‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and Hong Kong have to step up efforts in going green, UN adviser says

Expert calls on local government to tackle air pollution and carbon emissions, and on a wider scale, for China to ensure its trade plan is sustainable

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 January, 2018, 7:32am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 5:31pm

More effort is needed to make China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” go green as the massive infrastructure project could be a tremendous triumph for the environment or a disaster, a senior UN adviser on sustainable development has said.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, also highlighted the need for Hong Kong to combat its air pollution and speed up the reduction of carbon emissions in its energy system.

Sachs, a world-renowned economist at Columbia University in New York, spoke to the Post during his visit last week to launch the network’s Hong Kong branch. He shared his vision on how the city, as well as the belt and road plan, could help advance the UN’s global sustainable development goals.

Hong Kong government aims to slash carbon emissions with 2030 action plan

Sachs described the central government’s trade strategy – aimed at connecting China with dozens of countries in Asia, Africa and beyond – as the world’s largest and most important infrastructure programme. But he said he hoped it would be grounded in the principle of sustainable development.

“I would like to ensure it is also an initiative that does not exacerbate the use of coal, create more air pollution or damage more ecosystems, and that it is actually environmentally sustainable. I think this still has to be proven and achieved,” he said.

“If the belt and road plan becomes a belt and road of oil and gas pipelines, we have a disaster. If it becomes a belt and road of renewable energy, we have a great triumph,” he said.

Sachs said state leaders had made similar pledges but it remained unclear how they would be implemented in reality, adding that Hong Kong, as a financial hub with great infrastructure and developers, could contribute in the form of research.

Meanwhile, Sachs also said he hoped the newly established Hong Kong chapter of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – to be co-chaired by Chinese University and the Jockey Club Charities Trust – would compile a report card on the city in a year.

The move would provide a picture of how Hong Kong performed compared with other countries in the global context, allowing the city to set its own priority, he said. Sachs added that this could possibly include efforts to curb air pollution and boost measures to decarbonise.

Hong Kong could advance the UN’s drive by addressing its own sustainable development challenges as well as contributing its own knowledge and experience, he said.

Sachs, an expert in fighting poverty, also noted the high income inequality in Hong Kong, warning that the rise of technology, which would hit low-skilled workers first, could “absolutely” worsen the problem of poverty among the elderly.

Why China’s belt and road must be a pathway to sustainable development

Latest figures showed one in three Hong Kong senior residents living in poverty.

“If you are just letting market forces operate without trying to compensate for them through public policies, then income disparity is almost bound to rise in the age we are living in,” he said.

Sachs called for a universal pension scheme, a policy which has been dismissed by the government.

“I am not here as an outsider to prescribe public policy for Hong Kong, but with ageing and technological changes, there has to be innovation in public policies. We do not want to create a generation of desperate and sometimes lonely people,” he said.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by UN member states in 2015 and which came into force the year after, outlined 17 goals concerning poverty, energy and infrastructure for governments worldwide.