Climate change

Hong Kong's climate responsibility

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 April, 2007, 12:00am


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As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reaffirmed last week, global warming and climate change will devastate the lives of millions of people in the poorest parts of the world. Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from Hong Kong are contributing to this devastation.

According to the Kyoto Protocol, as a region of China, Hong Kong is classified as a developing country and therefore not required to limit its greenhouse gas emissions. We are free, according to existing international law, to pollute to our hearts' content, regardless of the impact on the future's most vulnerable people.

From an international perspective, comparing, say, China with the United States, this makes sense because rich countries have been the largest polluters.

However, even though Hong Kong's pollution of the global atmosphere does not violate treaties, it is arguably immoral - and downright callous of us - to continue anything resembling business as usual. Any reasonable conception of social justice requires that a person stop the harm he or she is doing to others.

Justice demands not only that the most affluent polluting states do more to combat climate change, but also that the most affluent people do likewise.

Some might say that all of this is academic. After all, Hong Kong's greenhouse gas emissions are only 0.2 per cent of the global total. We could argue that climate change is not our fault because our individual pollution is very small.

This is true, but if everyone in the world who is as affluent as we are thought this way and behaved accordingly, the result could be quite large - especially as the number of affluent people here and in other parts of China grows into many millions.

What's more, even if our individual - or our city's - impact is not large, as American philosopher Thomas Pogge argues, this is 'an implausible line of argument, entailing as it does that each participant in a massacre is innocent, provided any persons killed would have been killed by others, had he abstained'.

What does this mean for us? It means that we should stop hiding behind China's developing-country status. We should end the unethical fiction that the only thing that matters is justice between nations. Although our legal obligations to cut pollution are nil because we live in China, our responsibility as good global citizens requires that we reduce emissions, sooner rather than later. The implications for Hong Kong and its people are quite clear:

First, the Hong Kong government should dramatically bolster its efforts to tax and regulate carbon-based energy use, and it should take steps to move towards a truly post-carbon economy and society. It could start by pushing for the regulation of carbon as part of cross-border emissions-trading and the electricity providers' new scheme of control. Second, affluent people in Hong Kong - which includes most of us - have at least as much obligation to control their behaviour that pollutes the Earth's climate, as do even poor people living in the wealthier nations.

Even if the Hong Kong government does not force us to do so, all of us ought to act to limit and even drastically reduce our use of energy.

The intergovernmental panel's report focuses on the environmental and social impacts of climate change, and rightly so. But another impact of climate change is going to be on the conscience of Hong Kong's people. We will be less human if we do not acknowledge that our current role is unfair to others, especially the world's most vulnerable people.

And if we do not start behaving more justly towards the world when it comes to our own pollution, history will judge us as being very selfish indeed.

Paul Harris is a professor of political science at Lingnan University