Halloween this year was quite unusual for us—around two dozen of university students from across Hong Kong. At 3 a.m. on Halloween, we were huddled in a seminar room on a hill in the New Territories, exhausted but happy. There was a cardboard water cooler with hand-drawn faces stuck on it lying next to one of the groups. However, contrary to what you might think, the water cooler was not a Halloween costume. Instead, it was a prototype for a solution that could contribute to tackling climate change.
All of us—representing many of Hong Kong's publicly funded universities—were selected to attend a two-day Design Thinking Workshop "How can Hong Kong become a model green city?", moderated by The Pocket Parks Collective. With the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change set to meet in Paris in December, the activity was proposed by the Consulate General of France in Hong Kong and Macau (the Consulate) as a way to raise awareness of climate change among young people. The workshop was co-organized by the Consulate, the Hong Kong Sustainable Campus Consortium (HKSCC), and the University of Hong Kong (HKU).
The weekend began with an introduction to the gravity of climate change by Mr Fai Hui, co-founder of GoGreenHongKong.com.
"Climate change is not about polar bears, low-lying islands, droughts or climate refugees. All these are distant examples. We need to bring the issue close to home," said Fai, who is also an urban farming and horticulture instructor.
To drive the point home, Fai shared some shocking data about Hong Kong's carbon emissions, two of which we found to be especially noteworthy. Firstly, although Hong Kong's per capita emission of 6 tonnes may seem only slightly above the global average, this number does not take into account emissions caused by air travel. If air travel were to be included in the calculations, the per capita emission of Hong Kong would skyrocket to 13.4 tonnes. That's more than double the global per capita emission of around 5 tonnes.
However, what is perhaps even more shocking is that Hong Kong is the largest per capita consumer of meat in the world, topping countries like the United States! An average Hong Kong resident consumes around 125 kilograms per year, bringing with it significant health and environmental consequences.
"Everything that is convenient has tremendous impact," Fai added, referring to fast-food, fast-fashion and Hong Kong's fast-paced life.
We were then split into five groups to brainstorm solutions using design thinking methodology, which places the user at the core of any solution. After narrowing down the problem we planned to address, the teams then set out to conduct interviews to obtain firsthand information about users' habits and choices.
Approaching strangers who were busy on their way took a lot of confidence and courage, but it turned out that most people were willing to chat with us about their consumption habits. Our interview method was called "empathy interviews" precisely because it aimed to help us to see from the interviewee's standpoint rather than judge them. This is easier said than done because we all have this tendency to jump to conclusions on whether someone's actions are "right" or "wrong". The exercise really enabled us to start thinking more about our own thought - habits and tendencies.
After a long (but fun!) night of reiterating and refining our proposals, we were ready to showcase our prototypes. Though we were slightly delirious given how late we had stayed up to work on our presentations, we were so excited and eager to share our refined ideas to our fellow participants, the Consul-General of France, senior officials of the University of Hong Kong and City University of Hong Kong, current convenor of the HKSCC and, of course, the Secretary for the Environment, Mr K S Wong. One of the objectives of the competition/workshop was to provide a way for Hong Kong university students to share their views regarding climate change with Mr Wong, who will represent Hong Kong as part of the China Delegation to COP21.
Though our presentations were officially called a "competition", in reality it did not feel that way. We had seen not only the evolution of all the groups' ideas and solutions but also the genuine effort that had been put in. Furthermore, all these solutions would impact all our lives in a positive manner so it did not matter which group "won" or "lost". Perhaps this is a "positive outcome" of climate change—it forces us to see our interconnectedness as one human family. We are all winners or we are all losers.
Two of the groups focused on how to encourage more people to decrease meat consumption. One group proposed to make use of information technology to inform people about the nutritional value of vegetarian diet. They proposed that people might become more willing to try meatless meals and feel good about their choice if they were able to easily make comparisons with the nutrition in meat diet. Another group suggested the creation of a "Mobile Kitchen" on their university campus, getting students and staff to regularly try vegetarian meals by inviting celebrity chefs to cook fresh and unique vegetarian dishes for them to taste and then try to make at home. They also noted that this format could have great impact if it were to be replicated across geographic communities in Hong Kong.
Another group showed their innovative design for water fountains, proposing that interactive fountains might encourage more people to bring a reusable bottle with them. Their cardboard prototype came in handy as it clearly communicated their vision and the interest an interactive fountain would generate. And yet another group aimed to tackle climate change by increasing the incentive to reduce the use of disposable coffee cups that generate a huge amount of waste on university campuses every day. Their solution was to set up a system that enabled students to borrow reusable tumblers or travel mugs for free right outside the cafe.
Last but not least, the group that nabbed the top prize proposed an original Hong Kong-centred travel website that aims to encourage domestic tourism. Their website shows the carbon emissions that you save when you choose to stay in Hong Kong instead of taking a plane abroad. However, what is more innovative is that if you search the name "Paris", their website will show you places in Hong Kong that look like Paris!
Overall, the one and a half days workshop enabled all of us to learn more about how pressing the issue of climate change truly is. It was also truly empowering to feel the impact we could all have if we put our heads together to come up with practical and easy-to-do solutions. Furthermore, this initiative shows us that the government is eager to listen to the ideas of the young. We hope that there will be more such initiatives so that more university students can feel motivated and empowered to make a positive difference to Hong Kong.
Written by Suki Su and Temily Tianmay, HKU Students and Representatives for HKU as Official Observers to COP 21