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Paris climate summit 2015

Rich Hong Kong is failing to keep up with worldwide movement to slow climate change

John Sayer says wealthy, capable Hong Kong has no excuse for being such a laggard in cutting greenhouse gas emissions

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 4:42pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 4:42pm

Ambitious targets for holding down global warming have been agreed in Paris, but their achievement will entirely depend on the concrete action plans that follow.

In many countries, enlightened local government leaders are not waiting for their national politicians to take the lead. They are already going ahead with city-based, regional or subnational initiatives on greenhouse gas reductions and green living. Rather than wrangling about who does what and who pays what, city governments are learning from one another and sharing ideas on technology and community programmes.

We have a government which seems to be waiting for others to move first before it is ready to decide or announce what it can do

There were more than 450 city mayors and a total of over 1,000 local government officials in Paris. They showed off a range of inspiring examples of what they are already doing to contribute towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

During the climate conference, tours were organised to green initiatives around Paris, including new work on green buildings, zero-emission transport schemes and new green districts. These programmes demonstrate that if thought is given to green transport facilities, waste recycling, water management and decentralised energy generation at the design stage of urban renewal or new town projects, then the costs of these vital green features are a small proportion of the overall project costs.

Many governments, businesses and other organisations accept that we need to achieve zero, or near-zero, carbon emissions by 2050 if we are to reverse the trend of dangerous global warming. To that end, 17 leading cities, including London, Sydney and Yokohama, have committed to ambitious targets and are putting in place programmes to change energy generation and consumption.

Hong Kong is not part of this parade of advanced world cities. For many of us, the city is noticeable only by its absence of either inspiring ideas or meaningful targets.

READ MORE: Hong Kong won’t be immune to the risks of climate change

Hong Kong ranks among the top 10 in the world in terms of GDP per capita, higher than most European countries. Yet our greenhouse gas emissions per capita, embedded in imported goods, of about 9 tonnes per year rank second highest in the world. The SAR has a high degree of economic, financial and social autonomy from the rest of China. We have conscientious institutions, compact infrastructure, agile and sophisticated financial institutions, good governance, well-informed planners and innovative scientific institutions. We have an infrastructural development budget that must be the envy of most comparable cities.

All these factors should enable Hong Kong to lead not only the nation but also the region in imaginative and groundbreaking green development. Ambitious goals for zero emissions would contribute to China’s achievement of national carbon reduction goals, and these could create jobs and business in engineering and green finance that other countries will be needing in order to achieve the agreement signed in Paris.

READ MORE: Cities, not nations, will lead fight against climate change

Instead, we have a government which seems to be waiting for others to move first before it is ready to decide or announce what it can do. Hong Kong has carbon intensity targets (the proportion of greenhouse gases emitted, rather than the absolute amount) that are barely better than the rest of China – yet China needs to tackle poverty reduction in remote undeveloped areas. Hong Kong’s unambitious emissions targets are easily achieved by changing our energy generation from coal to gas.

The talk in Paris was unambiguous – we need to move to a future free of fossil-fuel use. The only question concerned how quickly we can do this. Therefore, Hong Kong’s move from coal-fired electricity generation to gas-fired can only ever be seen as a transitional step towards meeting global warming targets.

READ MORE: Climate deal ‘progressive’, says Hong Kong’s environment chief, but greens want more action

Isolated showcase projects and intensity reduction schemes are no substitute for firm greenhouse gas reduction targets, 100 per cent renewable energy goals, and a date for achieving a zero-carbon economy. These are not radical goals. The national delegations at the climate conference have been talking in these terms throughout the meetings, culminating in the final agreement.

Businesses and individual consumers in Hong Kong can and must contribute to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. But they can only do this if the government takes the lead in setting the city’s overall targets and strategy, puts in place a level playing field, and offers up incentives and penalties. Businesses are not afraid to step up to the climate challenge, but they need clear leadership from the government about what this means.

Hong Kong is not part of this parade of advanced world cities. For many of us, the city is noticeable only by its absence of either inspiring ideas or meaningful targets

Many of us following the talks in Paris return to Hong Kong with a growing sense of impatience and frustration, as well as a host of questions. Why is Hong Kong choosing to be a laggard rather than a leader? First, there is our moral responsibility – as a wealthy, historical emitter of carbon – to do more than the rest of China, and more than much of the rest of the world, on greenhouse gas reduction. Then there are the lost opportunities to develop business and finance in the new areas of a green economy that are certain to emerge worldwide as a result of the Paris agreement. We are watched by competing Chinese cities that are just waiting to grab the green baton and run ahead of Hong Kong. Then there’s the very real investment risk that will grow if companies in Hong Kong are not encouraged to embrace a green future.

Last but not least, there is the question of healthy and safe lifestyles for our own citizens – a greener economy, renewable energy and reduced waste are essential for the physical and mental health of all of us in Hong Kong.

John Sayer is a director of Carbon Care Asia and a member of the Hong Kong NGO delegation to the UN climate change conference in Paris