Paler shade of green

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 September, 2008, 12:00am

A confession: I write frequently about climate change, yet am not by any stretch of the imagination the environment's best friend. Far from it; I could do better when it comes to recycling, I turn to air conditioning too often, buy most of my food from supermarkets and have a tendency to opt for the convenience of taxis over public transport. My 15-year-old refrigerator is helping destroy ozone, lights are sometimes left carelessly on and my holidays involve the burning of highly polluting jet fuel. The greenies among us would probably categorise me as an environmental fiend.

This is not to say I do not care. I feel guilty each time I am wasteful, yet know it would take a significant lifestyle shift to change my ways. Given my obvious complex about the matter, I therefore felt somewhat relieved to find out this week that it seems a good number of people who believe they have the greenest lifestyles are capable of being among the worst culprits when it comes to global warming.

A study of 200 people, led by researchers from Britain's Exeter University, found that those who recycle and go out of their way to conserve energy at home were also the most likely to take holidays in far-flung locations. The carbon emissions from the long-haul flights they took made the savings at home irrelevant. Head researcher Stewart Barr told a climate change conference at the university that only a small number of people matched their eco-friendly ways by refusing to board planes for holidays.

Comfortable lifestyles and being environmentally responsible do not easily meld. Affluence brings expectations for bigger and better. In the US, the per-person size of houses increased from 476 sq ft in 1970 to 800 sq ft in 2000 - which meant a considerably bigger need for energy for heating, cooling and cleaning. Because expectations for family homes are upwards of 3,000 sq ft, the only space available to build them is in the sprawling suburbs - which means large petrol bills and greater vehicle pollution levels from the daily commutes to work, schools and shops.

If we were wholly committed to the natural world, we would live in old, small flats close to shops and public transport. Our possessions would be second-hand. We would put up with difficult marriages rather than get divorced - one household is more energy efficient than two - and live in communes, where resources can be pooled. This obviously does not meet the expectations of the majority of people in developed societies.

A citizen with the greenest of credentials, Friends of the Earth Hong Kong director Edwin Lau Che-feng, has answers. A caring attitude for what is around us is at the root and this must permeate all aspects of our life. With this mindset, relatives, friends and colleagues will be affected. The solution is a long-term one in which our negative impact on the environment will gradually shift.

So, to the specifics. Mr Lau, 50, lives with his four-member family in a high-floor flat of just under 1,000 sq ft. He shops in wet markets rather than supermarkets, knowing that the food there has not travelled thousands of kilometres to get to the shelves. He is an avid recycler, although feels bad whenever he throws away items that cannot be readily reused, such as soy sauce bottles (there is no glass recycling in Hong Kong). Air-conditioners only get used at night to make sleeping comfortable or on very hot days. He uses the tram from his Wan Chai office whenever he can and goes on overseas holidays only every second year or so. He switches off electrical appliances when they are not being used because standby mode burns electricity.

Following Mr Lau's lead takes a shift of thinking, but it is achievable. But, as inspiring as he may be, he is not high-profile enough to be influential throughout society. Nor does anyone readily come to mind; our government is too discredited and individuals are flawed, whether through business connections, political affiliations or a perceived shallowness of character. Until someone comes forward who is universally loved and respected to take the mantle of 'green guru', Hong Kong will remain generally indifferent towards its surroundings.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor