In 1992, 193 countries, including China, signed the Convention on Biological Diversity at the Earth Summit. Under this, Hong Kong is likewise obliged to follow the rule and realise the conservation of biological diversity. Hong Kong’s first Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
Hong Kong is a modern city. Biodiversity seems to be an environmental issue outside the city and not many people care about it. The fact is, every choice we make in our daily lives affects biodiversity.
The term “biodiversity” first appeared in 1986. Academically, it refers to the degree of diversity of the whole Earth or a specific place, covering the ecosystem, species and genetic level. Diversity of the ecosystem is defined by different habitats such as forests, rivers and rocky shores. Diversity of species refers to variety of plants and animals. Diversity of genes refers to the degree of variation of the genetic combinations within a species. In practice, biodiversity maintains the balance of the ecosystem and matter cycles.
Clean air, water and food—the basic elements of human survival—depend on the ecosystem which, in turn is maintained by biodiversity. Yet, humans have failed to protect biodiversity and instead keep damaging it.
At the Earth Summit in 1992, 193 countries, including China, signed the Convention on Biological Diversity; and in 2010 they passed the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. The objective is to encourage ratifying parties and stakeholders to adopt measures to protect local biodiversity in the next decade. Hong Kong has to follow China and formulate a local Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (hereafter Action Plan). This work is carried out by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. After 18 months of discussions, the public consultation was completed in April of this year, and the report is expected to be announced within this year.
Overuse brings damage to balance
All aspects of our daily lives – including clothing, food, housing and transport, are closely related to biodiversity. Plants such as cotton and hemp, and animal fur and feathers such as wool, duck down, and leather are garment materials that come from nature.
However, our choice of clothing materials may lead to damage to biodiversity. For instance, fur made from rabbits and minks; bags and shoes made from crocodile skin; Tibetan antelope shawls, and ivory bracelets and necklaces. Demand for these is pushing rare wild animals towards extinction due to their value as sources of raw materials, affecting biodiversity and ecological balance. Some merchants may try artificial rearing, yet there are still problems with inhumane treatment of animals.
Food and biodiversity are even more closely associated. Most food comes directly from living things in nature, such as fish in the sea and other seafood. Over-harvesting damages the biodiversity of the oceans. Last year, the World Wide Fund for Nature released a report indicating that on average, almost the populations of over a thousand ocean species fell by over a half during 1970 to 2012. The major reason is over-exploitation of ocean resources by humans.
Our staple foods including rice, wheat and vegetables all come from nature. Many people may ignore the relationship between these crops and biodiversity, as we rarely pick these foods directly from the wild. Instead, they are cultivated by farmers and sold in the market. Agricultural produce still relies on the power of nature. For example, fruits such as tomatoes, apples and oranges depend on insects for pollination in farms. Healthy soil also depends on micro-organisms for maintenance. If farmers want to improve crops, they have to make use of genes of the wild species. Only a diverse source of plants can provide genetic resources for hybridisation.
Our healthcare is also closely related to biodiversity. Chinese medicines, whether they are the upmarket Chinese Caterpillar Fungus, Dendrobium and Balanophora or the low cost Glabrous Greenbrier Rhizome, Beautiful Millettia Root and Honeysuckle Flower, come from plants. Though most Western medicines seem to be chemical-based, many originated from living things. Examples include: Atropine for treatment of poisoning, which is from Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna); Paclitaxel for cancer treatment is from Chinese Yew (Taxus chinensis), and Aspirin for pain treatment originated from a component of Willow bark.
Unfortunately, sometimes people are excessively attracted by rare and expensive medicines such as Golden Coin Turtle and Incense Tree, leading to over-harvesting of the wild populations as it is difficult to cultivate these species artificially. Locally, these two species are close to extinction in the wild.
Indirect links that are easily overlooked
Sometimes, we do not take directly from nature, but seemingly unrelated things also impact biodiversity.
City life relies heavily on energy. In many places including Hong Kong, fossil fuels are used for electricity generation. Exploitation and burning fossil fuels releases large amount of greenhouse gases, and causes global warming and climate change, threatening all life on earth. Yet some renewable sources of energy, even those releasing less greenhouse gases, directly impact biodiversity. For example, large dams are built for hydroelectric power, fragmenting river hydrology and ecosystems and stopping fish migrations and reproduction.
Luxuries such as gold and gems do not come from living things. But their extraction involves great damage to habitats. Take diamonds for example. Some 90% of diamonds worldwide originate from unknown sources. Diamond mining uses large amounts of mercury and cyanide, polluting rivers and soil and poisoning many terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals.
Palm oil is used in some daily products such as soap, cosmetics, foodstuffs and even industrial products like anti-rust agents and car fuel additives. The high demand has led to large scale destruction of native forests in some countries, to plant African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis). From 2009 to 2011, a quarter of rainforests in Indonesia were felled by the palm oil industry. If the situation continues, it is estimated that three quarters of native forests in South East Asia will disappear by 2030. Rainforest is a treasury of many living things. Its vanishing directly affect global biodiversity.
Some large-scale infrastructure such as building railroads and highways in the countryside will fragment natural habitats. More long-distance cross-border traffic means more chance of bringing exotic species from one place to another, creating problems of invasive species that threaten native species. All these factors affect biodiversity to different extents.
Everyone should take up responsibility
Hong Kong’s first Action Plan will soon be released. We hope that the government can pinpoint the causes of loss of biodiversity locally, and publish more effective measures for conservation. In Hong Kong, large-scale infrastructure is the greatest threat to local biodiversity. Avoidance, alleviation and mitigation must be adopted in infrastructure works, to protect local habitats and species. At present, only certain habitats and species of conservation value are protected. The loopholes in legislation should be mended.
At the same time, consideration of biodiversity should be adopted in the work guidelines of all government departments. Protection of biodiversity should be taken into consideration in routine work, works and procurement. Many products, such as paper from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), are certified as being less harmful to biodiversity, and can be purchased by the government departments. ISO14000 and ISO14001 are the management standards related to environmental protection. Encouraging the commercial sector to adopt these standards in their management can also help to protect biodiversity.
Individually, we can also contribute a lot. First we should say “No!” to products and foods that originate from rare species. They are not necessities and substitutes can be easily found. We should pay more attention to the sources of what we use and eat. In recent years, some green groups have prepared eco guidance for choosing seafood so our consumption will not deplete the ocean resources. More and more personal care products avoid palm oil or choose POIG (the Palm Oil Innovation Group) certified palm oil, which originates from sustainable palm plantations. Reduce electricity use, use public transport and bringing no foreign species back to Hong Kong can all help to protect local biodiversity.
Protecting biodiversity means proper and sustainable use of natural resources. It is an issue close to our daily lives. We hope that the Action Plan can heighten public awareness of biodiversity, and allow Hong Kong people to choose an environmentally friendly way of consumption in order to conserve biodiversity.
Text | Henry Lui & Dr. Cheng Luk-ki