Two news items this week concerning seemingly unrelated events caused me to take notice and remark upon the contradictions that characterise our era along with the cognitive dissonance harboured in all of us.

The first of these was a notice that came in from my workplace reminding me that Tuesday May 14th was “No Tissue Day,” organised by the Christian Family Service Centre. My colleagues and I were informed that paper hand towels would not be provided in toilets on campus, and catering outlets would also join the campaign by not giving out paper napkins on the event day. All staff were advised to avoid using any type of tissue.

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The second news story was about Beijing’s new airport at Daxing, which has witnessed its first aircraft landing on one of its eight runways. The Daxing airport opening comes at a time when airports around our region are expanding at an ever-increasing rate. Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport has recently been given approval to build a third runway.

Meanwhile, up the road in Guangzhou, Baiyun International Airport opened a new terminal with a capacity of 100 million passengers a year. And anyone who has been out to Chek Lap Kok recently may have seen the outline of Hong Kong’s third runway rising above sea level.

So what do the two events have in common? Well, both concern the impact humans have on the environment. In the former case, the laudable effort to curb our wastefulness regarding the use of tissue paper seems harmless on the surface because it alerts us to the fact that our casual use of tissue not only creates waste, but also requires trees to be cut down with the associated loss of forests and habitats for animals. Reducing our use of tissue for one day is painless, yet it symbolically reminds us of the importance of sustainability and environmental awareness.

However, when we compare this with the continuing expansion of airports and runways, the incongruity in our behaviour is poignant. Let’s compare a few pieces of tissue that we may have forsaken last Tuesday (if you even knew about No Tissue Day) with a typical flight we may have taken. As a crude measure of environmental impact, simply consider the physical weight of the materials involved.

Those few pieces of tissue that we didn’t use last Tuesday could add up to about 10 grams in weight, amounting to a negligible impact on the environment. On the other hand, a regional return trip by air – say to Tokyo from Hong Kong – in a modern, fuel-efficient aircraft would burn about 200,000 grams of kerosene for each passenger. The resulting fumes are released into the upper atmosphere, where they have a damaging effect roughly double that at sea level.

Beijing’s new Daxing airport terminal. Illustration: Zaha Hadid Architects.

This comparison, which uses the sheer weight of tissue against the weight of the fuel used by aircraft, hammers home a truism about the dissonance that characterises our present approach to climate change.

Here in Hong Kong, we witness a similar dissonance among our leaders, who have their heads buried deep in the sand with regard to the climate crisis presently being played out, despite warnings such as Typhoon Mangkhut and our recent non-winter. A look at a couple of their efforts bears this out.

Item one: the anti-idling law introduced by our government in 2011, a tempest in a teapot if there ever was one. Not only has this law disappeared from sight, at least based on my casual observation of idling minibuses on my daily commute, but even with complete enforcement, the dividends in terms of improved air quality were always in doubt.

Item two: the recent annual budget whose only token crumb tossed to environmental sustainability was HK$120 million to expand the number of electric charging stations, largely for luxury vehicle owners. Somehow government officials seem to believe that local electricity comes from renewable sources. It doesn’t.

Photo: 賴振邦/Facebook.

The problem at its most fundamental level is a lack of leadership at all levels.

A case in point: Antonio Gutterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations made a speech this week in New Zealand deploring the fading political will to tackle climate change. One wonders, however, what message he is sending by travelling halfway across the world, no doubt in business class with a delegation, filling our atmosphere with thousands of kilograms of kerosene fumes to deliver this speech.

The dissonance is stunning. Why didn’t Gutterres deliver his speech by video conference from his home base, which would have sent a strong message that flying around the world, especially in business class, is no longer sustainable?

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Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.