Can Hong Kong become Asia’s greenest city?

C. W. Cheung lists four steps the government can take to transform the city from a resource-guzzling polluter into a protector of nature’s riches

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 June, 2016, 1:25pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 June, 2016, 2:01pm

We are entirely reliant on this single planet, earth, to produce all the natural resources we need for our existence. But, for years, mankind has overconsumed. This year, on April 24, we passed a grim milestone: Hong Kong overshoot day. If everyone lived the way we do in Hong Kong, the world would have used up its entire natural resource “budget” for 2016 by that day – less than four months into the year. Since then, in effect, we have been running a natural resource deficit.

Today, several signs of overshoot can be seen around the globe: carbon accumulation in the atmosphere is exacerbating climate change, while the depletion of fisheries and deforestation is translating into soaring food and commodity costs. These signs will appear more frequently in the near future.

As a major consumption centre and a regional trading hub, Hong Kong can create positive change – not just here, but throughout the Asia-Pacific region. There are at least four major areas where the government can accelerate its sustainability efforts.

The true price of Hong Kong’s insatiable appetite for seafood

The first is something it is working on right now: the city’s first Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, which will be published later this year.

Despite Hong Kong’s relatively small population, we have a large impact on global biodiversity. Our huge appetite for seafood means Hong Kong is ranked second in Asia and seventh globally in terms of per capita seafood consumption. We import seafood from over 170 countries and territories around the world. We are also the world’s shark fin capital, handling about half of the global trade. Our use of paper and timber products is considerable, and as much as 30 per cent by volume of wood-based products on the Hong Kong market may be made from illegal timber. Hong Kong’s consumption of meat, particularly beef, is increasing – leading to more greenhouse gas emissions and intensifying climate change, a major threat to global biodiversity.

Within the biodiversity plan, there are multiple opportunities for action: we can impose stronger regulations on the trade of threatened wildlife species; promote sustainable production and consumption through the use of eco-labels and guides; and set up a stronger legal framework to stop the trade in illegal wildlife products.

Hongkongers willing if not quite ready to embrace sustainable consumption

The second area involves the Council for Sustainable Development, a body tasked with investigating how we can promote the sustainable use of biological resources such as seafood, timber and paper. After learning from overseas governments and soliciting local views, it will issue a paper for a three-month public consultation this month, and submit its recommendations to the government by the end of this year. Heated discussions held following the Consumer Council’s recently published sustainable consumption report have resulted in a consensus: it is high time the government took the lead by leveraging its huge purchasing and trading power to encourage the sale and consumption of more-sustainably-sourced products.

Ecological overshoot not only depletes the earth’s life-support system, it also results in more carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. Today, the largest component of our ecological footprint – 38.7 per cent – is related to carbon emissions produced either directly in Hong Kong, or from the carbon embedded in products that are manufactured elsewhere. In contrast, in 1961, the carbon component made up a quarter of humanity’s total footprint.

Climate change could see half a reservoir of Hong Kong’s potable water evaporate per year, green group says

The third area involves the recently formed Interdepartmental Steering Committee on Climate Change, chaired by the chief secretary. It held its first meeting in April and announced that, by the end of this year, it will determine a carbon reduction target and a working plan for 2030. We are also looking forward to finally seeing the committee’s response to the Paris climate agreement, which commits governments to emissions targets that will cap global warming at well below 2 degrees Celsius.

The committee is comprised of members from 10 policy bureaus and three departments. The logical expectation is that the diversity of its membership will promote a coordinated effort to stop climate change. The committee can – and should – focus on major issues like regulating the sources of emissions, including power stations; requiring property developers to construct more energy-efficient buildings; improving urban planning; and supporting the scale-up of renewable energy resources.

To achieve the 2-degree target, an additional 12 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced globally by 2030. Hong Kong accounts for about 0.1 per cent of global emissions. To reduce our emissions proportionally, we would need to cut an extra 12 megatonnes of emissions. To demonstrate our determination to curb emissions, we should join the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance.

Bright future: How Hong Kong can harness the potential of solar energy

What about the fourth area? For years, Hong Kong’s electricity market has been governed by the scheme of control agreements. There have been numerous complaints about the agreements, particularly the lack of incentives for developing energy efficiency and renewable energy. These agreements are now under review, and the government expects the renewal process to be completed in 2017. It is long past time to develop a new mechanism that will encourage energy efficiency and drive the creation of renewable energy installations – in particular solar and wind power, which are suited to Hong Kong.

Globally, more than 60 countries are actively involved in the research or adoption of plans to address their own ecological footprints. Vancouver, for one, has pledged to become the greenest city in the world by 2020. Can Hong Kong become Asia’s most sustainable city? The public is acutely aware of the challenges. Action in these four areas can help us chart a more sustainable course for our city.

It is time to wake up from the dream that the planet can provide us with everything we want. With our eyes open, we can begin to live within the earth’s limits.

C.W. Cheung is senior head of the Climate and Footprint Programmes at WWF-Hong Kong