Eco Heroes: Deputy Consul General Of France Lilas Bernheim Talks About The French Month Of The Environment

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From September 20th 2016 until October 20th 2016, the Consulat Général de France à Hong Kong et Macao is hosting The Month Of The Environment, a special program of events and activities dedicated to raising Hong Kong’s eco awareness! We talk to Lilas Bernheim, Deputy Consul General about her illustrious career as one of France’s environmental advocates, why the Consulate launched this new program and what she thinks are Hong Kong’s biggest environmental issues. 

Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to be in your current role?

I’ve been a career diplomat for almost 20 years, and as such, I’ve exercised different jobs in many areas and countries. I’ve represented France before the European court of justice, I followed the political situation in Serbia during the last phase until Kosovo’s independence, I’ve negotiated European laws in Brussels and now, as a Deputy Consul General, I’m coordinating the different services and activities of the Consulate General of France in Hong Kong and Macau. During the French Presidency of the Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Climate Convention, ending in November, I was in charge of presenting the goals and progress of the French presidency and informing the Hong Kong community about the preparation of the COP21 from which resulted the Paris Climate Agreement.

You have been an advisor for environmental issues on behalf of France in the EU, can you tell us about that role?

One of my first postings was negotiating European laws to do with the environment in European institutions in Brussels. While I wouldn’t call myself an environmental specialist, this is where I became an “informed observer”. The technical aspects of each file were dealt with by experts of the French government in Paris, who would define the French position that I would then promote during negotiations in Brussels. My role was to make sure the French position would be incorporated in the European law, in a discussion among 27 partners who each had their own national position to defend. This meant I needed to lobby other delegations, to make alliances, to prioritize our interests, and quite often, to make our national position evolve towards compromises, because it is impossible to reach an agreement among many parties if you don’t accept compromises at some point.

What was the impetus to launch the French Month of the Environment?

France has had an environmental policy for a very long time. For example, following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, France has been publishing an environmental report every four years painting a panorama of the state of the different components of the environment, their evolution, the pressures they face and the responses implemented to meet the environmental challenges our society is facing. The sixth edition of this report was published December 5, 2014. Moreover, the French education system has integrated lessons about environmental notions in primary school since 1990 and since 2013 those lessons are compulsory in high school too.

The impetus to launch a Month of the Environment came, on the one side, from the French involvement in the global battle against climate change during its presidency of COP. On 12 December 2015, the world took a big step forward by signing the historic Paris Agreement, a turning point towards a zero-carbon and climate-resilient world. Since then, many other events related to the environment, including this September’s the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s World Conservation Congress in Hawaii and the Climate Change Summit in France are keeping the momentum going. The Paris Agreement will enter into force (and thus become fully effective) when 55 countries that produce at least 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions ratify, accept, approve or accede to the agreement. On September 3rd, the two biggest world emitters of greenhouse gases, China & The US (together they are responsible for 40% of the world’s carbon emissions), have formally ratified the Paris climate change agreement. Early next month, India is expected to ratify as well. This bodes well for an entry into force of the Paris Agreement before the end of the year.

Ahead of the COP22 in Morocco that will take place from the 7th to the 18th of November 2016, the Consulate general of France in Hong Kong & Macau has decided, in cooperation with various local partners, to strengthen the awareness of the local population about climate change and environmental issues.

On the other side, the impetus to launch a France-Hong Kong Month of the Environment came from the acknowledgment that Hong Kong is increasingly tackling environmental issues. 2015 and 2016 were two dynamics years for the local government’s environmental department as they unveiled multiples paramount documents (Hong Kong climate change report in November 2015, The Hong Kong Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan in January 2016 to name two) revealing strategic focus points for the coming years. After the success of similar programs in mainland China and Hungary, the French consulate decided to launch the first edition of the France-Hong Kong Month of Environment in order to gather the widest audience on this topic and complement local efforts.

In concrete terms, our purpose is to increase the cooperation between local partners (universities, companies, NGOs, government departments, primary and secondary schools), a process that started last year with our “Oceans, Rivers and Climate Change: When Climate makes Waves” program, which took place from April 2015 to April 2016.

What do you and the team hope the achieve with this campaign?

With the French Month Of The Environment, we hope to:

  • Sensitize the local audience to environmental issues such as rising sea levels, increase in  typhoon frequency, hot temperature records…
  • Raise awareness among schools pupils and the younger generation.
  • Initiate and/or support collaborations in the field of the environment with NGO/NPO organizations (SWIMS, Bloom Association, MakeASense, ADEME, etc); universities (Stephen Hui Geological Museum of HKU) and companies (Veolia, Vasconi, etc)
  • Promote French innovation and technology in Hong Kong by presenting the works of companies like Veolia, Meo, Asianova and more.
  • Promote French films and documentaries on this subject such as Once Upon The Forest, Quest of Meaning, -Tomorrow, Hurricanes, The Anatomy – Winds of Dhange, The Best Wine in China, Think Global, Act Local and Climatic Architecture to the general public and to students from local universities and secondary schools.

What are the big issues on the table on a global scale?

Unfortunately, there are many big issues to mention:

  • Rising concentration of C02 in the atmosphere: the latest scientific studies reveal that 2016 will be the year that carbon dioxide officially passed the symbolic 400 ppm mark and will never return below that mark in our lifetimes. 8 out of 10 citizens are affected by air pollution worldwide and air pollution is responsible for 3 billion deaths every year. Air pollution increases on average by 8% each year.
  • Decrease of natural resources (fossil energy, water, food): According to the United Nations Convention to Combat against Desertification (UNCCD), by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions where there is absolute water scarcity and two thirds of the population world (5.3 billion people) could be living in water-stressed conditions. The Living Planet report calculates that humans are using 30% more resources than the Earth can replenish each year, which is leading to deforestation, degraded soils, polluted air and water, and dramatic declines in fish population numbers and other species. This year we used up all the Earth resources on the 3rd of August 2016. A larger and richer global population with growing consumption needs will place increasing demands on natural systems for food, water and energy. This growth in demand for agricultural output will have considerable implications for land use and natural ecosystems. A projected population increase of 27% and a wealth increase of 83% by 2030 would imply a demand for agricultural production that is 50 % higher than today’s. Even if agricultural productivity increases at current rates, it would be necessary to expand the global agricultural area by roughly 10 % to meet demand. As for the marine environment, a recent study shows that 40% of the world’s oceans are severely affected by human activities (WWF, 2008). About 80% of the world’s marine fish stocks for which information is available are fully exploited or overexploited (CBD, 2010).
  • Reduction of biodiversity: Since 1st January 2016, 19, 560 species have already disappeared. On average, one animal or plant species becomes extinct every 20 minutes, resulting in 26, 280 species going extinct each year. Nearly a quarter of all plant and animal species could disappear by mid-century due to human activities.
  • And of course, climate change, with more frequent extreme weather events and record-breaking temperatures. In 2015, there were 12% more extreme climate events compared to 1910. And in South Asia, it was about an increase of 56%. In Europe, the figure is 31%. The global temperature of the earth has increased by 1°C from 1901 to 2012.

What are issues you are hopeful will/can get addressed?

The aim of the program is not to implement our own ideas or take our own actions to tackle environmental issues but rather to raise awareness among the local population of future issues that may emerge if anthropogenic activities remain on the same trend as they are today. Boosting local initiatives for a more suitable climate-forward economy, implementing new scientific and academic cooperation between France and Hong Kong and finally broadening the knowledge of the general public about environment vulnerability might be seen as the three mains components of the “France Hong Kong Month of the environment”.

French expertise is already well recognized in Hong Kong, mainly throughout big corporates like Veolia, Suez, Dragages-Bouygues and other SME companies. Futher highlighting their activities is both beneficial to French industry and useful for Hong Kongers to discover their innovative responses when it comes to coping with waste management, pollution and wildlife protection.

In your view as an expat resident of Hong Kong, what do you think are Hong Kong’s most pressing environmental issues?

As any other Hong Kong resident, I think that Hong Kong’s most pressing environmental issues are the ones affecting our daily life: air pollution, more frequent extreme natural phenomenon (typhoons, record-breaking temperatures) and plastic pollution in the sea. One other aspect I’d like to underline is the number of drinking water bottles used per day in Hong Kong when the city’s tap water is recognized as safe and drinkable. Plastic waste accounts for 19.7% of municipal solid waste in Hong Kong. This translates to 1, 826 tons of plastic waste generated every day; among those, 150 tons are plastic bottles.

How can Hong Kong realistic improve its environmental policies?

Hong Kong can, should and is starting to focus its environmental policies on economic sectors that it’s famous for, namely high finance and real estate.

In the area of finance, Hong Kong should seize the opportunity to develop Green Finance in order to support and inject more money into sustainable projects that tackle environmental issues.

When it comes to construction and real estate, there is definitely a need for better regulation for new buildings in term of energy consumption (air conditioners, LED lighting, double glazing). One way to begin is to better regulate and assess the indoor temperature in public buildings.

It’s also important to promote the development of renewable energy or at least to develop support for prototypes to evaluate the local potential.

Finally, more education is needed about waste and sustainability sorting, especially in primary schools. New regulations to reduce waste at the source could be adopted (as was done in France this past February for food waste from supermarkets).


Lead image courtesy of the French Consulate of Hong Kong & Macau. 


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