How Hong Kong can find a sustainable future beyond oil, coal and natural gas

Graeme Lang calls for a halt to the city’s unsustainable lifestyle of wasteful energy consumption, and says long-term action could include better use of agricultural land, and a focus on visionary urban design

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 May, 2017, 2:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 May, 2017, 7:49pm

Sustainability policies in government and business are mostly about increasing energy efficiency and reducing waste. These are important, but we need to take a longer-term view.

Keeping a city like Hong Kong moving is only possible with large inputs of coal and natural gas, to produce electricity and fuel to carry people and goods into and around the city. Nuclear power currently supplies about 23 per cent of Hong Kong’s electricity. The rest of the electricity and the non-electrified transport comes from fossil fuels.

Hong Kong’s fuel mix for electricity is currently about 75 per cent fossil fuels

Oil production is near or past peak production, even with increases in “non-conventional” sources. Projections based on the history of oil discoveries indicate that, by later this century, most conventional oil will be gone, or will be unrecoverable because of the high cost. Natural gas will also be mostly gone.

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” has produced temporary increases in oil and gas production, but depletion of fracked wells is very rapid. Recent assessments indicate that fracked oil and gas are likely to provide only a temporary boost to supply: in the US, a couple of decades at most.

Coal will last longer, but for many reasons most societies are trying to replace coal with other sources of energy. And, in any case, supplies of good-quality coal are dwindling and will probably be uneconomical by early next century.

Hong Kong’s fuel mix for electricity is currently about 75 per cent fossil fuels. The mix will change in the coming decades, with some of the coal replaced by natural gas. But there is no possibility of replacing all the energy we get from fossil fuels with renewable energy.

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Before 2011, the government proposed to double the contribution of nuclear power to Hong Kong’s electricity supply. That plan was abandoned after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan in 2011. China is building more nuclear power plants, but most of that electricity will go to other mainland cities. It seems that building our own nuclear power plant is politically impossible.

Hong Kong’s current consumption of electricity, oil and gas is unsustainable in the longer-term. Children born this year will see a very different city when they reach old age. More of Hong Kong’s food will have to come from this region, including rural areas around the city, and from fisheries and fish farms along the coast. Hong Kong International Airport will be quieter: there appears to be no way to sustain the current global fleet of jet planes using only biofuels.

Hong Kong’s dense population, service economy and massive consumption of resources are, in the longer term, also unsustainable.

But there are paths to the future which provide constructive things to do in the coming decades, some of which can also strengthen local communities and provide other shorter-term benefits.

It will be a mistake to cover agricultural land with buildings and roads

For example, it will be a mistake to cover agricultural land with buildings and roads. Whatever agricultural land is left should be preserved, not just for the food but also for educating students about food production, as in many other cities around the world. The government’s proposal to set up a small “agriculture park” on 80 hectares in the northeast New Territories is a tiny step towards what is needed.

Second, we need to reduce electricity consumption. Hong Kong people must learn to live and work without the current massive reliance on coal and gas. Air conditioning, which consumes close to 30 per cent of the city’s electricity, is an obvious target.

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There are many other things we could be doing now, in transport policy, land use, building design, personal behaviour and local community development which could have both immediate and long-term benefits.

But this requires vision, and courage. Some of our young people and some planners have this vision and courage. We should put them to work helping to design and implement a more sustainable – and less polluted and wasteful – Hong Kong, with stronger local communities as one of the many potential benefits.

Graeme Lang was a professor (until retirement in 2014) at City University of Hong Kong, teaching courses on environmental and energy issues