Climate change

Watch your step

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 December, 2009, 12:00am

Do you have any idea what kind of carbon footprint your family or business is leaving? Some 700 certified auditors stand ready in Hong Kong to tell us the inconvenient truth about the impact we're having on the environment, particularly on climate change.

That's a surprisingly large number of professionals when many people here have yet to embrace or grasp the concept of carbon audits. Some even equate efforts to measure carbon footprints with gauging energy use. But green campaigners see it as a first step towards checking climate change.

The idea is that through holistic analysis of our carbon footprints - the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the course of providing a product or service, or running a home - we can devise better strategies to reduce our environmental impact.

'It's not easy getting companies to think of carbon auditing on a voluntary basis,' says Catherine Touzard, a certified auditor.

'But if you don't have a real measure of fuel emissions, with a breakdown of emissions by source, you can't be as effective in your reduction attempts. You might end up wasting a lot of time for a result that is not even measurable or acknowledged.'

Carbon audits can be dirty work. While conducting an assessment for the French International School this spring, Touzard rummaged through rubbish bins throughout the building to analyse what was being thrown out and interviewed canteen staff, maintenance workers and students to gauge what resources were being used daily.

Among her discoveries was that about 50 untouched meals were thrown out in the cafeteria every day. Because the caterer was required to offer two menu options daily, it cooked extra to ensure that both choices were available, leading to large quantities of leftovers.

She had a simple solution: ask students to choose their meal in advance. And to reduce greenhouse gas generated in food production, she urged the caterers to incorporate more local produce into the menu.

Touzard, who holds graduate degrees in macroeconomics and risk analysis, became a carbon auditor two years ago. She obtained certfications from the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and from a course taught by French environmentalist Jean-Marc Jancovici, sometimes dubbed the pioneer of carbon auditing.

The Certified Carbon Auditor Professional (CAP) qualification issued by the Hong Kong Association of Energy Engineers is the most common local credential. It is adapted from a US programme and the association has certified about 140 people.

But association president Dr Roger Lai Sze-hoi says Hong Kong has up to 700 carbon auditors with various certifications. There are graduates from the Open University of Hong Kong's professional course in carbon auditing, and the local branch of the British-based Energy Institute offers a course adapted in collaboration with the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers.

Auditors are mostly environmental services professionals already engaged in initiating reduction programmes and staff training for companies seeking to boost their green credentials. Government guidelines on carbon audits issued last year prompted some action, but some say the Environmental Protection Department recommendations merely pay lip service to the idea.

'It's good for the government to encourage building [managers] to do something, but there can be a lot of improvement,' says Dr Shelley Zhou Wenwen, an auditor at consultancy Carbon Care Asia.

'For example, there is no requirement for measuring food wastage or public transport.'

The government should take a more active role in integrating carbon auditing into the local culture, she says.

A civil engineer with a doctorate in environmental engineering, Zhou has undertaken assessments for NGOs and businesses including hotels and printing companies. She usually takes five days to conduct an audit, although that can vary with the size of the operation and depth of analysis required.

The major contributor to businesses' carbon footprint tends to be energy use, Zhou says, but there are also unexpected sources. At one manufacturing plant, she found volatile organic (carbon-based) chemicals being released from furnishings. At a hotel, the use of luxury shuttles added considerably to its tally of greenhouse gas emissions.

To help offset the impact, Zhou recommended changes in the hotel's lighting, air conditioning and water-cooling systems. But her client decided the returns from solar panels would take too long to justify the investment.

Helen Roeth, a project manager at environmental consultancy CSR Asia and the head of its carbon audit division, says while the official guidelines are a good start, the government needs to go much further. 'Some methodologies provided [for quantifying greenhouse gas emissions] are rather simplistic and can be misleading,' she says.

Local auditors are left to devise their own standards for measurement because carbon auditing is so new in Hong Kong. They can't adopt systems used in Europe because Hong Kong has a different set-up, Touzard says. It doesn't produce its own food, for instance.

At CSR Asia, the auditing team combines standards set by the ISO and the World Resources Institute, a US environmental think tank.

Dr Michael Leung Kwok-hi, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Hong Kong, says many companies don't bother with carbon audits because they do not immediately lead to cost reductions. 'This is a hurdle, especially when the economy is not so strong.'

Audit charges can vary considerably, depending on whether clients require staff training and software development and on the number and kind of emission sources and operations being covered. An audit of a commercial building may cost between HK$50,000 and HK$150,000.

Touzard, however, believes the audit cost can be recouped within a year and a half if clients heed expert advice on carbon reduction.

'It's actually very reasonable if you think about savings in the long run,' she says. 'Not to mention all the intangible benefits of saving the environment.'

Towngas is encouraged by the assessment last year of its 40 buildings, including two production plants, headquarters, and service centres.

'You need to know your baseline and where the carbon is generated before you can do anything effectively,' says Victor Kwong Chiu-ling, the company's health, safety and environment manager. Based on the audit, Kwong and his colleagues estimate that the company has already reduced its carbon emissions by about 17 per cent over the past three years. Attitudes are also shifting. Roeth, for instance, reports an increasing interest in carbon audits in Hong Kong and the rest of the region.

At CCA, which provides services from measurement, reduction and offsetting - carbon audits still account for less than a third of business, says executive director Dr Trini Leung Wing-yue.

'But interest definitely has increased,' Leung says, 'especially from this time last year, when the economy was bad and people told us they were more concerned with staying in business.

'There's been a lot more interest in carbon auditing in the past six months as the economy has picked up. Also there's been a lot of visibility from emissions-related news coming out of China and the US, and now from Copenhagen.'

Touzard, too, is getting busier. She has just begun assessing a client's home, and will be conducting an audit of The Peak School next year for the English Schools Foundation.

'The family is willing to invest in solar panels and renewable-energy items, but they want to see the impact of their home first,' she says.

Jenny Quinton, who chairs the environmental group of the English Schools Foundation, is looking forward to an assessment of their efforts, after years of campaigns such as tree-planting and paper recycling. 'Once you can see what the results are, you'll know what actions to take - should we look into a green roof, procurement, or cut down on overseas trips?' she says.

'The little [children] are positive and ready to get going with practical solutions straight away. Teenagers are also shining lights when they're sufficiently informed. But initially, many feel depressed and disempowered after seeing the wide gap in thinking between global efforts and the general apathy of the Hong Kong government. Many teenagers think the adult world is just fiddling.'