Orange News: In the Year of the Ox, Hong Kong people have demonstrated strength, diligence, and tenacity amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic will hopefully recede in the Year of the Tiger with social distancing and vaccine booster programmes, the world will need to reckon with potentially more disruptive changes to our economies and societies due to our high-carbon lifestyles and the consequent climate emergency.
Greenhouse gas emissions levels during the pandemic has continued to rise rapidly, as the world continues to be reliant on high-carbon, highly polluting energy sources. Global warming will lead to more frequent heatwaves, sea level rise and more devastating extreme weather events. Furthermore, many of the symptoms of climate change increase the risks of future pandemics. Thawing permafrost in the Arctic is releasing pathogens that haven’t seen daylight in tens of thousands of years. Animal migration due to climate change will lead animals to potentially contact animals they’ve never seen before, leading viruses to jump species and become new diseases. The vast majority of new infectious diseases in the past few decades have come from such viruses jumping to humans. Climate change could hence usher in a new era of deadly pandemics. We need to be prepared from a public health perspective, and more importantly, we need to reduce the risk of these scenarios by undertaking climate mitigation and reducing global warming as quickly as possible.
Let’s recap what Hong Kong has been doing in the past year to tackle climate change. Chief Executive Carrie Lam recognised the importance of a green future, guiding her administration to pass new legislation and introduce ground-breaking climate action plans. The passage of the municipal solid waste charging bill and the announcement of the Roadmap on Popularisation of Electric Vehicles are welcoming signs that the government is committed to creating a low-carbon society. The government has also made strong commitments to address climate change in its Hong Kong Climate Action Plan 2050. The overall target stated in the plan is to reduce total carbon emissions by 50% from 2005 levels before 2035, and to reach net zero before 2050. To reach this ambitious goal, the government has introduced a series of exciting plans to enhance renewable energy, cooperate with regional neighbours on zero-carbon energy, push for cleaner urban transport, increase building energy efficiency, encourage innovation, and focus on building adaptation to combat the adverse effects of climate change.
While significant progress has been made in the Year of the Ox, much more needs to be done. One aspect to highlight in particular is building energy efficiency. Despite multiple campaigns in the past decade to lower demand in buildings, the user of 90% of Hong Kong’s electricity, there was a 21.4% increase in energy consumption in commercial and residential buildings between 2005 and 2019. The Climate Action Plan states that there needs to be a 15-20% decrease by 2035. This is going to be one of the most challenging tasks facing the Hong Kong government in the coming year. An unprecedented level of rigour, urgency, and transparency is needed.
The tiger is known as the king of all beasts, and symbolises strength and braveness. Against the backdrop of heightening government ambition to tackle climate change and the increasing urgency of the climate crisis, the Year of the Tiger can be a year of strong progress for Hong Kong. The government needs to promote green socio-economic development so we can transition to a net zero society. Upon setting a long-term vision, incoming pandemic relief measures can be fitted into its trajectory, so that government policy can simultaneously protect our health, economy, society, and environment. Here are my recommendations for the coming year:
Pursue a low carbon transition as soon as possible
In the coming year, the government should accelerate the implementation of the Climate Action Plan 2050. In particular, it should:
- Commit to actions which rapidly decarbonise electricity supply.
- Get serious about making buildings more energy efficient.
- Curb Hong Kong’s ever-increasing number of private cars, that use more resources, emit more carbon, and cause more congestion.
- Help its lower-income neighbours decarbonise. The government should encourage mechanisms that enable Hong Kong to leverage its role as an international financial centre to direct funding towards countries that need more support to build capacities in mitigation, adaptation, and resilience.
- Integrate just transition considerations into all their actions to help those who are disproportionately vulnerable to disruptions from climate change.
Enhance regional collaboration
There is also ample opportunity for Hong Kong to support and complement decarbonisation efforts in China, particularly the Greater Bay Area (GBA). Given that Hong Kong is reliant on the mainland for energy (more than 25% of our electricity comes from the Daya Bay nuclear power plant) and for water (80% of our water comes from the Dongjiang), the green future of the GBA is intimately intertwined with the long-term sustainability of our critical resources.
Aside from considering how to cooperate on Daya Bay-style clean energy projects, Hong Kong can also deepen collaboration with the GBA on nature-based solutions. These solutions can protect, restore, and improve the management of forests, wetlands, and grasslands, to reduce emissions and store carbon while protecting against climatic events such as extreme weather and sea-level rise. Hong Kong can also perform its role as an international finance centre to promote decarbonisation efforts. We can utilise our financial infrastructure, technical expertise, international capital, and talent base to work with the GBA towards a zero-emissions transition. In the Year of the Tiger, Hong Kong can become a key node in global green finance, one from which innovations can make a difference in the GBA, China, and beyond.
Hong Kong is well-placed to capitalise on these opportunities that lie ahead. With strong ambition, clear policy pathways, community involvement, and concrete action, we can forge a new direction that is cleaner, healthier, safer, greener, and more equitable for all.
Originally published on Orange News on 2 Feb 2022. Written by Lawrence Iu.