Destination of the Week: Hong Kong
Cosmopolitan Asian city offers green attractions, but smog remains a problem.
Sat, Aug 29, 2009 at 02:59 PM
DOGGED BY SMOG: Hong Kong environmentalists and public health advocates are pressing their leaders to take a more aggressive stand on air pollution and climate change. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
Hong Kong is feeling the heat from global warming. Scientists at Hong Kong Observatory estimate that by 2090, temperatures in this city, which sits on islands off the southern coast of mainland China, will have risen more than 4 degrees Celsius from 1990 levels. According to a recent report sponsored by CSR Asia and the University of Hong Kong, global warming will force residents of the former British colony — a "special administrative region" of China since 1997 — to endure increasingly frequent heat waves, tidal surges and heavy rains. Erratic weather will cause infrastructure damage, landslides and floods.
Against that backdrop, local politicians are making green decisions. Hong Kong offers incentives to companies that improve energy efficiency and retire diesel-burning vehicles. This spring, Hong Kong's legislative council passed a tax on plastic bags, and on Aug. 3, its Environmental Protection Department approved a plan for what Bloomberg reports may be Asia's largest-capacity offshore wind farm. But Hong Kong environmentalists and public health advocates are pressing their leaders to take a more aggressive stand on air pollution and climate change.
Politics aside, eco-minded visitors will discover that Hong Kong has lots of green perks. The city boasts the world's largest fleet of double-decker trolley cars — its hilly downtown may remind you of San Francisco — and its sleek metro shuttles 3.7 people every weekday. Public beaches, parks and hiking trails are short bus rides from downtown. Local growers sell produce at a weekday farmers market. And in this city of 7 million where almost nine in 10 residents speak Cantonese, even pork-loving restaurants serve delicious, Cantonese-style fish and vegetables.
Clean air on the way?
Hong Kong's air stinks. As local officials review air quality policies, city air oozes with noxious particulates. According to Civic Exchange, a Hong Kong public policy think tank, air pollution costs Hong Kong an annual $140 million in lost productivity and hospital bills. The advocacy group Clear the Air Hong Kong notes that Hong Kong's air pollution index is 20 years old.
Solving Hong Kong's atmospheric woes will require coordinated action. Civic Exchange promotes dialogue among government types, businesses leaders and medical professionals. In 2008, the think tank sponsored emissions-themed workshops for Hong Kong and mainland Chinese maritime operators. (Hong Kong and neighboring Shenzhen, in China's Guangdong Province, are major global ports.) In January 2009, Civic Exchange sponsored a conference titled The Air We Breathe — a Public Health Dialogue. Six months later, Civic Exchange staffers launched an educational nonprofit, the Clean Air Network.
Mike Kilburn, environmental program director at Civic Exchange, helped establish the new NGO. "If the science isn’t doing the trick of persuading the government," he told the South China Morning Post, "then the way to make the government pay greater attention is to put the voice of the public behind the science — particularly in Hong Kong where our politicians don’t respond terribly well except when pushed very hard.”
Green lifestyles and beyond
As Civic Exchange promotes public dialogues, two Hong Kong nonprofits are helping city residents hone eco-habits. The Hong Kong Carbon Reduction Campaign teaches 5,000 Hong Kong employees of more than 60 multinational corporations how to reduce their carbon footprints. Sponsored by The Climate Group, a British nonprofit, the yearlong campaign aims to conserve 9,900 tons of carbon dioxide. Across town, WWF Hong Kong runs a two-year-old educational program called "Climateers." Participants attend workshops, compete in energy-saving competitions and measure success through a Hong Kong-specific carbon footprint calculator.
Public engagement isn't enough, says Dr. William Yu, director of WWF's Climate Programme. Given Hong Kong's cosmopolitan reputation, Yu says, its leaders should do more to promote green policies. Enter the Combat Climate Change Coalition, a new partnership spearheaded by WWF, Oxfam and Greenpeace that includes groups representing women, youth, patients, the elderly, trade unions and professional groups. Coalition members are pressuring Hong Kong politicos to cut 25 percent of their city's greenhouse gas emissions — from 1990 levels — by 2020. And they want a formal commitment made before December's COP-15 climate change conference in Copenhagen.
"We recognize that awareness of climate change [in Hong Kong] has improved significantly, but it's not enough," Yu says. "You really need policy, because it's the most effective means to drive change."
The great (urban) outdoors
Hong Kong has an ultra-modern cityscape, but according to government figures, more than 70 percent of the city is "rural." Parks and nature reserves account for a whopping 40 percent of Hong Kong's 426 square miles. Translation: You can actually hike and swim within city limits. Itching for more adventure? Scale Hong Kong's indoor and outdoor rock climbing walls. Conserving your lactic acid? Take the Ngong Ping Cable Car. A 3.5-mile ride offers panoramic views of Lantau Island and the South China Sea.
Organic farming — the certified kind — isn't as prevalent in Asia as it is in the United States and Europe. But for 10 years, the Hong Kong Organic Farming Association has helped Hong Kong's organic farmers grow the sustainable stuff. HOFA coordinates a network of producers, runs educational campaigns, offers farming classes and oversees a weekday farmers market at Central Star Ferry Pier.
What about Hong Kong's sustainable-cuisine scene? Vegetarians will find plenty of options in the city's 11,000-plus restaurants. The Hong Kong Vegan Club and www.eatdrinkhongkong.com list dozens of herbivorous eateries. If you eat fish, you'll love Cantonese-style steamed fish and shrimpy dim sum dumplings. For Berkeley-style organic ambiance, head to the colorful Bookworm Café. A few blocks west of the University of Hong Kong, this hip literary enclave serves falafel, veggie pizza, and all shades of fake flesh.
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