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Friday, May 14, 2021, 00:36
Prevention, not cure, key to fight climate change
By Paul Stapleton
Friday, May 14, 2021, 00:36 By Paul Stapleton

In her annual policy address last year, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor set 2050 as a goal for Hong Kong to achieve carbon neutrality. This target follows China’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 announced in September last year, which is arguably the most significant commitment yet in our struggle to avoid climate disaster. 

As the world’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, China emits almost twice as much as the second-ranked United States. (In terms of CO2 emissions per person, China’s levels are less than half those of the US.) Therefore, China’s pledge, if carried out, could bring a much greater positive impact than the Paris climate agreement, which has been roundly criticized as being far too weak to be effective.

As good as these moves by China and its Hong Kong Special Administrative Region are, the actual implementation plans to reach carbon neutrality follow a course of action typical of many human behavioral patterns, i.e., looking for solutions rather than preventing the problem in the first place. And this needs to be both acknowledged and changed if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

A good parallel to our predicament regarding our planetary health is the way modern medicine treats our personal health with its singular focus on finding cures. Consider one of the greatest threats to human health in the modern era, metabolic syndrome, which the Mayo Clinic defines as a “cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. These conditions include increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels.” It is no secret that metabolic syndrome is caused by lifestyle choices, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, as well as smoking and excessive drinking.

Clearly, a better way forward is to reframe our addiction to carbon by highlighting an approach based on prevention rather than cures, and that leads to only one solution: carbon taxes.The Hong Kong SAR government took one tiny step in that direction in February when it raised the first registration tax and annual license fees for private cars

However, how do the medical and pharmaceutical fields deal with this serious health problem? Well, similar to our approach to seeking solutions to climate change, the focus is on curing the disease, rather than preventing it. Medical schools around the world uniformly ignore the importance of nutrition, i.e., disease prevention, while focusing almost exclusively on cures. And pharmaceutical companies, acting together with doctors, do little to encourage change. Meanwhile, the whole medical industry, aided and abetted by the food industry, focuses on curing obesity and many other associated diseases, rather than prevention.

Returning to the issue of our warming planet, and China’s and its Hong Kong SAR’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality, unsurprisingly, the emphasis has also been on cures. These include: expanding the network of solar panels and wind turbines; reducing the burning of coal; encouraging the sales of electric vehicles; and ramping up construction of nuclear power stations and hydroelectric dams which often cause havoc to the ecological balance. However, seldom, if ever mentioned, in official plans is the notion of confronting the root cause — overconsumption.

In essence, while China’s pledge is certainly a step in the right direction, any real hope of reaching the goal of carbon neutrality by 2060 has to go beyond cures to addressing issues related to prevention. This will be painful and difficult because humans are creatures of habit. I believe we should now ramp up public education with bite. Making the public pay their hard-earned yuan and dollars for their fossil-fueled lifestyle can have a real impact on behavior. This was proved by the anti-tobacco campaigners as a result of price hikes in tobacco products. Just imagine if a steak, an airline ticket or a liter of fuel were double the price. Very quickly, people’s consumption habits would change.

Here in Hong Kong, so far, the government’s carbon strategy has focused almost exclusively on cures rather than prevention. The green measures in the new budget, as in past budgets, focused on expanding the number of electric vehicles, clearly a cure, rather than a prevention. Implementing a prohibitive road tax is viewed as just too contentious to even mention. And although the slow efforts to shift electricity generation away from coal to gas-fired plants has reduced emissions of greenhouse gases, it does nothing to stem consumption. Likewise, the Hong Kong SAR government’s effort to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles simply shifts the emissions from the roadside to the general region without discouraging consumption at all, while making no effort to electrify our diesel-spewing buses, as they have done in Shenzhen. Conversely, by increasing the number of electric chargers and providing free electricity, the government is actually encouraging an inefficient mode of transport, counterproductive in a city with perhaps the best public transport system in the world. 

China and its Hong Kong SAR are not the only places that put cures before prevention in tackling climate change. Unfortunately, all countries focus on cures. The problem seems to reside in the way we frame the problem. We are all stuck in a mindset of looking for solutions that allow us to continue with the behavior that landed us in such a pickle. It’s just like when we expect the doctor to solve our health problem with medicine instead of modifying our lifestyle. To cool our planet, we should reduce heating it in the first place. 

Clearly, a better way forward is to reframe our addiction to carbon by highlighting an approach based on prevention rather than cures, and that leads to only one solution: carbon taxes. The Hong Kong SAR government took one tiny step in that direction in February when it raised the first registration tax and annual license fees for private cars. Tiny, because it was the first increase in 10 years for the former, and 30 years for the latter. However, it is measures like this that must be implemented on a massive scale and worldwide to change our consumption behavior if we are to have any chance of achieving carbon neutrality and avoiding catastrophic climate change.

The author has been a professor in Asian universities for three decades. He began recycling his garbage in the 1960s.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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