Following the latest IPCC report published in April 2022, warning that it is now or never to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the climate crisis is clearly accelerating at an unprecedented rate. From deforestation to plastic pollution, several factors are driving worsening climate change. Here are some of the biggest environmental issues we will face in Hong Kong in 2022.
Hong Kong’s Biggest Environmental Problems
1. Outdoor air pollution
One of the major environmental issues in Hong Kong is air pollution. According to a study on global mortality and pollution levels published in The Planetary Health of the Lancet log, 9 million people worldwide die each year from outdoor air pollution. Long-term exposure to severe air pollution also poses serious health problems ranging from chronic respiratory infections and diseases to increased risk of cancer.
Based on Hong Kong Air Quality and Health Index (AQI) records, street-level air pollution in densely populated areas including Causeway Bay, Central and Mong Kok , often exceeds WHO guidelines, reflecting a significant number of Hong Kong residents breathing air containing high levels of pollutants every day.
The causes of air pollution in Hong Kong stem from sources such as fossil fuel motor vehicles and regional smog, which is caused by pollutants from ships and industrial power plants in the city and mainland China. .
Although the Hong Kong government has announced its intention to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the current rate of carbon emissions shows no signs of slowing down. As for 2021, the the number of private motor vehicles registered in Hong Kong reaches 657,000, nearly 30,000 more vehicles than the previous year. Despite being at home one of the best public transport systems in the world, Hong Kong residents still rely heavily on private cars to get around the city and this proportion continues to grow year on year. Over the past decade, the volume of passenger cars has increased by almost a third, contributing to massive amounts of carbon emissions in the city.
While the government has made efforts to regulate emissions from industrial power stations and ships that pass through our waters, the smog in the Pearl River Delta region has proven difficult to control. Collaborative efforts with Guangdong authorities have been made to improve air quality in the Greater Bay Area, but improvements in air quality remain to be seen.
One of three strategic landfills in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong. Photo by: Edwin Lee/Flickr
2. Landfill Waste
One of the most pressing environmental issues Hong Kong is currently facing is landfilling. Each year, approximately 4.17 million tons of solid waste are heading to our landfills, and during the coronavirus pandemic, local waste has increased exponentially thanks to the increased use of take-out boxes, plastic cutlery and single-use masks. Landfill gas, which is emissions from landfills breaking down organic waste, will continue to rise as a result and contribute to global warming, especially considering that 40-60% of landfill emissions are landfill gas. methane and have a warming potential 10 times that of carbon dioxide. .
As one of the most densely populated cities in the world with a population of almost 7.5 million, Hong Kong is in an extremely difficult position to create new dedicated landfills. Reducing and recycling waste is the only viable long-term solution to the city’s insurmountable landfill waste problem. And while the waste tax system adopted by the Legislative Council at the end of 2021 – 16 years after it was first proposed – is a good first step, there is still a long way to go to solve the problem.
3. Plastic pollution
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong generated around 3.9 billion disposable food and beverage containers every year. That’s 170 takeaways and 180 disposable drinks for every Hong Konger. As restaurants limit opening hours and seating capacity during the pandemic, people are relying on takeout and the amount of plastic containers and cutlery being used and thrown away has only increased. In 2020, plastics accounted for 21% of the city’s total municipal solid waste (MSW), accounting for the third largest share of MSW after food waste and paper. The city’s beaches and waterways are drowning in plastic, and levels of microplastics in the sea are 40% higher than the global average. According to estimates, more than 5,000 pieces of microplastic can be found in every square meter of sea.
Some restaurant businesses have made the effort to embrace biodegradable and even compostable take-out packaging and utensils, but a majority of local restaurants and small businesses are still opting for low-cost materials like Styrofoam.
The lack of an effective recycling infrastructure is a major contributing factor to Hong Kong’s plastic crisis. In 2019, less than 20% of plastic packaging waste was recycled due to lack of adequate recycling facilities. Before China’s waste ban, where the country banned the import of unprocessed materials, Hong Kong used to dump the city’s waste on the mainland for recycling. Since the policy’s implementation, Hong Kong has further developed enough recycling plants to compensate. While some government interventions such as the plastic recycling pilot program seem to be working, as Hong Kong saw a 27% increase in locally recycled plastics in 2020, the plastic problem still haunts the city.
4. Food waste
Known as an international cuisine paradise, Hong Kong has a reputation for being affordable and offering an amazing variety of international cuisines. Therefore, this means that food waste is also high in the city and undoubtedly one of the biggest environmental issues Hong Kong faces.
Food waste in Hong Kong accounts for about 30% of municipal solid waste that goes directly to landfills. In 2019, 1,067 tonnes of food waste was generated from commercial and industrial sources such as restaurants, hotels and wet markets. The amount of food waste has also increased, particularly in the F&B industry where it increased from 800 tonnes per day in 2012 to 1,000 tonnes of waste generated per day in 2019.
While the government has set up educational initiatives and a functioning organic waste recovery center OPARKmore 3,600 tons of food waste are still being sent to Hong Kong landfills every daycontributing to more than one hundred thousand tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Land fill site for Central piers, Hong Kong. Picture by: Piqsels
5. Loss of biodiversity
Hong Kong has a surprisingly rich biodiversity thanks to its vast natural terrain and coastal waters. In fact, 40% of the city’s land belongs to national parks and protected areas, which are home to over 3,300 species of vascular plants, 57 species of land mammals, and over 540 species of birds. Our waters are also home to over 1,000 species of fish.
However, in order to make room for the city’s already dense and growing population, Hong Kong has put a lot of effort into urbanization and land reclamation. Land development, whether deforestation or illegal dumping of waste, is one of the growing environmental issues in Hong Kong and has led to significant impacts on local biodiversity and habits.
The pink dolphin, also known as the Chinese white dolphin, is a prime example of how local species are threatened by continued land development. The waters surrounding Hong Kong have been a habitat for dolphins for centuries, with recorded sightings dating back to the Tang Dynasty. The number of pink dolphins that frequent the shores of Hong Kong has dropped to about 300 in recent years due to intense maritime traffic and, above all, the decrease in its habitat. Development of Chek Lap Kok Island, home to Hong Kong International Airport, and associated land reclamation has reduced the amount of fish dolphins can eat while dredging has exposed pollution of the seabed causing water pollution. A massive 1,700-hectare land reclamation plan near the eastern waters of Lantau Island that was proposed in 2018 will further degrade dolphin habitat and increase vulnerabilities to sea level rise.
Another serious threat to Hong Kong’s biodiversity is illegal wildlife trafficking. The city is home to one of the largest hubs for the illegal wildlife trafficking industry thanks to its free ports, geographic location in the Greater Bay Area, and accessibility to other Asian countries. Every year, the city sees millions of live animals and their derivatives pass through its ports. In 2019 alone, more than 7,000 endangered animals were illegally traded in the city, including pangolins and live turtles. However a landmark bill was passed in August 2021 that will treat illegal wildlife trade and seizures as a serious crime while paying greater attention to criminals and organized networks rather than transporters and mules. The passage of the amendment is intended to deter smuggling operations and supply networks in the city.
6. Water pollution
Hong Kong is a unique city surrounded by the South China Sea, where the marine waters cover approximately 1700 km² and are home to a wide range of different marine environments. In the early 1970s and 1980s, most of the city’s sewage and sewage was discharged into the sea, with little or no treatment. As a result, Hong Kong’s waters have seen an increase in organic and inorganic pollutants, a reduction in oxygen content and an increase in bacteria levels. In 2005, Hong Kong produced about 2 million tons of sewage every day as well as industrial effluents, making it one of the main sources of water pollution in Hong Kong.
Marine pollution has also been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as 4,680 to 6,240 tonnes of marine plastic waste is making its way through Hong Kong waters. An estimated 1.56 billion face masks were thrown into the ocean during that time, which experts say will take up to 450 years to decompose. Microplastics from single-use masks are also incredibly harmful to marine life and the ecosystem, potentially killing up to 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, and over a million seabirds.