How many earths do we need, if the rest of the world consumed as much as Hong Kong?

With the second largest ecological footprint in Asia and wildlife populations on the decline, it’s time for some self-reflection in the city, experts say

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 November, 2016, 9:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 November, 2016, 5:53pm

Hongkongers consume so much that if everyone else in the world lived like us, we would need almost four Planet Earths to sustain us.

Hong Kong’s ecological footprint per capita, or the area required to sustain a person’s use of natural resources, has reached a historic high, according to a study by conservation body WWF, released last week. The city’s footprint is the second largest in Asia, behind Singapore, and 17thin the world.

About 3.9 earths would be needed to sustain humanity’s lifestyle if everyone consumed at the same rate as Hongkongers, the report said.

The city’s footprint grew to 6.7 global hectares (gha) per person this year from 5.4 gha in 2014, when we would have needed three Planet Earths if everyone in the world lived like Hongkongers. Global hectares measure the average productivity of land and sea areas.

Worldwide, the average footprint per capita is 2.8 gha and we would need 1.6 earths to support this rate, the study showed.

Allen To Wai-lun, assistant manager of WWF-Hong Kong’s Footprint Programme, said although there were minor changes to the study’s methodology, the results clearly show a trend of unsustainable consumption.

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Daily consumption by individuals, households and businesses are responsible for 76 per cent of Hong Kong’s footprint – 57 per cent of which comprises consumption involving personal transport, food, clothing, electricity, gas and other fuels.

The largest portion is made up of local carbon dioxide emissions and the carbon embodied in the products we use, many of which are imported.

“We buy too much stuff. We don’t have a sense of connecting our consumption to the deteriorating environment,” To said. “Changing the lifestyles of people is not easy. But to alleviate [this problem] we need to consume less, and consume wisely.”

According to To, the city’s growing footprint can be attributed to fast fashion trends and meat consumption. The trend of readily available clothing at cheaper prices increased our cotton consumption, causing us to use more cropland, he said.

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Added to that, increased meat consumption, particularly beef, has also led to more greenhouse gas emissions and contributed to climate change. The city also imports seafood from over 170 territories worldwide, ranking second in Asia and seventh globally in terms of per capita seafood consumption.

Ng Cho-nam, associate professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong, said cities usually had lower productivity due to lack of natural resources, and a high rate of consumption. This impacts their ecological footprint. Although countries like Australia consume lots of resources, their net deficit is small because they also produce a lot, according to Ng.

“When comparing a city with a country, then the city will have a bigger deficit as cities are the biggest places for consumption,” Ng said.

“We rely heavily on consuming imported goods. We enjoy cheap stuff, and then we export the pollution. We also have a huge number of tourists, [which] are top consumers,” Ng added.

In recent years, overexploitation, pollution, habitat loss and other consequences of unsustainable consumption has led to the deterioration of wildlife, fisheries and natural environments, as well as increased carbon accumulation in the atmosphere, WWF said.

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Global wildlife populations could decline by more than two-thirds by 2020 compared to 1970 levels, WWF’s Living Planet Report 2016 showed. Between 1970 and 2012, populations of fish, mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians decreased by 58 per cent.

Local wildlife populations have also deteriorated. Numbers of the Hong Kong grouper have declined by 63 per cent in two decades, and the fish is now an endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – an inventory of the conservation status of species. Another fish, the golden threadfin bream, has decreased by 30 per cent in 10 years, while the three-striped box turtle is now critically endangered.

“Hong Kong certainly plays a role in wildlife trading through legal and illegal means [through the] consumption of shark fins, some coral reef fish, pets, reptiles, corals and more,” Ng said. “There are lots of wild birds being traded in Hong Kong, as well as animals whose body parts are used for traditional Chinese medicine like tigers and rhinos.”

In February, the Consumer Council released a report showing that 75 per cent of Hongkongers are prepared to pay more for sustainable products. But the government had yet to take adequate action, activist groups said. Now, the city’s Council for Sustainable Development is also conducting a public consultation that ends on November 15, seeking views on how to make our consumption more sustainable.

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According to Ng, since the government is one of Hong Kong’s biggest consumers, it should include more products such as building materials under its green purchasing policy, to ensure that it takes the lead in sustainable consumption. More stringent labelling systems for green products would also allow consumers to make informed decisions, he added.

Allen To from WWF-Hong Kong said the government should provide incentives for consumers and businesses to trade and consume in a more sustainable manner. The city could take up green credit systems that are now being used in countries like South Korea, where consumers can receive points and other rewards when buying green products. They can then use the rewards to purchase other sustainable items or take public transport, he said.

Edwin Lau Che-fung, executive director of eco-friendly charity Green Earth, echoed the sentiments and urged the government to implement legislation to increase sustainability and reduce waste levels – such as more producer responsibility schemes requiring manufacturers, distributors and retailers to share the duty of collecting, recycling, treating and disposing products.

“There is still a lot of room for our government to take aggressive action towards lowering the ecological footprint for the whole of Hong Kong,” Lau said. “We are currently using the resources that we are borrowing from our future generations.”

WHAT IS AN ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT?

The ecological footprint refers to the total area required to sustain a person or community’s use of natural resources and shows their impact on the environment.

DEMAND AREAS:

  • Cropland for producing food and fibre, including oil crops and rubber
  • Grazing land for raising livestock
  • Fishing grounds for marine and inland water ecosystems to generate primary production, which supports seafood catch and aquaculture
  • Forest for providing fuel wood, timber products and pulp
  • Built-up land or biologically productive areas for infrastructure
  • Forests as primary ecosystems for long-term storage or sequestration of carbon to slow or reverse the build-up of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere

FACTORS:

  • Daily consumption of seafood and meat
  • Daily consumption of timber and paper products
  • Carbon dioxide emissions including those resulting from the trade of goods

Source: WWF-Hong Kong

CONSEQUENCES OF HUMAN ACTIVITY

WILDLIFE

On average, some monitored animal species declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012 as a result of unsustainable agriculture, mining, fisheries and other human activities. The population sizes of vertebrate species dropped by more than half in just over 40 years, with an average annual decline of 2 per cent.

TROPICAL FORESTS AND GRASSLANDS

As of 2000, 45.8 per cent of the world’s temperate grasslands and 48.5 per cent of the world’s tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forest habitats have been converted for human use.

FRESHWATER ENVIRONMENTS

Freshwater habitats have been damaged by pollution, dams, invasive aquatic species and unsustainable water extractions. Freshwater accounts for only 0.01 per cent of the world’s water, but it is home to nearly 10 per cent of the world’s known species.

MARINE LIFE

Between 1970 and 2012, marine life experienced an overall decline of 36 per cent. Overfishing is the most common threat to fish populations, and 31 per cent of global fish stocks are overfished.

CORAL REEFS

Three-quarters of the world’s coral reefs are now threatened and facing large-scale extinction as a result of mass bleaching and acidification. Although reefs cover less than 0.1 per cent of the ocean, they support over 25 per cent of all marine fish species. Threats to reefs include greenhouse gases, pollution, overfishing and coastal development.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Changes in temperature can confound signals for seasonal events such as reproduction and migration, causing them to occur at the wrong time. Some species will also have to adapt by shifting their migration range in search of suitable climate.

Source: Living Planet Report 2016 by WWF-Hong Kong in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and Global Footprint Network