A silver lining in the cloud over China’s environmental challenges
Axel Schweitzer says despite the scale of mainland China’s and Hong Kong’s environmental problems, policymakers are slowly but surely responding to public demands for sustainability
Daily, we are confronted by shocking statistics on the breadth and depth of China’s pollution challenges. Be it air, soil or water contamination, the problems seem overwhelming and depressing. Here in Hong Kong, we also face multiple environmental issues that directly affect our lives.
Business as usual is clearly unsustainable. There is growing recognition of this fact by individuals, communities, businesses and governments. Encouragingly, in both Hong Kong and mainland China, we are now seeing the emergence of a favourable policy landscape that will help address these challenges.
China’s new five-year plan places a heavy emphasis on environmental improvement, requiring greater reductions in the emissions of many pollutants. Its emissions trading programme will expand from seven pilots to nationwide coverage by 2017. China’s place as a world leading manufacturer of wind and solar energy is likely to continue into the future.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the government is executing its Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources with a goal of achieving 55 per cent recycling of waste by 2022 and improving the city’s waste infrastructure. In part, these goals are aimed at reducing the city’s reliance on landfill sites, which are rapidly reaching capacity and will require extension.
Each year, Hong Kong households and businesses throw away more than 70,000 tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment, including televisions, refrigerators and computers. That’s almost 10kg per man, woman and child living in our city. This waste contains valuable and harmful materials which, if not properly treated or disposed of, are hazardous to the environment and human health.
The Hong Kong government must be applauded for tackling this issue head-on through the implementation of a producer responsibility scheme for waste electrical and electronic equipment. It means that when a piece of electrical or electronic equipment is sold in Hong Kong, the supplier will pay a recycling fee to help fund the collection and recycling of the product at the end of its life. As part of the new scheme, a treatment and recycling facility for such waste is being built in Tuen Mun. It will be tasked with recycling up to 56,000 tonnes of this type of waste each year.
In my home country of Germany, the introduction of a producer responsibility scheme in the 1990s was a watershed moment that helped transform Germany into a world leader in waste management. Being in Hong Kong, I often hear from people that China’s pollution problems are intractable. I do not agree. It is worth remembering that Germany in the 1970s was one of the most polluted countries on the planet, yet today it leads the world in green technology and environmental best practice.
While there are undoubtedly major challenges, it is my view that China will soon be a world leader in this field, achieving its environmental transformation in a shorter time frame than Germany was able to. China has the opportunity to adopt the latest technology that can extract all recyclables from waste streams and turn the remaining waste into green fuel pellets. It can leapfrog other countries by moving from incineration of waste to third-generation treatment in one go and avoid Germany’s mistakes.
Advanced waste management and recycling technologies will also allow China to reduce its reliance on raw material imports as industry captures resources currently buried in landfills for reuse.
I believe the future looks bright for the environment in China. The public has an appetite for a cleaner, more liveable environment and policymakers have started to respond with positive, concrete action. However, we must remain vigilant to ensure consistent progress towards sustainability, no matter what economic cycle we find ourselves in. We need to achieve the golden triangle – strong leadership from our governments, implementation of effective solutions by industry and maintaining the support of the population.
Dr Axel Schweitzer is co-CEO of Alba Group, a world leading German waste management and recycling company which has been awarded the contract to run Hong Kong’s waste electrical and electronic equipment recycling facility. Dr Schweitzer lives in Hong Kong