I bought a car a few months ago and I’m about to sell it. Why, you may ask. Obviously, there are the ludicrously high petrol prices and parking fees. But I’ve also come to realise that driving is terrible for the Earth – I just didn’t realise how bad until recently.
The summer heat was unbearable at the landfill where I worked. Tuesday, September 13, was the hottest day logged for the month since records began in 1884. The mercury hit 35.9 degrees Celsius at the Observatory’s headquarters. The previous record was … in the previous week!
“Climate change is getting out of hand,” I thought. Defeated, I sat down and searched on my phone for a carbon footprint tracker as sweat dripped onto the screen. I was horrified to discover that driving accounted for a third of my carbon footprint.
In Hong Kong, road transport contributed 19.7 per cent of carbon emissions in 2020, similar to the global scale. There are almost 1 million registered vehicles in the city, and 70 per cent of those are private cars.
The government could do more to limit the number of vehicles on the road. Fuel prices are already among the highest in the world, thanks to fuel tax. However, as Mike Rowse wrote back in 2019, we could learn from Singapore’s car permit system.
According to the carbon footprint tracker, my other main sources of emissions were household electricity, meat consumption and flights.
One should note, utility companies CLP Power and HK Electric recently shifted to natural gas and cleaner coal plants. And around 25 per cent of our electricity already comes from the Daya Bay nuclear plant, a near zero-emission source. Greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation in the city fell by 22 per cent between 1997 and 2020.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s meat consumption per capita is among the highest in the world. I, too, am guilty of overeating meat – I am not averse to a good steak, even at a cha chaan teng. I would do well to learn from my Indian friends, who come from a country where vegetarianism is widely practised and many are vegetarians or vegans out of principle.
But I can’t imagine eating salads or Buddhist cuisine all the time. For people like me, we simply have to order or cook less meat. Plant-based meat doesn’t appeal, and lab-grown meat seems dubious to me. Thinking about the animal cruelty in factory farms might help – if I had to witness what went on, I’d probably become vegan the next day.
But by far the most significant source of carbon from me was aeroplane flights. The long-haul flight I took a few months back enlarged my footprint to over 10 times the Hong Kong average (from “just” double. I really do live in a glass house)!
From an environmental point of view, it makes sense for airlines to have dedicated fuel efficiency teams. Stories abound of how airlines can save hundreds of thousands of dollars on fuel costs annually just by removing peanuts from flights.
The emphasis is on the dollars, of course. Saving the environment is probably just an afterthought for airlines, unfortunately.
Still, aviation accounts for less than 2 per cent of global emissions. The main culprits are energy use in buildings and industry, as well as road transport and agriculture.
Carbon neutrality does not mean reducing emissions to zero. The target is net zero. We can achieve this by offsetting our emissions. One option in Hong Kong is donating to trustworthy charities that promote carbon reduction, such as through planting trees, rehabilitating mangrove areas or sending fuel-efficient cookstoves to Kenya.
Direct air capture companies extract carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then pump it deep underground safely and permanently. Decarbonisation technologies such as these provide hope for “negative emissions” in the future.
Some believe promoting a net zero goal will only lead to a “burn now, pay later” mentality and set us up for disaster. Instead, they advocate the more aggressive approach of ending fossil fuel exploration and expansion, and phasing out existing production – the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative.
The Paris Agreement targets – especially limiting the increase in global temperature to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – hinge on how quickly we can move away from burning fossil fuels for energy. But the battle to secure our future and our children’s begins with us as individuals.
Clement Chan is a full-time landfill engineer and freelance copywriter and translator