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Climate change

What has Hong Kong done to tackle climate change? Next to nothing

Benoit Mayer says the city’s failure to fully join the battle against climate change, with excuses such as a lack of space or the cost of clean energy, displays a lack of sincere commitment to sustainable development

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 June, 2017, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 June, 2017, 7:51pm

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement was unfortunate. A developed economy has a lot to gain from investing in clean energy. It also has a responsibility due to its contribution to climate change and its economic capability. Fortunately, other countries remain steadily committed to climate action.

But what about Hong Kong? Does its small size exonerate the city from any action at all? This line of reasoning has been the greatest impediment to climate action anywhere in the past quarter of a century, as every government thought its efforts would only have a negligible effect. Few countries did anything at all, and none enough to avoid the risk of a climate crisis.

We are taught not to litter: not because one piece of paper thrown on the street would have a big impact; issues would only arise if many did the same. We know we need to act as responsible citizens, displaying behaviour for all to adopt. But what credibility does the government have in asking us to act responsibly when it itself ignores global responsibilities?

Hong Kong joined the C40 Large Cities Climate Leadership Group in 2007. But it has since failed to complete any of the four phases of the initiative.

Cities, not nations, will lead fight against climate change

In September 2010, the Environment Bureau held a public consultation on an objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020. Yet, as of 2014, emissions had increased by 9 per cent.

In January, the bureau circulated Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan 2030+, a late effort to implement the Paris Agreement. The plan will be among issues debated by the Legislative Council environmental affairs panel in a meeting on June 26.

The Action Plan confirms an objective of a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Given the current trends, this appears highly unlikely. The plan also announces that emissions would peak and start decreasing “by 2020”, which is inconsistent with achieving a sharp decrease within the same time.

For the most part, the plan recycles measures that have already been adopted to reduce local air pollution, namely a shift from coal to gas in power generation and efforts to save energy. It also promises to develop renewable energy to cover 3 per cent of Hong Kong’s power supply by 2030. This is lower than virtually any economy in the world – Singapore has promised 8 per cent; China as much as 20 per cent.

To achieve this 3 per cent supply of renewable energy, the action plan relies on the entry into service of a new waste incinerator. The incineration of non-organic waste is not a source of renewable energy. Burning coal or plastics makes no difference as far as the climate is concerned: both produce greenhouse gases which warm our planet. The plan offers no other concrete option to develop genuine renewable energy.

The government justifies its lack of climate ambition by mentioning the cost of investing in clean energy. This argument is as illegitimate and misguided in Hong Kong as it is in the United States.

Both economies have financial capacities – the lack of which has not prevented India from embarking on its own ambitious plan. Both have a lot to gain by developing technology and know-how in a central sector of the 21st-century economy.

Hong Kong must achieve carbon neutrality, says veteran environmental scientist

Nor is lack of space a good excuse. Wind turbines can be built offshore. Solar panels can float on reservoirs. And as Hong Kong already imports water and nuclear energy from Guangdong, why could it not import renewable energy?

Its small size has not prevented Hong Kong from succeeding. As a large financial and transport hub, Hong Kong can galvanise action much beyond its territory for climate change mitigation. It could be a regional leader in the transition to a sustainable development model. Currently, it lags far behind.

In his 1992 annual policy address, then governor Chris Patten highlighted the role that Hong Kong could play in addressing climate change and the economic opportunity this could represent. In the past quarter of a century, a few announcements were made, little was planned, nothing was done.

What is lacking is not money or space, but a sincere commitment to sustainable development.

Benoit Mayer is assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law. See: http://www.benoitmayer.com