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World Environment Day: Discussing the state of Macao’s environment with Joe Chan

World Environment Day is held annually on 5 June and is aimed at encouraging the public to consider our impact on the environment
  • Local activist Joe Chan has been raising awareness of environmental protection through his groups Macau Green Student Union and Green Future

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ARTICLE BY

PUBLISHED

READING TIME

Less than 1 minute Minutes

UPDATED: 12 Jun 2024, 3:43 pm

Macao’s rapid development from a small Portuguese enclave into one of the world’s biggest gambling hubs in recent decades has been nothing short of remarkable, but it has come at an environmental cost. Pollution of every type – air, water and light – currently bedevils the SAR. 

So does solid waste. The most recent State of the Environment Report, for example, indicates that residents threw out 1.77 kilograms of solid waste per capita per day in 2022, a figure that is higher than both Hong Kong (1.53 kilograms) and Shanghai (1.05 kilograms). 

[See more: Local activist slams government over plan for ‘ecological island’]

Meanwhile, data indicates that the SAR’s electricity and water consumption have been on a sharp rise since the ending of the Covid-19 pandemic and the revival of tourism, further impacting the environment. 

World Environment Day on 5 June gives residents an opportunity to reflect on the ecological state of Macao. To mark the occasion, Macao News spoke with one of Macao’s leading eco-activists and green educators, Joe Chan, who is a member of two local environmental groups, Macau Green Student Union and Green Future. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

World Environment Day: Discussing the state of Macao’s environment with Joe Chan
Though artificially created, the Cotai wetlands have been an important resource for Macao’s biodiversity – Photo by Photostore HK

What is your assessment of the current state of Macao’s environment? 

It’s worse than before – more and more people, and more and more traffic. Urbanisation is becoming more intense. Light pollution and noise pollution are getting worse. Air pollution is stable because the Macao government puts a lot of focus on air pollution. 

[See more: 15 local properties were honoured at the Macao Green Hotel Awards]

As for wildlife, native species and the local ecosystem, there have been a lot more construction sites and residential areas in Coloane, which have made Macao’s biodiversity worse. There is research each year that counts how many species are in the city, and the species are getting less. 

What do we need to improve most?

Our policies and legislation are very laid back compared to Hong Kong and mainland China. A lot of our recycling [processes] have no legislation. For example, the “polluter pays” principle [that requires those who are responsible for environmental degradation to compensate financially] is not used in Macao. 

[See more: Macao experienced warmer temperatures and declining air quality in 2023]

Many government policies do not have timelines. The government also doesn’t put out a lot of advertising to educate people. 

What is Macao doing right in terms of environmental protection?

The Macao government has made it a priority to invest in resources. For example, in the past four to five years, it has invested a lot of effort in clean recycling, which has increased the recycling rate in Macao. 

[See more: Macao’s first wild plant survey is complete]

Generally, the recycling rate from three-colour recycling bins [that collect paper, metal and plastic] is very low. With clean recycling initiatives, like the Eco Fun Stations, residents take recyclable products to these places. The government has also been stepping up restrictions on the import of single-use disposable plastic waste in the past two years, which we should appreciate. 

Macao’s dense urban environment has been having an increasingly negative impact on local ecology
Macao’s dense urban environment has been having an increasingly negative impact on local ecology – Photo by Joshua J. Cotten

Is it possible for Macao to have a healthy economy and a healthy environment at the same time? 

There is no conflict between sustainability and economic growth. It just depends on the way you put them together. If you are bent on earning all the profit, then you will definitely have a negative impact on the environment. But if you are willing to earn less, you will still have economic growth, but the environment will be able to sustain itself. This is a long-term, win-win policy. 

We are currently on a path that may be a little too focused on economic growth and increasing the amount of tourists. A lot of things are done to cater to tourism. A lot of tourists don’t simply bring financial resources, but they also bring along an environmental burden like waste material. 

[See more: Macao threw away 15 percent more rubbish last year]

We are willing to accept this, but do we have a policy that will allow us to be more like Singapore [in environmental protection]? It is an international tourism city [too], but it has many policies that will force you to behave in a very green manner after you enter the country. You have to follow its guidelines and it educates tourists and residents. In Macao, it’s not like that. Macao is all about catering to the tourists. 

I think this mindset and attitude is wrong. This is why we are constantly in a struggle and why there are so many environmental issues to resolve. 

What are your thoughts about global environmental activists who block traffic or vandalise artwork to publicise their cause?

I strongly advise against the use of extreme tactics. We [in the Macao eco-activism community] feel that many things can be done through mutual negotiation or compromise. We think that there can at least be an agreement and that we can make improvements together. 

How big of a threat is climate change to Macao? 

You can already see that before March of this year, there were 10 consecutive months that broke the local record for the warmest month. November, December, January, February and March were the warmest months since records began. 

What does this mean? The global temperature average [will] keep increasing, and Macao will actually become a tropical [city]. This will affect our tourism. Many of the tourist sites in Macao are outdoor. Excessive heat and rainwater will definitely impact the tourists’ desire to visit Macao, as well as increase the severity of our typhoons and rainstorms. It will also affect our buildings and the lives of our residents. 

[See more: Officials draw up flood mitigation plans as typhoon season nears]

After our sea level rises, it will lead to saltwater intrusion. Many parts of Macao are relatively low-lying and a lot of our areas are reclaimed, so when the sea level rises, it will definitely have an impact on Macao. But the city is still lagging behind. People are not being alerted to this.

Though Macao has made some efforts in recycling, far more needs to be done
Though Macao has made some efforts in recycling, far more needs to be done – Photo by Nick Fewings

What about the government’s plans to build an artificial island from construction waste?

We are worried about the long-term negative impact and we’ll try our best to voice our concerns. 

[See more: Environmentalists propose alternative to Macao’s construction waste island]

Of course, we hope this project won’t go ahead, but if it really does take place, the authorities need to explain how they will ensure [the safety of] the white dolphins and how they will reduce pollution because we are really worried about the long-term impact on Cheoc Van and Hac Sa beaches. We hope that they can provide us with more information.

What projects do you have planned this month? 

I will be cooperating with a Hong Kong butterfly conservation NGO. We hope to be able to bring to Macao a project that will rear some local butterfly species. We’ll go to Hong Kong for a meeting and we hope to learn more [breeding] techniques that we can bring back to Macao. 

[See more: Brace yourself for more typhoons than usual this year]

We’ll also be heading to Hong Kong at the end of June to see the Chinese white dolphins there. We’ll be going out with the [Hong Kong] group to locate the dolphins and see how we can boost cooperation between the two cities in educating the public, raising their awareness of the creatures and the ways to protect them. 

What role should residents play in protecting the environment?

The protection of Macao’s environment shouldn’t only be the government’s responsibility. A lot of the time, residents think that the government will solve the issue, but residents have a responsibility too. 

[See more: There are only 7 countries in the world with safe air]

Macao residents also need to voice out the issues themselves [because] the government is sometimes very passive. We are really lacking in this department. A lot of the time, people will say to me, “We’re relying on you to protect the environment, Joe.” This is totally wrong. I’m only a facilitator. I’m just an educator. We need to step up and voice out [the issues]. If you see an environmental problem, speak up or contact us. 

UPDATED: 12 Jun 2024, 3:43 pm

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