In the historic year of 1997, Greenpeace opened its office in Hong Kong. Fourteen years later, the reasons for Greenpeace working in China and Hong Kong are as clear as ever: China is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The country has 300 million rural residents who drink and wash in unsafe water every day. And in 2009, Hong Kong's air pollution reached levels dangerous to health one out of every eight days.
China's been the world's factory for a long time now, and at a huge environmental cost. Now that the country's top dogs have finally woken up and smelt the roses (or make that toxic fumes) we may very well be on the verge of seeing a new green day in China! Campaign Director Sze Pang Cheung (nickname Kontau) shares with us his thoughts on how to tackle the country's most severe environmental problem.
In the last decade, what changes has there been in Greenpeace's work in China?
We work on more environmental problems than before: we started with genetic engineering and electronic waste, but today we tackle climate change, energy, water pollution, pesticides and fertilizers, and forest protection. We are also more experienced and daring – we can now confront sensitive issues such as exposing the severity of water pollution, opposing China's cultivation of genetically engineered rice, and challenging large state-owned enterprises.
Why do you think Greenpeace can be so influential in China?
Greenpeace's strength comes from our independence and our pursuit of change. We never let ourselves be open to external pressure, either politically or monetarily. As a result, we can always tell the truth and push for real, effective solutions for the environment.
What do you think the most difficult challenge in China is?
I think there's no challenge greater than the pressure that we are running out of time. Environmental disasters are taking place every day in China, and for certain issues, such as climate change, we urgently need to win victories within the next 10 years or else we'll be faced with consequences such as runaway global warming.
Are you optimistic about the development of China's environment?
I think China's environment is now at a crossroads. If it continues to worsen, the results will be unthinkable and irrevocable; if we can turn it around, however, not only the country but the world will benefit.
Why is Greenpeace working on water pollution?
Water pollution is the cost of China becoming the world's factory. Everything in our life, whether it's a pair of jeans or a computer, requires large quantities of chemicals as part of its production process. These hazardous substances are often dumped straight from factories into rivers and lakes, where they contaminate the drinking water supply and proliferate in the environment, damaging human health.
What are some key aspects of Greenpeace's campaign?
The problem of water pollution must be solved from the source – the key is to push the government to change their policies and reduce the use of hazardous chemicals in production. The government must have effective measures, laws, and market mechanisms to put these policies into place and enforce them.
What is the government's attitude towards water pollution?
Recently the government is paying more and more attention to water pollution, but the central government's laws are often not observed or enforced. And the government's thinking is often fixated on correcting the symptoms, not the cause. But we should focus on preventing pollution before it occurs.
How will Greenpeace approach this complex problem?
Our plan is to work from three angles. First, we aim to increase both public and government awareness of the dangers of hazardous chemicals. In addition, we will push industry to decrease the use of hazardous chemicals. Finally, we will increase the transparency of information disclosure on pollution, so that the public can participate in the local regulation and oversight of pollution.
What about the people who are affected by water pollution?
When water becomes polluted, its most direct impact is the drinking water of rural people as well as the irrigation of farmland. Greenpeace believes that the government is not the only one with the right to investigate and regulate water pollution; the affected public should also have channels to acquire information about polluting industries, so that people can safeguard their lives and document and report polluters.
Are you optimistic about the campaign?
Here's an example of the changes that Greenpeace can help catalyze: In 2010, a Greenpeace report on endocrine disruptors (which alter the reproductive system) attracted not only widespread media coverage but also the attention of the Ministry for Environmental Protection. In 2011, the MEP took a first step by restricting the import and export of one of the chemicals named in the report. One professor researching chemical management told us, "I have advocated for the strict management of endocrine disruptors for many years, but the government turned a deaf ear. Now after one report by Greenpeace, everyone is paying attention!"
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