Archives For air pollution

As we enter ADM Capital Foundation’s second decade, we have launched a new website at ADMCF.org that reflects our narrowed focus on Asia’s environmental challenges.

Over the past ten years, we have worked with dozens of NGO partners to help support some of the region’s most marginalised children to better lives, we have pushed for action to reduce air pollution, to cut consumption of shark fin and protect our oceans, stem the wildlife trade, protect forests, build knowledge and action around China’s water crisis. We have worked to see that the appropriate research informs the right sort of change.

But this year represents a shift from our dual focus on children at risk and the environment to where we feel the need is greatest: environmental protection.

The two-decade shift of manufacturing to Asia amid lax local regulation and enforcement has come at unprecedented environmental cost. While we enjoy cheap goods, clothes in particular produced at unsustainably low prices, Asia shoulders the environmental burden of our excessive consumption. Global climate change, ocean acidification, the consequences of our excessive lifestyles, now affect us all.

Globally, we are living as though we have three planets in terms of resource consumption. We must find ways to live more sustainably, to accommodate a world population that is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

Philanthropy is not the only answer but it can support essential research, spread knowledge, seed ideas, push for thought change in consumers and action from governments, all of which is critical.

Yet only an estimated 2 to 3 percent of global philanthropy finds its way into addressing our urgent environmental challenges.

Thus, we felt ADMCF’s resources were best spent striving toward: cleaner air; improved and secure water sources; forest protection balanced with low carbon rural development; better managed fisheries and sustainable consumption of our ocean resources; improved regulation and enforcement to protect endangered wildlife.

At the same time, we are exploring sustainable business models, a circular economy and the finance that must underpin all.

Collaboration remains the key. None of our work can be done alone, without the energy of our many incredible NGO partners, our funding partners, our pro bono supporters.

The challenges we face are substantial but in our short ten years we can see systemic change, we can see that it is possible to generate lasting impact.

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Please watch, this great video from Hong Kong’s Clean Air Network. It really says it all.

  • Hong Kong University of Science and Technology/Civic Exchange research has shown that 53 percent of the time, the pollution that affects us most in HK is from transport – trucks, buses and ships
  • Last March the government introduced retirement schemes for old Commercial Diesel Vehicles as well as selective catalytic converters for taxis and mini-buses
  • And last year, data did show that HK’s air improved slightly
  • More good news: The government recently tabled regulation in Legco that mandates ships switch to cleaner from bunker fuel while at berth
  • But measures to improve our air have been largely offset by the huge increase in private car ownership in recent years as well as the massive development initiatives that are being undertaken
  • The Hedley Environmental Index estimates that in 2014, air pollution caused 2,616 premature deaths, 32.657 billion in lost dollars, 174,926 hospitalizations, and 4.253 million doctor visits
  • The so-called “end of pipe” solutions the government has introduced are certainly a beginning but inadequate alone
  • Hong Kong needs to follow Singapore and European cities in establishing low emission zones, pedestrian zones, electronic road pricing and intelligent transport solutions
  • We urgently need a smarter, cleaner city. This is within our reach.

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At a recent environmental forum in Beijing, the speakers were in full swing with relatively predictable insight into China’s environmental challenges, and more broadly, environmental challenges elsewhere.

Then came the question-and-answer period and again a couple of relatively innocuous questions before a Chinese man strode to the front of the auditorium and launched into a discussion of his own.

In angry tones and raised voice, he said the Chinese government was not doing enough to mitigate air, water and soil pollution and demanded immediate attention to related public health concerns.

No one flinched, people listened intently, respectfully, no one emerged from the shadows to haul him away. Several students in the audience also asked about lack of action on pollution and suggested that more should be done to clean the environment and protect citizen health.

I sat beside a Chinese friend who simply shrugged, saying she had seen the man speak out at two other recent environmental forums. She said that because of his stature as an energy expert, he was left unhindered to express his opinions publicly.

She pointed out that the students were also feeling free to criticize the government, whereas previously the unspoken line everyone knew not to cross was any sense of direct opposition to Beijing authorities.

My sense from the entire trip (my previous visit being only four months earlier) was that China is changing, and perhaps faster than we could have imagined.

For the first time, censors this year have allowed Chinese media to carry reports about the “cancer villages” in areas of high industrial pollution.

Environmental advocate Ma Jun told me with some amazement that he had felt free recently to criticize a recent Ministry of Environmental Protection decision not to release data about soil pollution, which it considered a “state secret”.

Ma Jun said this was irresponsible and put public health at risk, a comment that was unusually picked up by the People’s Daily and Xinhua, among other news sources that aren’t usually inclined to publish remarks critical of the government.

“Previously, these comments would have been removed by censors,” Ma Jun said. “Now these issues are allowed to be talked about, debated and discussed.”

This became particularly clear, as March brought the annual meetings of the legislative and consultative bodies of China where major policies traditionally are decided and key government officials appointed.

Concern for the environment was a constant throughout the session – and was the subject of one in ten of the 5,000 proposals submitted by delegates.

Social media was also alive with commentary on the environment throughout.

And talk about environmental protection wasn’t simply a side act to the main show. The National People’s Congress (NPC) at 2,987 members is the largest parliament in the world and gathers alongside the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) whose members represent various groups of society. This year, the NPC confirmed the new leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

This once-in-a-decade leadership change emerged from November’s Communist Party congress with a strong reform mandate and promising a more sustainable China, balanced growth as well as more emphasis on environmental protection.

To be fair, this was not, however entirely a departure in direction from the previous Hu Jintao, Wen Jibao administration and it remains to be seen whether the result will be real change.

The 2011, 12th Five-Year Plan, which sets the direction for policy, of course emphasized balanced growth and set priority green industries. The mantra that emerged then was that economic growth should not come at the expense of resource depletion or pollution.

Wen Jibao, representing the departing Old Guard, opened the 12th National People’s Congress with a “Report of the Work of the Government” pointing to “steady progress in conserving energy, reducing emissions, and protecting the environment.

But levels of anger are rising, fueled by recent truly off-the-charts air pollution in Beijing as well as the repeated and increasingly public (because of the rapid spread of news on social media platforms) water pollution incidents nationwide. Rampant corruption among local officials that has allowed harmful practices to continue unhindered has also been a target of microbloggers.

This sense of disregard for public health coupled with an increasingly affluent and vocal middle class presents a problem for the Chinese government in terms of its own legitimacy.

Recognizing this, Xi Jinping said at the March proceedings that the government should play a stronger role in pushing reform and opening up.

“The new administration wants a new start,” Ma Jun said. “They want to make clear that the current environmental challenges are not their fault.”

Many brands that say they are producing sustainable product are in reality greenwashing their textile production in China, according to the latest report from five environmental NGOs in China.

“Sustainable Apparel’s Critical Blind Spot,” which can be found here,  was a follow on from a report I wrote about here released in April that named 49 global fashion brands using polluting factories in China and suggested consumers make a “green choice” when buying clothes.

Led by Ma Jun’s  Institute for Environmental and Public Affairs, “Cleaning up the Fashion Industry”  listed 6,000 water pollution violations by manufacturers of goods ranging from sports apparel to luxury handbags.

Subsequently, 30 brands began conversations with IPE about how to improve the environmental performance of their supply chain, according to Ma Jun.

Clothing brands and retailers such as H&M, Nike, Esquel, Levi’s Adidas, Walmart, Burberry and Gap have all established regular screening mechanisms, are actively identifying pollution violations in their supply chain and have pushed more than 200 textile and leather suppliers to clean up.

Adidas, Nike, Levi’s and H&M have begun to address environmental challenges with their dyeing and finishing suppliers, the report said.

The latest investigation looked deeper into supply chains following a letter sent September 25th by the NGOs to the 49 brands requesting information about pollution management issues at materials suppliers.

Besides IPE, authors of the report were, Friends of Nature, Green Beagle, Envirofriends and Nanjing Greenstone

In all, 22 of the brands receiving the letter, including Marks & Spencer, Disney, J.C. Penney, Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger gave limited or no responses to specific questions relative to emissions violation problems in their supply chain. This despite Marks & Spencer, for example, promoting its “Plan A”, which is a sustainable business benchmark for global textile companies and retailers.

Companies promoting sustainability should “not continue to let suppliers pollute the environment and hurt communities whilst using concepts such as ‘zero waste’ and ‘carbon neutral’ to greenwash their performance,” the environmental NGOs wrote in the report.

The report draws attention to the fact that textile exports from China have dropped recently, weighed by higher labor costs in China, trade barriers, the appreciation of the RMB and higher resource costs.

Big brands have moved some of their cut and sew production to South and Southeast Asia.  Nike shut down its only shoe factory in China and recently, Adidas also closed its only factory in China, leading people to believe China is steadily losing its status as the textile factory to the world.

But materials production is still concentrated in China, with exports of these products rising steadily, according to the report. This is the most polluting portion of the apparel supply chain.

In the raw materials processing sector, which includes dyeing and finishing, exports are growing steadily. According to the 2011/2012 China Textile Industry Report, for the six main printing and dyeing product categories, the total amount of exported printed and dyed cloth was 14.412 billion meters which showed a year on year growth of 13.76%.

The value of exported printed and dyed products was US$16.979 billion, which showed a year on year growth of 31.26%. However, at the same time the total value of all exported textile products only increased by 0.49%.

The cut and sew industry provides the most jobs, uses less water and energy and pollution discharge is not a big problem. However, the reverse is true for textile production. Essentially, China has kept the dirty part of the business, while allowing the relatively clean, job-creating cut and sew industry to wane.

The problem is that enforcement of pollution remains weak in China, while the cost of inputs like water and energy are still relatively low. So dyeing and finishing companies often avoid any water or energy savings initiatives and disregard pollution control, ignoring environmental laws and regulations.

Sustainable apparel in particular,  has a ”dangerous blind spot,” according to the report, which means that dyeing and finishing mills and factories lower their environmental standards to cut costs and win orders in a race to the bottom.

Essentially the problem is that most apparel and retail brands still choose not to look into the polluting part of their business – the bottom of the supply chain. Consequently, materials manufacturers are still trying to produce in the cheapest way possible in order to keep costs low for fast fashion.

We as consumers must recognize that we have a choice not to buy the cheapest item on the shelves, to acquire less and from companies that truly care about not doing harm to our planet.

One of the more important conversations that emerged from June’s Rio+20 Summit was around valuing natural resources and, ultimately, moving our economies beyond GDP as a sole measure of growth.

The concept is not a new one but it did seem gain traction.  Included among the side events on one day alone were at least two standing-room-only sessions on the topic: “Measuring the Future We Want” and the Natural Capital Summit.

In Measuring the Future, the panel recognized that over the last 20 years we have seen poverty decline but at the cost of growing environmental challenges. The call was for governments to institute a framework for natural capital accounting.

The Natural Capital Summit, meanwhile, featured speeches from Britain’s Nick Clegg and Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, as well as remarks from the presidents of Gabon and Costa Rica, illustrating clearly the level of interest in the topic.

“How to value nature is one of the most important political decisions,” Stoltenberg said, shortly after Clegg had talked over a masked heckler, accusing world leaders and the World Bank of commoditizing nature.

Despite the mask and the point well taken about assigning value to nature, the reality is not so simple. As we have it now, few benefit from our forests, oceans, our extractive industries and water.  The costs of pollution are borne by us all rather than the polluter.

This creates a world where we are rapidly depleting our natural resources for the enrichment of a few, and economic growth, as measured by GDP, is vastly inflated.

Both Rio+20 side sessions were short on answers or plans of action, despite some participants stating the desire to help international gatherings move beyond declarations – something that is sorely needed.

As a path toward action, however, also at Rio, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the UN Environmental Program, the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Climate Change (IHDP) introduced the Inclusive Wealth Index.

The idea is to consider a country’s assets to get a better picture of a country’s wealth and the sustainability of its growth.  In reporting every two years, IHDP will calculate the IWI for 20 countries that together account for almost three-quarters of global GDP.

Unsurprisingly, the first report showed that despite strong GDP growth, the United States, China, Brazil and South Africa had significantly depleted their natural capital base.  This was calculated as the total of renewable and non-renewable resources such as fisheries, forests and fossil fuels.

Again, not surprisingly, China showed the most dramatic difference between GDP and IWI. GDP growth alone was measured at 422 percent between 1990 and 2007 but IWI measured over the time was just 45 percent.

The report also showed that future growth, as measured by IWI, was dependent on the sustainable use of resources since all countries surveyed had a higher share of natural than manufactured capital.

The key factor here is that countries are using their natural resources faster than they can be replenished, thus challenging future economic development.

The strong sense in Rio was that governments need to step in to create a policy framework by which natural capital can be valued in order for real change to happen. The private sector, of course, wants a level playing field.

Meanwhile, some leading companies that are among the biggest beneficiaries of natural resources and free pollution, also stepped into the discussion this week in Rio.

Twenty-four of them, including Cocoa-Cola, Xerox, Dow Chemical and Kimberly-Clark announced a four-step framework for a methodology that would value natural resources.

Two-thirds of our planet’s land and water ecosystems are now significantly degraded thanks to human activity and climate change is only accelerating the damage. The UN estimates that mismanagement of natural assets costs the global economy an estimated $6.6 trillion a year or 11 percent of GDP collectively.

According to the report, these costs are expected to reach $28 trillion by 2050 and threaten core business interests through potential supply chain disruptions or costly substitutions, regulatory or legal risks.

KPMG has estimated that if companies had to pay for their own environmental bills they would lose 41 cents for every $1 in earnings.

The text of Valuing Natural Capital acknowledges that “each year our planet’s land and water systems produce an estimated $72 trillion worth of “free” goods and services essential to a well-functioning world economy.”

Because these are not bartered and sold in the marketplace it is hard to assign them with a value or corporate or government financial statements. “As a result this value has been largely unaccounted for in business decisions and market transactions.”

But this is starting to change, according to the document, with, “business executives recognizing the business imperative of safeguarding them.”

Among the natural goods and services on which the global economy was seen to depend are: Clean water and air; affordable raw materials and commodities; fertile soils; fisheries; buffers to floods, droughts, fires and extreme weather; barriers to the spread of disease; biological information to propel scientific and medical breakthroughs.

Still, the report although strong on the challenges is short on how natural resources will actually be valued.

Puma has been a leader in this field. Last year the company introduced an environmental profit and loss screening that represented an interesting step toward assigning economic value to resources consumed, to emissions and toward determining the true cost of production for the apparel and shoe brand. I have written about this here.

Finally, also this week the leaders of 37 banks, investment funds and insurance companies agreed to take better stock of the stress put on ecosystems by the economic activity they manage, and work towards integrating natural capital into products and services.

The Natural Capital Declaration is once again short on detail, but at least represents an acknowledgement of the issue.

 

 

Articles in the New York Times and elsewhere last week have criticized Apple for using Chinese suppliers whose workers are ill-paid, overworked and subject to hazardous conditions.

In a full-page spread, The New York Times compared Apple’s financial strength and reputation for innovation with a less-flattering portrait of how its products are made: “ …the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions…  Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.”

An “outraged” Apple CEO, Tim Cook, responded swiftly in a strongly worded email to Apple employees cited widely, “we care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain” and “any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us.”

The truth is, nothing like the manufacturing capability found in southern China now exists in the U.S. and nowhere in the U.S. could workers be relied on to dedicate the long hours under similarly challenging  conditions.  Recent attention has focused on Apple supplier, Foxconn, where the iPhone is assembled.  The facility has close to a million employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Many workers earn less than $17 a day.  That clearly helps improve Apple’s margins.

U.S. news show host, John Stewart, last week described Foxconn as “Fear Factory”  and detailed conditions at the factory,  its treatment of employees, large dormitories of employees, repression of employees who try to unionize and nets around the buildings to prevent suicides.  According to Stewart, the cost savings on an IPod is 23 percent to the consumer.

Understandably there is anger brewing in the U.S. toward companies such as Apple that employ tens of thousands of workers outside the United States to take advantage of lax labour laws abroad. There is a growing voice in the United States for a boycott of the ubiquitous Apple products.

In a separate article, the New York Times pointed out that Apple employs 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas and many more people work for Apple’s contractors: an additional 700,000 people engineer, build and assemble iPads, iPhones and Apple’s other products.

When asked by President Obama last year about overseas workers and whether or not Apple products might be produced at home, Steve Jobs was quoted as replying that those jobs were not coming back to the United States.

According to the same article, the hugely profitable Apple last year, it earned over US$400,000 in profit per employee, more than Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil or Google.

The stories on bad labor practices by Apple suppliers, however, follow five reports from a coalition of now 41 environmental groups in China documenting the performance and willingness of IT brands producing in China to address serious environmental violations by their suppliers.

Many of the environmental violations have led to occupational safety issues and hazardous chemical exposure for workers.

In the first of the reports, the environmental groups contacted the CEOs of 29 top IT brands, asking specific questions about suppliers’ environmental performance and provided evidence of pollution violations.  As they look to production abroad to skirt labour restrictions at home, companies look to avoid environmental regulation that should protect air, water and soil from excessive emissions.

The Chinese NGOs’ engagement process has from the start actually yielded fruit, with a number of brands such as HP and Samsung responding to requests for information and addressing issues in their supply chains. But a few, including Apple Inc., ironically were initially extremely slow in communicating, and less than willing to address the supply chain issues being raised

Hence, two of the reports, in January and August last year, focused specifically on Apple, which had failed to disclose adequate information relating to its suppliers or their environmental violations to the environmental groups, led by Ma Jun’s  Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE).

Most of the recent negative stories about Apple and the building campaign against the company fail to even mention Apple’s environmental lapses – including the New York Times full-page story, except in passing.

The Chinese environmental NGOs campaign to improve disclosure and environmental performance by brands and their suppliers is something we have written about here and here – long before the Apple news became mainstream.

In a significant success for the NGO coalition, earlier last month, for the first time Apple’s  annual supplier responsibility report  released a list identifying many of its suppliers and acknowledging some of their environmental and labour violations first publicized by IPE.

Indeed, a look at the reports showed that more than half of the suppliers audited by Apple have violated at least one aspect of the code of conduct every year since 2007, and in some instances have violated the law, according to the New York Times Story.

IPE’s website list of non-compliant factories in China reached 94,725, while the Water Pollution maps now used by many brands to filter their supply chains and make sure they are not using polluting suppliers, registered 6,220,696 page views.

IPE is now working directly with 30 such brands to screen suppliers and 550 companies have responded to being placed on the polluters list by seeking dialogue with IPE.

Since releasing its list of suppliers and acknowledging environmental breaches, Apple has also agreed to continue conversations with IPE later this month and potentially to encourage two suppliers to engage in a pilot third-party audit monitored by the Chinese NGOs.

In all, 3,122 companies have undergone a third-party audit or a document review audit process and this has led to 94 companies being removed from the polluters list.

This is what the air should look like in HK but rarely does Photo by Ella Smith

Hong Kong finally has found its voice amid government inaction to  clean our air and protect our health. And long may it last – at least until we have real action to address the pollution.

Newspapers this morning featured banner headlines on air pollution, including the SCMP’s  “Clean-Air Targets Don’t measure Up” and then inside, “Gasp it’s Worse Than we Thought.”

Yesterday, the government said it would toughen its clean-air targets for the first time since 1987, but only marginally, and admitted they will still fall far short of World Health Organization standards.

And this four-and-a half-years after first engaging a consultant to review air quality objectives then launching a six-month public consultation that ended in late 2009. The environment secretary sat on the recommendations until yesterday and they were announced unchanged – by the consultation or time.

The new objectives impose tougher limits on the atmospheric concentration for seven pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead.

For the first time the city also will measure airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, known as PM2.5. These are more harmful than the larger particles currently measured.

The government apparently also has identified 22 measures to help achieve the new standards, which are to be introduced over a three-year period after 2014. This will allow infrastructure projects to proceed without delay.

Thus the government, in reality, will allow our air to be made even dirtier while it finishes some mammoth construction such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and a third runway at the airport.

Oh, and the steps to be taken apparently will extend the life expectancy of the average person in Hong Kong by one month.

Secretary for the Environment, Edward Yau, was quoted in the South China Morning Post as saying, “We have to understand that the ultimate WHO guidelines are a distant target” and pointing to regional pollution as the principal source of pollutants.

Yet 2007 research by Alexis Lau from the HK University of Science and Technology and Civic Exchange, “Relative Significance of Local Vs. Regional Sources: Hong Kong’s Air Pollution,” showed that 53 percent of the time the pollution that affects us most is locally generated by buses, trucks, shipping and power plants.

The basic, undisputed message for a long time has been, Hong Kong can do much to clean up its own air and improve the health of its residents.

Despite this, little has been done in recent years, despite urging from Clean Air Network, Civic Exchange, Friends of the Earth and many other environmental groups.

And herein lies the paradox: The HK government speaks and acts as though we are a developing nation, yet HK is one of the world’s richest cities. The government sits on reserves estimated at US$80 billion.

We are so rich in fact that last year the government announced that it would give a cash handout to each adult permanent resident (even those living abroad and those who patently did not need the extra money), of HK$6,000, or US$700. That massive handout cost the government HK$37.98 billion that certainly could have been used to better effect to clean our air.

Meanwhile, Roadside pollution levels reached a record high last year. The number of days that pollution was rated “high” hit 20%. That is five times more than in 2005. And, embarrassingly, the HK government is clearly playing catch up to Beijing, which in response to an online campaign earlier this month said it would provide hourly updates of PM2.5 measurements.

Clearly gone are the days when Beijing looked to Hong Kong for direction and innovation.

Meanwhile, the Civic Exchange yesterday said a revamped environmental index run by Hong Kong University researchers showed that air pollution here is more harmful than previously thought, costing HK$40 billion annually, up from previous estimates of HK$16 billion.

The number of premature deaths per year over the past five years should also be revised upward to 3,200 from 1,000, according to the Hedley Environmental Index. This, of course, is not information that the HK government is gathering.

The sad reality is that Hong Kong’s air has been deteriorating steadily over the past 20 years with almost no action by government to alter the trend.  Pollution now poses a serious threat to public health and we should be angry, very angry.