Donald Tsang

The real leading lights

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 August, 2006, 12:00am

The Lights Out campaign on Tuesday wasn't met with overwhelming public support, and it was snubbed by the government. But the inane reply that the Chief Executive's Office gave - about a voluntary blackout being a spoiler for Hong Kong's international image - probably helped generate more publicity than any other response would have received.

Couldn't Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's public-relations minders have written to express support and congratulations, then pledged to join by shutting down most government offices - which they do anyway after 6pm? That's what Mr Tsang's former boss, Chris Patten, would have done. So much for the politically attuned Mr Tsang - a self-styled politician.

Most people probably didn't know what to make of the campaign. It sounded more like a 'flash-mobbing' exercise - turn off your lights for three minutes on August 8 at 8pm - than an environmental awareness drive. That was what 'flash mobsters' did in years past: perform something unusual together in public for a short period of time, then melt away.

Or perhaps Tuesday night was supposed to be some sort of collective public art performance, like that of US photographer Spencer Tunick when he convinced more than 7,000 people to pose naked in public. Lights Out was, after all, spearheaded by a disgruntled expatriate artist, Alastair Robins, who had hoped to photograph the three-minute blackout.

Alas, with only a few isolated spots - like restaurants in Lan Kwai Fong and the Legislative Council building - turning off their lights, Mr Robins' artistic vision went unrealised. CLP Power and Hongkong Electric did not detect any drop in power demand. Major companies with harbourfront offices continued to light up for the cross-harbour, government-sponsored Symphony of Lights show at 8pm.

That Mr Robins, a sculptor, was helped by Lamma 'hippies' and some beautiful people from Lan Kwai Fong, probably made it more difficult for the campaign to gain mainstream or grass-roots status. As laudable as the effort was, a real campaign requires sustainable strategies - not just slogans, posters and performance art. What do the people behind it propose to do now? One thing they could do is to join forces with some of our schoolchildren. More than 200 schools are now taking part in the annual 'No Air-conditioning Day', when primary and secondary schools switch off air conditioners and turn on fans.

While Mr Robins was only asking us to turn the lights off for three minutes, thousands of children have volunteered to go without air-conditioning for a whole day. In heat over 30 degrees Celsius, that is a noble gesture.

Since last year, the Environmental Protection Department has been asking companies to keep their office thermostats set at 25.5 degrees. That drive was further publicised last month when Mr Tsang took off his bow tie and asked others to take off their suit jackets and ties, as well.

More companies are turning up the temperatures in their air-conditioned offices and allowing workers to go without the traditional heat-trapping attire.

According to the department, air conditioning consumes about one-third of the energy used every year in Hong Kong. It is also a major factor in the greenhouse effect, which is blamed for global warming. Essentially, air conditioning pushes indoor heat outdoors. That requires generating electricity, which produces pollutants and greenhouse gases. These, in turn, warm up the atmosphere.

So, cutting down the use of air conditioners is at least as important, if not more so, than turning off the lights.

We all know the air is bad in Hong Kong, as surely as we know that smoking kills. It's about time we learned to work together, instead of carrying out our little pet projects and insisting everyone else join them.

Alex Lo is a columnist and senior reporter at the Post