I recently attended a function hosted by a local business organisation and, at the end of it, everyone was asked how they had travelled to the event. Had they driven or walked, and how long had it taken? The organisers were adding up the estimated carbon dioxide emissions involved with the gathering in order to offset them so the event would not make a net increase to global warming.
This is a new practice in Hong Kong. But, in many western countries, carbon offsetting is catching on. People and organisations voluntarily offset their personal emissions by paying for new woodlands to be planted or for clean energy facilities, such as solar power panels, to be fitted somewhere.
My initial feeling was that this was basically a gesture. It might make people feel better about flying or using air-conditioning, but it probably won't make a difference to global climate change. In fact, not everyone supports carbon offsetting. The organisations which sell offsets are not always regulated. They should put your money into energy saving or forestry projects that wouldn't otherwise have taken place - but there might well be some scams going on.
Some other commentators are even more hostile. They say that carbon offsetting is just a cop-out. The rich of the world can simply pay to carry on using energy and other resources inefficiently, rather than find ways to reduce what they consume to sustainable levels.
Hong Kong produces 0.147 per cent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, so we might think it is irrelevant whether we reduce carbon emissions or not. But that number ignores the output from the factories we own on the mainland. It also ignores the greenhouse gases produced when goods are manufactured and transported overseas before being delivered here for us to consume.
Most of all, perhaps, even the low levels of emissions we generate locally do not seem low at all when they are confined in a small area and are accompanied by other very noticeable pollutants. The various gases and particles produced by our power stations, vehicles and shipping are also probably a tiny percentage of the world's total. But that doesn't make it any better when you look across a hazy harbour, or breathe the air in our urban areas.
Giving quick details of my travel arrangements to the organisers of that meeting made me think. It is not the first small-scale personal action I have taken like this. I make a point of switching the car engine off when the vehicle is stationary. My family and I try to avoid getting plastic bags in shops. But I often wonder if there is much point. Am I really changing anything?
Obviously, every little bit helps. But the true value of relatively small-scale activity of this sort is surely in raising awareness. That in turn should raise expectations across the community for larger-scale action at corporate and government levels.
The Climate Group, the WWF, Norton Rose and the Business Environment Council are holding a workshop today in Hong Kong on carbon neutrality and carbon markets. It follows similar Climate Group workshops in London, New York, San Francisco, Sydney and Melbourne. In particular, attendees will be hearing updates from experts about the situation on the mainland.
The mainland is a black spot for emissions, but the national leadership is starting to set tough targets to get the problem under control. This makes the mainland a fast-emerging leader in developing a large-scale carbon market. There are, in fact, some serious opportunities ahead for Hong Kong companies which can supply high-quality carbon credits to provide major financial incentives for companies to adopt cleaner processes.
If small individual gestures can help us to think on this scale, they will make a much bigger difference than we might think.
Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council and a legislator representing the insurance functional constituency