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Dirty cousin? Not anymore as Shenzhen’s green quest leaves Hong Kong miles behind

In less than a decade, the city has cut pollution by 50pc and rolled out an all-electric bus fleet, with the target to replace all fuel-powered taxis by 2020

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2018, 9:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2018, 11:00pm

It’s easy to imagine how people in Hong Kong shook their heads in disbelief in 2002 when Shenzhen received a top award by the United Nations for being one of the world’s most environmentally friendly cities. At the time, the southern Chinese city was considered no more than a polluted factory town that one wouldn’t visit unless absolutely necessary, usually for business or shopping for counterfeit goods.

This notion is out of date. Shenzhen, once known for spewing out dark clouds of toxic smoke, has done much to clean up and transformed into China’s most sustainable city, according to several research reports.

In the city, things like livability and lifestyle have undergone enormous changes – with new parks and restaurant areas, better housing and improved air quality. Walking down the streets in Futian or Nanshan, the finance and tech areas, is a cleaner experience than being in the congested streets in Central or Causeway Bay in Hong Kong. In less than a decade, Shenzhen has reduced its average air pollution by around 50 per cent, according to city authorities.

“The Shenzhen government has been very aggressive in cutting roadside air pollution and planting trees along the streets. The Hong Kong government, on the other hand, is extremely slow,” says Edwin Lau Che-feng, founder and executive director of environmental group The Green Earth in Hong Kong. “It’s very frustrating”.

Shenzhen has made global headlines for being the first major city in the world to roll out an all-electric public bus fleet. In 2009, it was chosen as one of 13 Chinese cities to pilot a national new-energy vehicle programme. Today, the city has three times more electric buses than the entire fleet of all buses in New York, and nearly eight times the total of Los Angeles. Lau says the e-bus fleet is not just good for air quality, it represents  the city being at the forefront of green novelty.

The city’s electric taxi fleet is substantial as well. Standing by a crossing in central Shenzhen, one would estimate that more than half of all taxis were e-cars from BYD, the Shenzhen-based battery and electric vehicle maker in which American tycoon Warren Buffett is an investor. The city’s transport commission said in December that 62.5 per cent of all taxis in the city were electric, with the goal to turn the fleet all-electric.

Last year the city offered 3.3 billion yuan (US$514.4 million) in subsidies for e-buses and the construction of charging facilities, as well as encouraging taxi operators and private investors to invest in charging poles and stations for e-taxis.

The Shenzhen Daily, citing Shenzhen’s public transport administration bureau’s public transport department head Zheng Jingyu, reported that the city will gradually replace the existing fuel-powered taxis with electricity-powered ones by 2020, or earlier.  

According to the bureau, electric buses could save the energy equivalent of 366,000 tonnes of standard coal, replacing 345,000 tonnes of fuel and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 1.35 million tonnes. The e-taxis will save the energy equivalent of 119,000 tonnes of standard coal, replacing 116,000 tonnes of fuel.

The Shenzhen government has been very aggressive in cutting roadside air pollution and planting trees along the streets. The Hong Kong government, on the other hand, is extremely slow
Edwin Lau, The Green Earth

Across all categories of vehicles, including logistics, rental vehicles and private cars, the city is implementing regulations, incentives and measures to enable the rapid shift to low carbon, zero-pollution transport. It is also planning to expand its metro line system to become the world’s largest, and aims to have 80 per cent of its new buildings green-certified by 2020.

The World Economic Forum says the world can learn from China’s example. Out of the world’s estimated 385,000 electric buses, 90 per cent are in China. Every five weeks, 9,500 brand new electric buses take to the roads in China. That’s the equivalent to the entire London bus fleet, according to Bloomberg Energy Finance data. Only 1.6 per cent of city buses in Europe are electric, and a smaller 0.5 per cent in the US.

Likewise, Hong Kong has a long way to catch up with mainland China. The city’s vaunted two-year trial run of electric taxis, funded by the government’s Pilot Green Transport Fund, has gone nowhere. KMB experimented with electric vehicles as early as 2010, but neither the operator nor the government has taken decisive steps towards establishing a significant electric fleet.  

“After several years of trying, the pilot schemes just don’t lift to the next level,” says The Green Earth’s Lau. “Hong Kong politicians all go to Shenzhen and see the advancements happening there, but for some reason they don’t bring the good examples of improvement back to Hong Kong.”

While Hong Kong officials seem to struggle in finding its way forward, compliments are coming in over Shenzhen’s green push. Global management consultancy McKinsey & Company says that Shenzhen is the “most sustainable city” in China. Shenzhen also tops a report by PwC in terms of sustainability and natural environment; the firms highlighted how technological innovation and balanced development are the keys to building “cities of opportunity”.

“Shenzhen is the vanguard of China’s ambition to be known not just for rapid urbanisation and modernisation, but also – despite the high levels of pollution in many urban areas – of sustainable city development,” the WWF said in a report.

China’s government launched a war on pollution in 2014. In four years, Chinese cities have cut concentrations of fine particulates in the air by 32 per cent on average. In Shenzhen, levels of toxic PM 2.5 averaged 28.5 micrograms per cubic metre last year, about half of Beijing’s levels, according to Greenpeace. Average PM 2.5 levels – the worst offender in terms of public health – dropped by over 30 per cent in Shenzhen between 2013 and 2016, according to World Health Organisation data.

The fight is far from over. The Shenzhen municipal government plans to complete about 111 billion yuan in investment by 2020, with the aim of forming a systematic solution to the modernisation of environmental protection, according to Chinese media reports.

Shenzhen – Deng Xiaoping’s first economical experiment zone – is again leading the way, this time in greening up its urban environment. And Hong Kong has been left with a lot to learn from its “dirty cousin” across the border.

(The full version of this article is published in the June issue of The Peak magazine, available at selected bookstores)