The Pearl River Delta area has long been a symbol of China's rapid development but the region's rapid industrialisation and enviable growth in living standards have come with a high environmental price tag that only now is being questioned.
The World Wildlife Fund has taken the initiative and conducted research of manufacturing industries in the region with a view to helping them reduce their carbon footprint.
According to the WWF, emissions of carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) could be reduced by 74m tonnes a year if factories across the region join a new WWF programme for low carbon manufacturing (LCMP).
The PRD constitutes about 30% of the total value of China's exports and represents the world's highest concentration of manufacturing infrastructure, according to Karen Ho, Business Engagement Leader at WWF.
There are around 55,000 HK-invested factories in the PRD, so the WWF is encouraging HK businesses to take the lead in helping clean up the PRD region, which has served as a low-cost manufacturing base for HK's rag trade and other industries for so long.
WWF's preliminary analysis of garments, plastics and electronics companies that joined the LCMP pilot phase last year shows that cuts of between 12% and 24% cuts in annual emissions are possible at “low cost” and with “quick returns”.
With sponsorship support from Bowen Capital Asia Green Dragon Fund, and in partnership with Ecofys and the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC), WWF's Hong Kong branch has designed the LCMP to provide manufacturers with a carbon accounting and labelling system, which includes a standard approach to measure and analyse the carbon performance of their factories.
Using WWF's exclusive software and checklists, factories can measure and manage their emissions.
But will they? Habits of a lifetime die hard and until now efficieny,conservation and pollution control have hardly been high priorities for factory owners in the PRD.
The WWF argues that those ingrained attitudes are finally starting to change.
Factories in the region are feeling mounting pressure from two sides: government authorities are urging them to increase energy efficiency, while sourcing managers in multinationals are increasingly asking their suppliers searching questions about green products due to consumer demand abroad. The LCMP pilot phase shows that this is not a threat for factories in the region, but an opportunity they should grasp.
Speaking at the launch of the initiative, Philip Kwok-wing Yeung, executive director of the Clothing Industry Training Authority, said:
Not only are consumers looking for products made with environmentally-friendly materials, but they are also looking for low carbon manufacturing processes, so as to minimise the total environmental impacts of the products they buy. The garment sector is under intense price competition. If manufacturers can credibly demonstrate their green qualifications, it will provide them with an additional competitive advantage, other than price.”
The WWF's LCMP initiative is a move in the right direction and its sophistication will surprise those who normally associate the WWF with emotive appeals to animal lovers in the west rather than pilot studies of factories in China.