Climate change: Hong Kong must set clear targets, timelines before it becomes too late to avoid weather disaster, experts warn

·11-min read

Humanity’s need to tackle climate change is more pressing than ever, with the United Nations warning last week global warming would accelerate at a faster-than-expected pace over the next 20 years. In this four-part series, the Post examines its impact on the city, how the Hong Kong government can best play catch-up, and who is walking the talk in the private sector. Part three looks at what Hong Kong needs to do to avoid the threat of disaster brought on by extreme weather patterns. Read part one here and part two here.

When it comes to climate change, 2050 is the year to watch. Scientists worldwide agree that is the deadline to prevent Earth from overheating by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which will spell intense storms, hotter weather, drought and other disasters.

Hong Kong is also aiming to reach carbon neutrality by that year, which means it must take drastic action to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases it produces by cutting the use of fossil fuels.

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Although its 2050 goal is on par with developed nations in the region like Japan or South Korea, local scientists and environmental activists say the city’s current policies are not moving fast enough to curb carbon emissions in time.

Observers note a lack of concrete plans to cut emissions in the city’s most carbon-intensive sectors such as energy and transport. In this, Hong Kong trails mainland China, which has pledged to increase the use of renewable energy and expand its forests.

They say Hong Kong, as one of Asia’s richest cities with a per capita gross domestic product of more than US$46,700, should be among the cities leading the charge to tackle climate change.

“If you have a moral sensibility … you can see that Hong Kong has an enormous responsibility in the context of climate change,” said Paul Harris, chair professor of Global and Environmental Studies at Education University.

His view echoed a United Nations “code red for humanity” climate report last week, warning the world would be 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer within the next 20 years and urging drastic carbon-cutting measures immediately.

WWF-Hong Kong’s Karen Ho says Hongkongers should think carefully about their consumption habits. Photo: Edmond So
WWF-Hong Kong’s Karen Ho says Hongkongers should think carefully about their consumption habits. Photo: Edmond So

Hong Kong’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions have decreased from a peak of 6.2 tonnes in 2014 to 5.3 tonnes in 2019, according to official data, reflecting efforts by the government to move from reliance on coal and increase the energy efficiency of buildings, which use most of the city’s electricity.

But Harris pointed out that the city had not taken into account consumption emissions, from the importation of everything from food and clothes to building materials, electronics, appliances and more.

Per capita consumption-based emissions in 2018 stood at 14.68 tonnes, almost on par with the United States (17.63 tonnes), and nearly double that of Britain (8.05 tonnes), based on data compiled by researchers at the University of Oxford.

Hongkongers should think carefully about their consumption habits and change, by eating less meat and not wasting food, for example, said Karen Ho, head of corporate and community sustainability at WWF-Hong Kong.

Her group also encourages people to consider donating old clothes instead of throwing them away. “Hongkongers can’t see the amount of resources that go into, and emissions that come out of, producing the things we use because it’s all imported,” she said.

To raise awareness and prompt people to think before they buy, Ho suggested tagging items to state the amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated from their production and importation.

Hong Kong authorities said in 2017 the city would aim to cut annual carbon emissions to less than 4.5 tonnes by 2020, and to 3.3 to 3.8 tonnes by 2030.

That reflected a transition away from coal as the main source of energy and to the use of cleaner natural gas.

But critics said the city was doing too little, too slowly despite its rich talent pool and access to existing technology, putting it behind mainland China, particularly in the energy and transport sectors.

The Environment Bureau told the Post that government departments would take note of the findings of the UN report when formulating Hong Kong’s own climate actions, and an updated climate change plan would be unveiled by the end of the year.

Environment minister Wong Kam-sing has previously said his department would adopt suggestions in a report by government advisers last year, which included further studying the safe use of nuclear energy, fostering sustainable architecture and moving towards low-carbon transport systems such as electric vehicles.

Experts urged the government to move faster and set clearer timelines for action.

A wind turbine power plant in Xinjiang, China. Photo: Shutterstock
A wind turbine power plant in Xinjiang, China. Photo: Shutterstock

‘Hong Kong as a leader, not follower’

Jeffrey Hung Oi-shing, chief executive of green NGO Friends of the Earth-HK, said that in terms of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, Hong Kong was trailing mainland China which had pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

China plans to increase the share of non-hydropower renewable energy, which means solar or wind power, to 25.9 per cent by 2030. Its climate change envoy Xie Zhenhua said earlier this month that it would announce updated emissions reduction plans at a UN climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, later in the year.

Hung said: “Even though China’s carbon neutral target is slower than ours by 10 years, at least they are taking action.”

He pointed out that Beijing’s recently updated target of getting 40 per cent of its energy from nuclear and renewable energy by 2030 was an improvement, whereas Hong Kong had not updated its goals.

A scheme to install solar panels on private properties in Hong Kong has received more than 13,000 applications. Photo: Shutterstock
A scheme to install solar panels on private properties in Hong Kong has received more than 13,000 applications. Photo: Shutterstock

A climate change plan released in 2017 set Hong Kong the target of obtaining up to 4 per cent of its power needs from renewable sources in 2030, but local researchers say that could be increased to at least 10 per cent.

At present, 65 per cent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the power sector, which mostly relies on fossil fuels. Natural gas accounts for half, with coal and nuclear energy accounting for a quarter each.

Renewable energy sources, which do not emit greenhouse gases, only make up about 1 per cent.

Although minister Wong promised to expand a pilot scheme for floating solar panels in the city’s reservoirs, which already generates enough electricity for 36 average households for a year, he has yet to announce further details.

Meanwhile, a scheme to install solar panels on private properties received more than 13,000 applications and 90 per cent were approved. Once it started running, Wong said, the power generated could meet the needs of more than 60,000 households. He had previously said it would be “more than enough” to power all the homes in Kowloon’s Whampoa Gardens.

Elsewhere in Asia, South Korea has plans for a US$32 billion floating wind farm, which will be the biggest in the world and capable of providing power to 5.7 million households.

South Korea has plans for a US$32 billion floating wind farm. Photo: Bloomberg
South Korea has plans for a US$32 billion floating wind farm. Photo: Bloomberg

Edwin Lau Che-feng, executive director of environmental group The Green Earth, said Hong Kong did not have to be a follower when it came to climate policies and could tap existing talent among local academics and in relevant industries to do more, quicker.

He suggested looking harder at green hydrogen power, which is manufactured using clean sources of energy. It is generated by using water and renewable energy, and has recently been recognised as a solution to decarbonising energy-intensive sectors.

Hydrogen is used mainly now as fuel for buses and cars, but most hydrogen production still relies on fossil fuels.

Lau said the government could look at building an offshore green hydrogen terminal for the gas imported from elsewhere.

The green hydrogen industry is just taking off in China, but global leader Japan has announced plans to produce 10 million tonnes a year and create a commercial supply chain by 2030.

While the gas has been touted as a clean alternative for use in power generation, recent studies suggest it may not be as sustainable as previously thought due to the energy-intensive manufacturing process.

Families cycling and enjoying the outdoors along the Tai Po to Shatin Cycle Track. Photo: Felix Wong
Families cycling and enjoying the outdoors along the Tai Po to Shatin Cycle Track. Photo: Felix Wong

Get people to walk more, drive less

Hung wanted the government to do more to decarbonise the transport sector and move away from vehicles using fossil fuels such as diesel and petrol.

Hong Kong has more than 800,000 licensed vehicles, including more than 500,000 private cars and 18,000 taxis. There were about 18,500 private electric cars last year, but getting taxis to switch to electric vehicles has proved a challenge. A trial for taxis failed in 2013, and the government is planning a new test run.

“We are still only at a blueprint stage when it comes to electric vehicles, but look at neighbouring Shenzhen, all their taxis are electric,” Hung said. “We have the technology and our universities have the research capability, so why don’t we do it?”

Under a newly announced road map on the use of electric vehicles, the government is expected to reveal its timeline for adopting commercial electric vehicles by 2025. For now, it will conduct trials involving public transport and goods vehicles.

The plan also calls for an end to the sale of private vehicles using fossil fuel by 2035.

People look at a Tesla electric car displayed at a shopping mall in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP
People look at a Tesla electric car displayed at a shopping mall in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

There were other ways Hong Kong could start doing more in the right direction, including encouraging the use of bicycles instead of cars.

Hung suggested improving bicycle lanes to make it easier for people to get between their homes and train stations, and planting more trees to cool sidewalks and encourage people to walk.

Harris said there were “lots of simple, simple things” the government could do, which not only would contribute to further carbon cuts but also improve the quality of life for Hongkongers.

These included building public housing that was better insulated to stay cooler for longer and reduce the use of air-conditioning, he said.

This would cost more in the short term, but Harris said the long-term benefits far outweighed the cost, and Hong Kong was not ready to face the future impacts of climate change, such as extreme storms and heat.

He said Hong Kong was wealthy enough to “buy its way out of problems”, but it was not ready to deal with the medium- and long-term impacts of climate change.

Hong Kong can do more in the right direction, such as encouraging the use of bicycles and planting more trees, green groups say. Photo: May Tse
Hong Kong can do more in the right direction, such as encouraging the use of bicycles and planting more trees, green groups say. Photo: May Tse

Professor Christine Loh Kung-wai, chief development strategist at the University of Science and Technology’s division of environment and sustainability, said the government had to give developers incentives to build new green buildings and retrofit old ones to make them more energy efficient.

“You can’t depend on the market,” she said, suggesting that the authorities and industry work together to achieve net-zero buildings and find best practices to set standards.

The government also had to make clear to businesses it was serious about policy-making to address climate change.

Her sentiment was echoed by Dr Cary Chan, executive director of the Hong Kong Green Building Association. He hoped the authorities could work with the building industry to develop new technologies, as in Singapore.

That would make the process of approving new technology easier, and they could also look at amending rules to encourage developers to aim for the highest green building standards, for example.

Dire warning for Hong Kong as UN issues ‘code red’ report on climate crisis

Although Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has pledged to lead cross-departmental efforts to tackle climate change herself, the experts remained concerned about the government’s willingness to make environmental policies a priority.

They also wished there could be more consultation with green groups.

Hung said that in the past, policymakers held informal discussions with representatives of environmental groups and that gave them a hand in helping craft measures to improve and preserve Hong Kong’s natural heritage.

There had been fewer such meetings recently, he said, adding that the environmental department only invited some green groups to a recent meeting about a scheme to charge drinks manufacturers for plastic bottles.

“These meetings are a good way for us to offer our expertise and share insights on experiences from abroad that could be applied in Hong Kong,” he said, hoping for more dialogue ahead of new plans.

Environmental activists urge the government to set a clear timeline for carbon neutrality in 2050. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
Environmental activists urge the government to set a clear timeline for carbon neutrality in 2050. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Veteran activist Lau, who has been involved in green issues for more than 30 years, agreed there were fewer opportunities to interact now.

“It is a pity. It’s made it harder to properly explain new environment policies to the public,” he added.

He urged the government to set a clear timeline for achieving carbon neutrality in 2050, spelling out which government departments must work with the environment authorities, and identifying the industries which would have to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

He hoped the government would meet green groups and industry leaders and get their input before releasing the climate change plan.

“They need to say exactly how much carbon they intend to cut in the next five years, 10 years, 20 years, and try to cut as much as possible in the start. That way, the last stretch to 2050 will be easier to achieve.”

Additional reporting by Sammy Heung

The first instalment of this series looked at how human activity is leading to extreme weather and consequences. The second part focused on the Hongkongers most affected by changing weather patterns.

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