Chinese people just planted a forest as big as a country

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9 notable stories from the road to making this region a zero carbon zone

CHINESE PEOPLE JUST planted a forest as big as a country. The huge area of freshly planted trees is 36,000 square kilometers, the size of Belgium.

And that’s just this year.

China is planting that many trees every year until at least 2025.

Are the figures real and is the process working? Yes. A recent study published in Nature, the world’s top science journal, said that China’s work in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by massive tree-planting programs was not only successful, but producing measurable results which were beating all expectations.

In fact, China is now THE key player on the global energy map. The country produces 7.5 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity a year, making it the world leader by far.

Yet the average Chinese person uses less than half the electricity of the average American or Australian. At the same time, the country has become a global front-runner in wind power, hydroelectricity, and solar power.

China’s not perfect, but its work in the climate/ energy sector is worth looking at – and learning from.

China will have more trees than people; picture by Brady Bellini/ Unsplash

Below are two more underreported stories from China – and then I’ll look at six specific actions that Hong Kong people are doing.

2) GOING NUCLEAR

Many countries, including the United States and much of Europe, have soured on nuclear power. Yes, it’s clean, but it’s expensive and dangerous, right? Or is it?

China is developing a new type of experimental reactor, based on a metallic ore called thorium. It is being tested in Gansu province this month. It could be a game-changer: conclusive details are not in yet, but a number of scientists say a thorium molten-salt reactor will be smaller, cheaper, and safer, as this publication reported recently. China is ahead in this field, but others are looking to catch up.

In 2019, when a Chinese-American businessman named Andrew Yang sought to run for US President, one of his campaign messages was that he would kickstart the thorium reactor business in the United States.

It’s an intriguing divergence, to watch the west drifting away from nuclear power, while China moves towards it. Hong Kong, of course, is partly nuclear powered. Some 70 per cent of the power produced from the nuclear plant at Daya Bay on the Chinese mainland is sent to this city.

3) EAT NOODLES

My third under-reported story from this part of the world: China introduced new dietary guidelines in 2016 with the aim of cutting meat consumption in half. The idea is to change food habits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one billion tonnes, with a 2030 deadline.

Chinese food is not dominated by meat; picture by Ravi Sharma/ Unsplash

It’s interesting that this debate in the west is rather polarized, with people being told that they should adopt veganism to save the planet. In China, the debate is less binary.

The aim is for everyone to eat a healthier diet, so we all get more fruit, vegetables, and salads, but we are not being told to stop eating meat completely.

Hong Kong has a huge challenge in achieve zero carbon status; picture by Bady Abbas/ Unsplash

Now let’s turn our attention to Hong Kong. When it comes to achieving zero carbon status, my home town has perhaps  the world’s biggest challenge.

Hong Kong is, quite literally, the most high-rise city on the planet. We have more skyscrapers than London and New York put together. More than 50 per cent of Hong Kong people quite literally spend their time in the sky: they live and or work above the 15th floor.

Other cities have skyscraper office blocks, but only Hong Kong has families living in residential blocks 70 stories in the air.

Think of the electricity. Think of the elevators. Think of the air-conditioning. We also have an enormously complex transport system which enables five million passenger trips every day. In short, Hong Kong uses an immense amount of power, and is facing an immense challenge. Is there anything we can do to get things under control?

Actually, yes. Here are six:

1) USING THE LAW

First, while some developers have already adopted zero-carbon targets, others need encouragement. The government has been progressively raising the statutory energy efficiency standards, and reviewing the building energy code every 36 months. All builders have to meet these rising standards. Result? Since 2012, about 750 new buildings and 7,000 existing buildings with retro-fitted works have met the new energy efficiency standards, reducing annual emissions by more than a million tonnes a year.

Regulations are being regularly tightened to make sure developers continually raise their standards in moving towards sustainability; picture by Sean Robertson/ Unsplash

2) USING CONSUMER POWER

Hong Kong has been making people who manufacture goods label them prominently with their sustainability scores. You go buy a fridge or an air-conditioner or whatever, and it is clearly labelled with its energy efficiency number.  People have been reading these details before making their choices. The buyers win, the environment wins, and the manufacturers are encouraged to move in the right direction.

3) PROCESSING FOOD WASTE

Third, we live in a community of foodies – we love to eat and we do it all day long. As a result, food waste has become the biggest category of garbage, making up about 30 per cent of the municipal solid waste that goes in our landfills.  Again, our community is working to solve the problem. We’re running campaigns to remind people not to waste food, and to redistribute excess food to the needy when possible through NGOs.

Hong Kong is also working on hi-tech schemes that turn waste food into energy. There’s now an organic resources recovery center in North Lantau that can handle 200 tonnes of waste food every day. Similar operations are being built in Tai Po and Sha Tin.

4) GIVING TAX DISCOUNTS

The government has told businesses that if they introduce energy-efficient installations or use renewable energy sources in their buildings, they get tax concessions. Hong Kong people like to offset their tax, so this move has been very popular.

5) GIVING TOOLS TO CONSUMERS

Fifth, there are changes at consumer level, too. You know the meters in your home? Hong Kong’s two power companies are working to replace electromechanical meters with smart meters by 2025. You will have a better idea of your own energy usage and you’ll be able to fine-tune your behaviour to help the community – and save money on bills! What’s not to like?

6) REINVENTING AIRCONDITIONING

Hong Kong has been testing solutions to solve one of the biggest energy challenges of modern times: humanity’s addiction to air-conditioning. A major alternative technique, known as the district cooling system, is being tested at the Kai Tak Development, with a view to implementing it in new development areas such as the Tung Chung New Town Extension. It has been calculated that the three phases of the experiment at Kai Tak, when completed by 2025, will result in an estimated energy saving of 85 million kilowatt hours a year.

UNITING US

There’s one other beneficial aspect to this sustainability journey that I want to mention. People have been rather divisive, even polarized recently. That’s true on a local level, here in Hong Kong, and it is also true on a global level too.

But there’s one thing that we all have in common – the Earth. In a very real sense, the Earth is mother to every human being. That makes us siblings of the same mother, and I think we are all beginning to recognize that we need to work together to protect our shared parent.

To extend the metaphor slightly, it was way back in 1969 that the scientist R. Buckminster Fuller wrote: “We are all astronauts on a little spaceship called Earth.” The philosopher Marshall McLuhan agreed with the point being made, but added an important line to the thought. He said: “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”

Crew members are by definition people with a job to do.

Let’s get to work.


This article was adapted from a talk given by Andrew Young, head of innovation and technology for Sino Group, at Rethink, a conference in Hong Kong examining the steps towards achieving a zero carbon society, on October 6, 2021

LINKS: China is building new nuclear plants at a steady pace


Image at the top shows a lake and a forest in Switzerland; China has planted a forest almost as large as the land area of that country in the past year. Picture by Andreas Glucklhorn/ Unsplash

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