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Clock Ticking On Pollution Bomb

Spending now on energy-saving initiatives will have long-term benefits for businesses, their customers and the city

May George – SCMP – Updated on Jul 23, 2008

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warned recently that only seven years remained for stabilising emissions of global-warming gases at a level that could be considered safe. The head of the United Nations’ panel of climate scientists asked the European Union to lead the way in global talks on tackling climate change.

In Hong Kong there are no caps on carbon dioxide emissions because there is no legislation forcing individuals and businesses to act. Ask a Hongkonger what he or she cites as the most immediate environmental problem in the city and most likely it won’t be global warming – instead it will be air pollution.

Richard Welford, deputy director of the corporate environmental governance programme at University of Hong Kong and a founder and chairman of non-profit organisation CSR Asia, said air pollution was very much linked to climate change, which was an immediate problem.

Many companies in Hong Kong and the mainland are not only looking for ways to reduce their own carbon emissions, but are also looking at the huge business opportunities available in the environmental arena.

“There are some great business opportunities in Hong Kong and in the Asia region to help the mainland, which is dealing a lot of the time with old machinery, to become more energy efficient,” said Edwin Lau Che-feng, director of Friends of the Earth Hong Kong.

“There is good potential for businesses. Energy efficiency technology is a very practical way to help companies and households become more environmentally friendly and to save costs.”

Local companies have turned to manufacturing LED lighting, small and large wind turbines, and flower pots made from starch and bamboo rather than plastic, to name just a few of the initiatives. While the majority of this is being exported to European and North American markets, it shows that Hong Kong companies have cottoned on to the money that can be made out of the environment.

Never slow to see a market opportunity, banks and financial institutions generally are also trading carbon emissions. Some, such as Goldman Sachs, treat them the same as any other commodity on the market.

The big boon for the environment has been the sharp upturn in the price of oil, making renewable energy – which up until now was seen as a somewhat expensive alternative – more palatable.

“The first step with climate change, is to reduce energy use,” Professor Welford said. “And, with energy becoming expensive, it’s a win-win situation. Companies need to start measuring what their carbon emissions are.

“Very few Hong Kong companies are doing this. It’s relatively easy – you basically look at all your energy consumption and then multiply it by a number that results in your carbon emissions.

“Once they have measured their carbon emissions, then they will know what they need to start reducing.

“Most companies run a one electricity bill system, so they don’t know where their energy efficiency improvements are. They need to do a carbon/energy audit.”

At the same time, as individuals are being urged to switch their lights and computers off when they are not using them and not to idle their car engines – preferably not to have cars at all – companies are seeing the dollar signs involved in creating environmentally friendly offices and green buildings, saving the firm money but also making them more attractive to their customers.

One company which caught on to this phenomenon early is Sino Property Services (SPS), a property management arm of the Sino Group. Sunny Yeung Kwong, associate director of Sino Group and head of SPS, described how Sino Plaza commercial building in Causeway Bay recently won a gold award for energy saving from the government’s Electrical and Mechanical Services Department.

“Four years ago we changed from an air-cooled air-conditioner system to a water-cooled air-conditioner system. We paid HK$5million for it, but every year we are saving and we see it as a very exciting example of what can be done that we want to share with others,” Mr Yeung said.

The water-cooled air-conditioning system saves 40 per cent of energy consumption and is saving Sino Property HK$1million in electricity bills per year.

Other initiatives touted by Sino Property include a recently launched Green Academy, the first of its kind in the property industry. One hundred green ambassadors of the company are commissioned to promote green management and awareness to the public throughout the 180 Sino-managed properties. The target is to provide comprehensive energy saving and environmental training to more than 6,700 property management employees, plus Sino Property’s business partners, clients and tenants.

Other green building initiatives introduced by Sino Property have included replacing more than 10,000 sets of fluorescent lamps, saving between 30 and 45 per cent of the electricity used in the process. Sino also replaced 4,000 sets of its conventional exit light boxes with LED type boxes last year, saving 80 per cent of the electricity used.

“In Hong Kong, we do have this Building Environmental Assessment Method standard, which is completely voluntary,” Professor Welford said.

“What’s happened in Singapore is that they have taken those voluntary standards and insisted on having them, and I think that is something that Hong Kong could look towards.

“[In Singapore] you don’t get building permission until you can show that your building is energy efficient. So that means building in proper energy systems, windows that reflect light and solar energy.

“Singapore does have its own climate change strategy. And they are doing things that the Hong Kong government ought to be doing, including requiring buildings to be energy efficient. So all new buildings will have to live up to a certain standard of energy efficiency [otherwise you won’t get building permission]. Now that’s a very tangible thing that could be done in Hong Kong.”

He said that developers, such as Swire Properties, were putting energy efficiency in place.

“Pacific Place Three is a good example of this.”

Another plus point of green buildings, as signified by some of the programmes introduced by Sino Group and Swire Properties, is that customers look for quality when looking where to put their shops.

“On the one hand it costs more money [to make it a green building], but on the other you get a better quality building which you can rent out for more money, because there are firms now that say `we want these and we will pay for it’. They are better managed in terms of recycling programmes and air-conditioning.

“And there are better companies out there, like Marks & Spencer, who will pay a higher premium for a better quality building.

“So there are costs, but you can get a better revenue, by having [those costs],” Professor Welford said.

While climate change is a massive issue for the world, Professor Welford said it was not just up to businesses and lethargic governments to effect change in this region. “We’ve got to put pressure on individuals. Pushing business is only part of the solution. [We’ve got to push individuals] and make them look at their own habits. Getting people to switch lights off, switch air-conditioning off, switch computers off. Individuals don’t want to discomfort themselves,” he said.

There’s seven years to go to safely tackle climate change, according to the UN’s chief climate change researcher – and the clock is ticking.

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