Generation 40s – 四十世代

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People-first transport system eludes Hong Kong even as other cities race ahead

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-07

Peter Kammerer finds it hard to understand why, with its wealth of information and financial resources, the Hong Kong government is not adopting any of the bold ideas that are giving advanced societies cleaner air and a higher standard of living

 

Hong Kong’s top officials travel the world for meetings and to look for new ideas. They see and experience the best and our trillions of dollars in spare cash makes it easy for them to adapt and adopt.

Yet, on any given working day at rush hour, our so-called premier districts of Central and Causeway Bay are bottlenecks of people and vehicles, congested, polluted and unpleasant. The conclusion can only be either that the people who run the city on our behalf don’t much care about us or that they’re part of the sector of society that prizes cars as a status symbol.

It’s a different story in major cities in Europe and North America, where there’s a push for people-first downtowns. Roads are being given over to pedestrians and cyclists and, increasingly, electric cars. Public transport systems are being expanded. It’s all in the name of clean air, healthy living and, yes, “people first”.

Even Singapore has caught on. The government has announced it would stop issuing additional licences for cars and motorbikes from [2]February, keeping growth at zero per cent, because there simply wasn’t enough land for more roads. The move is in addition to taxes and fees that make car ownership in the island nation among the world’s most expensive.

Hong Kong has the same land scarcity problem, but our car numbers are going up. Some 11,955 additional private vehicles were registered from January to August, compared to 15,151 for all of 2016. Hong Kong has long been near the top of global lists of cities with the most vehicles per kilometre of road. Street-level air pollution hits unhealthy levels in the busiest districts numerous times a year.

There aren’t any new plans to make changes, either. A much-delayed road tunnel from Central to Causeway Bay has long been touted as the solution to congestion on Hong Kong Island. It has been given as the reason there’s no need to introduce electronic road pricing in Central; there’s no alternative route, the explanation goes, so no need to follow in the footsteps of Singapore, London and others.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan doesn’t even see any urgency about raising the first-registration tax for new car purchases, believing it to be a last resort and favouring soft approaches like discouraging ownership by making public transport more user-friendly. Keep in mind that this is a man who contended last month that car ownership was rising because young people were unable to afford homes and were buying cars instead to “ let body and soul wander off once in a while”. Well, if this is the guy in charge, those of us who want a better city are obviously fated to be bitterly disappointed.

But let’s be positive and believe that our government has our needs and desires at heart. Our leaders may be unelected, but they’re among the highest-paid officials in the world and they’re using our tax money, so they have an obligation to do right by us, surely. I’m not being naive here, simply mindful that a refusal to get with global trends will make Hong Kong ever more backward in the eyes of potential expatriates, tourists and forward-looking residents.

For inspiration, think Singapore or Vancouver, where a 10-year vision for better transport is under way. We can go even better with Oslo. The Norwegian capital is on course to keep its inner-city car-free by 2019. Paris, Madrid, Dublin and Milan have similar, though smaller-scale, plans. In Oslo, the first of its on-street parking will go later this year, to be replaced by wider footpaths and cycle lanes. The focus is on walking, cycling and public transport. This is the future we need, not more of the same and worse.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post

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China accelerates towards a driverless future as Hong Kong stalls

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-10-26
Wilson Wong says mainland China’s intensive investment and flexible workforce make it the ‘holy grail’ for autonomous cars, in contrast to Hong Kong, where concerns about job losses dominate thinking

Today’s cities are on the precipice of a technological breakthrough, driven in part by a once-moribund automotive industry, now bolstered by revolutionary advances in microchip, sensor and artificial intelligence technologies and evolving into a cutting-edge industry dominated by hyper-intelligent networked autonomous driving systems.

The idea of an encroaching future where highly advanced driverless cars are inextricably intertwined with homes, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, offices and drones (also considered autonomous vehicles) is no longer a flight of fantasy, but imminent reality. The dawn of this sea-changing technology will significantly affect China, the world’s largest automotive market. Moreover, the Middle Kingdom has every intention of dominating this emerging field (part of its “Made in China 2025” mission) and the government has asserted that it would like to have highly, or fully, autonomous vehicles for sale by as early as 2021.

By 2026-2030, Chinese authorities plan to have some degree of automated or assisted driving system in every vehicle in the country. The sheer commercial potential of this impending technology explains China’s overwhelming interest; by 2035, the Boston Consulting Group asserts that the global driverless car market could be valued at US$77 billion (impressive, considering the industry is still nascent today).

China is blighted by reckless driving (more than 250,000 deaths annually in road accidents), pollution and massive traffic congestion, so the driverless car could be an idea whose time has come. Relative newcomers to the world of driving, many Chinese do not share the West’s love affair with it. This is clear from a 2015 World Economic Forum survey, where three-quarters of the Chinese polled said they would have no issue riding in a self-driving car, vis-à-vis half of their American counterparts.

A damaged sports car is pictured after it collided with another car on a road in Yiwu city in Zhejiang province, in April 2016. A high number of traffic accidents, coupled with ongoing congestion and pollution, have contributed to China’s interest in driverless vehicles. Photo: Imaginechina

Considering the immense scale of China’s bold autonomous vehicle ambitions, there will be no lack of doubters. For starters, laws governing autonomous vehicle use are non-existent despite the impending deadline. To be fair, the US itself is still sorting out this potential regulatory minefield.

The Chinese committee (supported by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) has only in the past year or so started examining all the infrastructure and regulatory guidelines related to autonomous driving.

Despite the obfuscation surrounding the regulatory frameworks on autonomous driving, leading Chinese technology firms such as Baidu (China’s answer to Google) have made impressive strides on the technical front. By 2016, the company said its autonomous vehicles possessed driving capabilities comparable to that of a fledgling driver; in general, many autonomous vehicles are still prone to stopping abruptly and relatively clumsy manoeuvring. In a daring act of corporate bravado, Baidu chief executive Robin Li drove his company’s yet-to-be-approved driverless vehicle across the streets of Beijing, earning the ire of authorities.

Despite the relative progress by the mainland in autonomous vehicles, Hong Kong has not made comparable advances nor does it seem to share the same ardour for this buoyant field. The Transport and Housing Bureau says most trials of driverless technology are still at the preliminary stages.

By contrast, Singapore, Hong Kong’s perennial rival, has secured the distinction of organising the world’s first trial run of six driverless taxis (albeit in a limited four-square-km area) in August 2016; the road to a driverless future is not entirely smooth, however, as one of the autonomous cabs collided with a truck barely two months after the successful trial.

In Hong Kong, as with many cities, some experts argue that the issue of acceptance rather than technology per se remains the greatest obstacle to successful widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles. In truth, it could be the technology’s capacity to inflict significant damage on the jobs front (at least in the short term) that has hampered implementation. In Hong Kong’s case, the impact of this revolutionary technology on the livelihood of the city’s 40,000 taxi drivers concerns policymakers; the same fate could await thousands of bus drivers steering Hong Kong’s extensive network of double-deckers and minibuses. Similar concerns have also been expressed about the technology’s impact on the job security of the city’s numerous delivery truck and van drivers. In a city already buffeted by skyrocketing property prices and escalating income inequality, the prospect of widespread unemployment among working-class drivers presents a tinderbox for this highly strung metropolis.

Conversely, in mainland China, with its considerably larger job market, it could be easier for displaced cab and delivery drivers to secure jobs with similar levels of pay.

In the world of autonomous driving, China is evidently the holy grail, offering a near limitless pool of commercial and scientific possibilities. The efficacious top-down approach of Chinese industrial planning and near-universal acceptance among the Chinese public has positioned the country as the future of autonomous driving; even Hong Kong’s government recognises the inevitability of autonomous driving and has taken initial steps to incorporate this development into its smart city plans.

Machine operatives fit oil feed pipes to engine blocks at the Ford Motor Company’s engine assembly plant in Dagenham, UK, on October 9. Ford’s CEO Jim Hackett has pledged accelerated work on green and driverless vehicles, but traditional carmakers like Ford and GM face stern competition from tech companies like Google, Apple and Baidu. Photo: Bloomberg

This contrasts starkly with the US (the birthplace of autonomous driving) where each of the states are laden with various significant regulations. Chinese firms continue to inject billions of dollars into autonomous vehicle R&D; in just the first quarter of 2017, China’s driverless vehicle industry attracted nearly US$1 billion in research funding.

However, some market participants urge investors to be more circumspect, as exit strategies via IPOs are not assured unless confirmed buyers are lined up. Further, they speak of irrational exuberance building up in the rejuvenated automotive industry, drawing hi-tech non-traditional players (for example, Apple, Baidu, Google, Intel and Nvidia) with immense financial and technological wherewithal; these interlopers are now fighting tooth and nail for market share with traditional industry incumbents like General Motors, Ford, Delphi, Continental and Bosch.

Moreover, Chinese authorities have yet to adequately address the considerable legal and insurance hurdles wrought by this disruptive technology’s emergence. But given the considerable spoils awaiting the victors, there is no doubt that the governments concerned in Beijing and Washington, along with their respective firms, will marshal resources to surmount any obstacle in this race.

Wilson Wong Kia Onn is an assistant professor in the Department of Accounting and Banking at Chu Hai College of Higher Education


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When will Hong Kong tackle the health menace of congested roads?

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-10-25
Barry Wilson says the government is aware of the ills of roadside pollution and even the ways to reduce it, but seems unable to summon the will and courage needed to implement the solutions

 

There is a new realisation that air quality inside buildings can significantly affect health, productivity and happiness. The same is, of course, true for outside air quality, where one in nine deaths globally results from air pollution and the high costs of remedial health care far outweigh the preventive costs.

Awareness of the health issues from emissions should be of particular concern in Hong Kong, where congested streets are common, not to mention the psychological stress resulting from noise and safety issues.

Emissions include particulates from diesel engines, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and benzene. The 2014 Hong Kong Emission Inventory Report indicates that the road transport sector is the largest local air pollution source: 60 per cent of carbon monoxide emissions come from transport.

It’s not just exhaust fumes that are hurting us; brake dust, tyre fragments and even tiny bits of road can get into the air and these make up a similar proportion of the airborne particulate matter resulting from vehicle use as exhaust emissions. This problem won’t be solved by a switch to plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles. In a study published recently in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the researchers described how vehicle-emitted metals such as copper, iron and manganese interact with acidic sulphate-rich particles already in the air to produce a toxic aerosol.

We need to start paying far more attention to air pollution caused by tyre, brake and road wear. Brake pad dust may come to be reduced through electric vehicle adoption because such vehicles mostly use regenerative braking, which usually needs no brake pads, but tyre and road dust will remain a problem.

Several countries and regions are in the process of implementing programmes to improve tyre efficiency and safety. Rating and labelling programmes along with compliance standards are important first steps. The installation of tyre pressure monitoring systems should become an effective strategy in reducing wear.

Maintaining a steady travel speed is a key factor in reducing pollutant emissions. Lower speeds require less intense wear on brakes. As well, driver behaviour in minimising unnecessary braking and avoiding excessively rapid acceleration becomes a key environmental issue. As such, traffic management features such as “stop lights and speed bumps” can adversely affect air quality. The use of traffic signal systems to improve air quality requires visionary design and committed institutional coordination that appears beyond most governments at present.

In trying to tackle vehicle emission pollution, there is really only one simple solution, and that is to reduce the number of vehicle journeys, particularly in densely populated areas. The Hong Kong Transport Department recognises this and lists a “reduction in vehicular traffic” as its primary “environmental objective”. It targets rationalising public transport services to reduce vehicular traffic and mitigate air pollution.

All well and good. However, the 10 years between 2003 and 2013 saw the overall number of road vehicles in Hong Kong increase by 30 per cent, from 524,000 to 681,000. The Transport Bureau has a responsibility to effectively manage road use, reduce congestion, promote safety and support environmental improvement measures, but unfortunately, it puts traffic efficiency over pollution as a priority. This must change.

During the above period, the average car journey speed in urban areas in fact dropped by about 11 per cent from 25.6km/h in 2003 to 22.7km/h in 2013, so it is getting nothing right.

Pedestrianisation of city centres gained popularity in Europe about 40 years ago, and is now a feature of most developed city-centre plans. The measures used include shade for paths, adopting attractive materials that dissipate heat, greening, integration with public transport and better pedestrian corridor links.

By contrast, pedestrians in Hong Kong, similar to those in developing countries, are generally poorly served. Pavements are often too narrow, inaccessible and behind barriers, in a poor state of repair or taken over by traders and parked vehicles. The consequence is that pedestrians are often forced to walk on the road. This is not only unsafe but increases proximity to exhaust emissions while contributing to impaired traffic flow, which in turn increases emissions.

The provision of adequate pedestrian facilities improves air quality by keeping traffic away from high-exposure locations and by encouraging walking as the preferred mode for short trips. Evidence shows that the integrated planning of urban land use, urban public transport and traffic management is the best basis for improving air quality in the most dense locations.

It seems the government is well aware of all the issues and potential solutions, and yet has no stomach for the fight. The 2014 report from the Transport Advisory Committee on congestion in Hong Kong highlighted that “traffic congestion will continue to erode the environment, sustainability, quality of life and competitiveness of the city and that immediate action is warranted”. That was more than three years ago, and simply led to the third resurrection of the electronic road pricing (ERP) pilot scheme for discussion, a congestion charging proposal first floated almost 30 years ago.

With limited land available in Hong Kong, the primary vision should be to reduce road capacity in the urban centres and enhance the pedestrian environment, connectivity and urban air quality as a direct means to enhancing public health and well-being. An immediate multifaceted approach which could be easily implemented at limited cost to the public is required. It could include ERP but must also focus on a clear programme of street rationalisation and pedestrianisation; the removal of on-street parking; a reduction of parking meters, along with significant and deterrent increases in meter charges; an increased level of traffic penalties; and, increased resources for enforcement.

Such measures require little capital cost, can be immediately and flexibly applied, and may have a significant impact on urban air quality and public health.

The provision of parking generates vehicle journeys. On-street parking is hostile to pedestrians and is provided at the expense of other, more productive investments in space. Where urban density is high, such as in Central District, parking is extremely capital-intensive, making its cost substantial. Most of all, the provision of parking tacitly subsidises car ownership since the vehicles are parked most of the time and ownership is easier if a car can be cheaply and reliably stored when it is not being driven. Removal of on-street parking and idling should be a simple and low-cost first step to reduce congestion.

The fight against public cigarette smoking was a long, drawn-out battle against common sense. Today, there has been an incredible shift in the social norm towards smoke-free environments; indoor workplaces and most public places, including restaurants, are now healthy places. Today, smoking is barely raised as an issue.

The battleground has now moved from indoors to out and needs similar decisive action from the government. As the youth of today like to say, “Just do it already”.

Barry Wilson is an urbanist, lecturer and professional consultant.


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China’s belt and road can lead the world to a greener future

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-06-15
Andrew Leung says the Paris climate accord is in tune with UN goals, which have much synergy with the vision of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, meaning China is well-placed to steer a global response to global warming

Following US President Donald Trump’s decision to quit the Paris Agreement on climate change, three questions of strategic import beg to be answered.

First, how will other large backers of the climate accord, like the EU, China, Japan and India, address the resultant deficit in financial and emission commitments?

Second, with financial assistance expected to be curtailed due to the US withdrawal, how can less-developed nations diversify from carbon-intensive development?

Third, what will be China’s role in all this as the world’s largest ­carbon emitter?

There is little doubt that the Paris Agreement, signed by 195 countries and ratified by 148, has won widespread support from both developed and developing countries. This outcome has been driven not only by looming climate change threats to security and livelihoods, but also by fast-growing green-economy businesses and their job-creation capacities.

It’s no wonder that American mayors, governors, academics and business leaders are rallying behind Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, to submit a plan to the UN pledging to help the US to meet its Paris commitments, regardless of Trump.

Even with Paris pledges intact, some estimates put the planet on track for warming by 2.7 to 3.7 ­degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, well over the target limit of 2 degrees. Without federal regulatory and funding support, US emissions – a fifth of the global total – are ­expected to go down by only 15 to 19 per cent by 2025, against the pledged 23 to 28 per cent, over the 2005 baseline. The withdrawal of the United States, the second-largest carbon emitter and still the world’s largest economy in nominal terms, may trigger dire global ecological consequences.

Nevertheless, the US withdrawal may not be the beginning of the end of the planet. It could, for example, spur other signatories to redouble emission pledges. Under the Paris accord, the US cannot exit until ­November 4, 2020, the day after the next presidential election. However, the Trump administration has cancelled the outstanding US$2 billion of the US$3 billion pledged by America to a Green Climate Fund to help vulnerable smaller countries. This leadership vacuum in galvanising global responses to climate change demands imaginative responses from all other signatories.

The European Union and Japan are champions of green technologies and ecological sustainability, with their cities winning many green awards. They seem on track to fulfil their Paris pledges.

Relative late starters China and India are now exceeding their voluntary emission targets. China is ­investing more in renewable energy than any other nation, pledging a further US$360 billion by 2020. ­Experts now predict that China’s carbon emissions will peak, and then begin to decline, much earlier than its 2030 target. However, if only to avoid moral hazard, it is doubtful whether these large economies will want to pick up any American shortfall without a joint global effort.

Most of the Paris signatories are less-developed countries struggling to cope. Many face challenges of poverty, poor social and physical infrastructure, and a lack of capacity to diversify from an economy that is energy-dependent, with high carbon footprints. To rid themselves of the “resource curse”, many nations in Africa, for instance, have tried to diversify into upstream or downstream “linkage industries” – but few have succeeded.

Landlocked signatories from Central Asia with massive oil and gas reserves (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) or minerals (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) remain largely unable to capitalise on their resource wealth to broaden and upgrade their economies.

While governance and other ­institutional deficits remain an ­important barrier, expanded transport and infrastructure connectivity, both with regional neighbours and the broader world, will help boost their capacity for economic transformation and ability to cope with climate change.

The question, then, is whether China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, the largest single transcontinental infrastructure initiative the world has ever known, would be a timely boon or bane for global responses to climate change.

Many Western observers have cast doubt on the Chinese initiative. Some view it as a back door to export China’s excess capacity with very large carbon footprints. Others consider it a ploy to project China’s influence, if not dominance. Still others regard it as a reinforcement of China’s position as a global hub of the world’s supply and value chain.

Few consider its potential as an anchor for global responses to ­climate change.

Infrastructure projects and trade agreements signed under the belt and road already embody green objectives and provisions. After last month’s international Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, attended by more than 20 heads of state, the Chinese government wants to ensure the initiative is in line with its environmental goals.

This is stated in the national document, “Guiding Opinion on Promoting Construction of a Green ‘One Belt One Road’” – released on April 26. Among the principles listed are building an “ecological civilisation”, promoting global ­cooperation in a low-carbon economy, ecological conservation, technological ­exchange, law enforcement, effective management, green production, free finance and green consumerism.

It’s early days yet, but some green projects related to the belt and road are already taking shape. For example, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the World Bank have co-financed a ­hydropower project in Pakistan to the tune of US$720 million, in support of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Most of the AIIB’s proposed belt and road projects for this year across Bangladesh, Indonesia and Kazakhstan involve ­renewable energy or an element of energy efficiency.

The Paris Agreement is in line with the UN’s sustainable development goals. These have much synergy with the belt and road plan, according to Aniket Shah, sustainable ­finance programme leader at the UN Sustainable ­Development Solutions Network. With closer ­coordination, and partnership with national and commercial funding institutions, further integration with the belt and road strategy will result in a new form of multilateralism, or “Globalisation 2.0”, in response to climate change.

So, while China is unwilling to take over America’s role as the world’s policeman, the country is likely to be more forthcoming in sharing leadership with a coalition of the willing, including active players such as the EU, in galvanising global support for the Paris Agreement. After all, blue skies and clean waters are part of the China Dream. For this, China is likely to use the belt and road for good measure.

Andrew K.P. Leung is an international and independent China strategist


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How China’s belt and road can pave the way to global sustainability

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-05-09

Yixiu Wu says Beijing should ensure its belt and road projects address environmental concerns, so as to shape development across three continents and leave behind a green legacy

On May 14 and 15, 28 heads of state and government leaders will convene in Beijing for the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. At a time when much of the world is recoiling into protectionism, the Belt and Road Initiative represents China’s unprecedented entry onto the global stage. A new chapter of the China story is unfolding.

The success of the initiative, which spans 65 countries, will depend on whether long-term concerns are prioritised. In the face of climate change, a transition away from fossil fuel consumption and towards environmental sustainability is imperative.

The launch of the belt and road follows three decades of rapid economic growth in China, which has been fuelled by infrastructure development and intensive energy consumption. As a result of this legacy, China’s investments in the initiative have attracted scepticism. Observers questioned whether the belt and road is merely a vessel for China to reproduce its old development model, which, despite ushering in unprecedented growth, has led to widespread environmental degradation. Such questions are valid, considering that, between 2005 and 2016, 40 per cent of China’s outbound investment was directed towards energy projects and 18 per cent to infrastructure. Moreover, environmental negligence is one of the most frequently cited complaints about Chinese companies overseas.

The Earth has reached a crisis point. Extreme weather patterns are becoming the norm, forests are shrinking, and water supplies are running dry. There is no room any more for a development model that promotes growth at the expense of the environment.

Moreover, the belt and road countries are home to some of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems and most precious carbon sink. They also use much of the world’s resources: a study conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that 38 key belt and road nations emit more than 55 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases and consume 66 per cent of global water resources.

The good news is that, within and outside China, models of sustainable development appear promising. Domestically, China has begun to decouple its economic progress from fossil fuel consumption and is now home to the world’s fastest-growing renewable energy industry. China’s coal consumption has fallen for three years running, a key factor in the flattening of global greenhouse gas emissions. Internationally, the imperative for multilateral sustainability initiatives is indisputable, as exemplified by the Paris agreement on climate change.

Shaping belt and road projects with the environment in mind makes economic sense. A focus on sustainable development will help achieve economic and political stability for China and its belt and road partners. It will improve energy efficiency and limit regional conflicts over natural resources.

The question now is how to ensure that long-term imperatives are not overlooked in favour of short-term profit. Doing so requires rules and processes, backed by high-level political resolve. It also depends on the inclusion of diverse stakeholders to assess the environmental implications of belt and road initiatives. It is crucial that China make publicly available information about the overseas belt and road projects, subjecting them to scrutiny from local and international communities.

The belt and road has the potential to shape sustainable development across three continents. The initiative is ambitious and complex. It calls for collaboration from key international actors, such as the UN, the EU and the multilateral development banks.

If wisdom and resolve prevail, three decades from now, the Belt and Road Initiative will exemplify the benefits that a rising China can bring to the world. It is now more important than ever that the next chapter of the China story be centred on a commitment to sustainable development. This emphasis is key not only to preserving China’s legacy, but also to ensuring global prosperity for decades to come.

Yixiu Wu is a campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. Her work focuses on China’s global environmental footprint and One Belt, One Road polices