And in Hong Kong, construction sites are often considered a nuisance by citizens because of the noise and dust pollution it generates. 

Hong Kong may be able to take inspiration from Oslo’s zero emissions construction sites. Oslo’s first zeroemission construction site was pioneered in 2019. Powered by electricity, the machinery used on ‘Olav V’s gate’ emitted less noise and air pollution. Using electricity instead of fossil fuels saved 35,000 litres of diesel and 92,500 kg of carbon emissions. The Norwegian government also took a strategic move to incentivise the industry to switch to electric machinery by awarding public tenders for construction work to developers using zero emission machinery. While Hong Kong’s current policies focus on adapting existing buildings to make them greener, the delegates believe that “greening the buildings industry” should start from cleaning up the construction phase. 

Going forward, the delegates will continue to push for having their five demands met by the Hong Kong government. We hope to continue our conversations with [Secretary] Wong and be able to share Hong Kong’s more ambitious climate change policies at next year’s COP”, Chan concludes. “We also hope to work on climate advocacy with more youths in Hong Kong. As we all deserve to be heard,“ Chan’s fellow delegate Blaire Ho added. 

Many climate activists and environmental organisations claim COP26 was a failure because governments failed to agree on important pledges, such as phasing out coal. Despite this, it is enlightening to hear the ambitions of Hong Kong’s youth’s delegates, who are determined to accelerate the city’s journey to carbon neutrality before 2050. 

You might also like: Transforming Climate Education in Hong Kong

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