Power to Change

At a recent forum on urban innovations, hosted by the European Union Academic Programme, Dominic Weiss of the Smart City Vienna project gave an inspiring talk about his city’s sustainable development policies. His example of what a people-centric government can achieve despite financial and political constraints was striking. In order to meet EU carbon emission reduction targets, Vienna is implementing a number of green policies, from retrofitting buildings to improving public transport. One of its most impressive achievements is the construction of four crowd-funded solar power plants, with plans for more. Their innovative financing mechanism allows ordinary residents to invest in them, solar panel by solar panel. The electricity is sold to the grid, and investors each receive a 3.1per cent annual return.

In Hong Kong, clean energy investment is impeded by the current regulatory regime and political constraints. The scheme of control agreements between the government and the two power companies bar independent energy producers from entering the market. Electricity currently generated by burning methane at local landfills cannot be sold.

Worse, political pressures discourage the two companies from investing in renewable energy. Legislators representing constituents who want affordable energy bills view with suspicion any proposals to build solar arrays or wind farms, believing them to be a ploy to raise prices via excessive capital investment.

This state of affairs is caused by a dysfunctional political system. The Hong Kong government is seen to be lacking in legitimacy. When people cannot trust in the processes that select their leaders, the leaders rely on their performance to justify their position. This produces a fear of making mistakes and of offending interest groups. Meanwhile, opposition parties, largely powerless, have little incentive to cooperate. The government cannot afford to upset either the power companies or the politicians, so it does very little. It is not just energy. Similar stories play out in many different policy areas.

While Vienna is not perfect, it has a system that basically works. Its political system enjoys popular legitimacy, and its mayor, Michael Häupl, is seen by residents as being “one of them” and has been in office for 20 years. His clout is crucial in pushing through policies that might annoy certain groups or which require the tricky coordination of up to 65 different government departments.

Vienna’s system also produces leaders who are motivated to improve the quality of life for the majority. Weiss plainly stated that the guiding principle behind his city’s sustainability policies was not to benefit corporations or to conserve resources for its own sake, but to serve the people. This stands in stark contrast to Chief Executive Leung Chunying’s comment that sectors matter more than people in representative politics.

In quality of life rankings, Vienna is often near the top, while Hong Kong does not even crack the top 30. If we are ever to catch up, solving the current political impasse is crucial. Whatever shape our constitutional reforms take, they must be trusted to produce leaders who will look out for our well-being.