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Monday, October 12, 2020, 00:57
HK must keep up with mainland pledge on carbon neutrality target
By Christine Loh
Monday, October 12, 2020, 00:57 By Christine Loh

On Sept 22, President Xi Jinping provided a pleasant surprise to the nation and the world. He announced China’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Not to be overlooked, he also addressed the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity on Sept 30, where he called on the world to reverse biodiversity loss.

It was probably too late for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to redraft her Policy Address to be presented on Oct 14, but that is what she could have considered doing. Perhaps there is still time to add a few lines or say something on the day if it is too late for insertions in the printed version.

The carbon neutrality pledge and biodiversity message have an immediate impact on our closest neighbors in Guangdong province, as they will be expected to be part of the national push on technological transformation with decarbonization at the core, and on ecological improvement.

With the national 14th Five Year Plan 2021-25 being worked on before being unveiled to guide development, it is likely that some parts will be strengthened in light of the new emphases. China will push decarbonization and biodiversity in all future five-year plans.

While Hong Kong and Macao have a large measure of autonomy in crafting their own development, cooperation under the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area initiative means the two special administrative regions need to ride the wave of national decarbonization in order to not be left behind in their economic and social development.

To achieve carbon neutrality within 40 years is about as big a policy and societal challenge as one could get for China, the world’s largest carbon emitter. China has half of the world’s coal power capacity and this high-carbon fuel still accounts for 58 percent of China’s energy consumption and 66 percent of its electricity generation.

Let decarbonization, biodiversity and sustainability start a fresh conversation in Hong Kong to give hope to all

The question for the current and all future chief executives and principal officials, including the financial secretary, is how they take the national pledge to heart and transform Hong Kong.

The first thing to realize is that climate change is not an environmental matter to be kept in a silo. It is the urgent national stimulant to transform the economy to take a massive leap in technological and management advancement that will also create new jobs and prosperity.

The magnitude of the mainland’s pledge will reverberate domestically and internationally. It is just beginning to be digested around the world and will affect energy, commodities and financial markets for decades to come.

China will have to phase out fossil fuel usage in power generation and in its heavy industries, in particular the energy guzzling steel, cement, fertilizer and petrochemical plants.

Hong Kong is already phasing down coal and replacing it with natural gas. It now has to think further out than 2030 because it has to phase out natural gas too, which is a fossil fuel.

China will massively increase renewable energy sources and nuclear power. Estimates are that by 2060, these sources will have to generate around 70 percent of power. At the same time, China will push and ramp up the development of new fuels, such as hydrogen and bioenergy — including fuel from waste, as well as develop technologies for carbon capture to be used or stored.

China’s pledge requires Hong Kong to rethink its entire energy future. It has to work with its electricity and gas companies to design a long-term plan for that eventuality, which will require collaboration with Guangdong, as Hong Kong has the option to buy more power from the mainland’s grid instead of generating its own electricity.

Its own capacity can also become part of the regional grid but since the Chinese mainland is moving to carbon neutrality, Hong Kong’s power and gas companies have to redefine their business future to fit in within a timeframe of three to four decades.

Energy conservation and efficient use must also form a big part of the picture. Every unit of energy saved is a unit of energy generation capacity that doesn’t need to be built. A viable pathway for our energy-related companies is to craft a new business on energy saving and “smart” energy management.

Thus, buildings must be much more energy efficient. In Hong Kong, our buildings use 90 percent of the electricity and emit about 60 percent of the carbon emissions.

The chief executive should ask the Development Bureau to immediately review, update and reform all the city’s laws and regulations relating to buildings to ensure our buildings are as energy efficient as possible. Indoor comfort and health should also be thrown into the mix.

The obvious opportunity lies with our 42,000 existing buildings, many of which can be retrofitted according to timelines to achieve much higher levels of energy efficiency and indoor comfort and health. The government needs to collaborate with private property companies, as well as public sector bodies that build and manage public housing.

Complementary efforts include electrifying transport in order to reduce oil products consumption, which is another form of fossil fuel. On the mainland, rail, cars, trucks, vans and even ships will have to be powered by electricity, which represents another enormous transition. In Hong Kong, it is finally time for transport officials to get on board.

For the financial secretary and officials in charge of commerce, trade, finance, tourism and also innovation and technology, it will not be enough to think along traditional lines of “pillar industries” comprising trading and logistics, financial services, professional and producer services, and tourism. Each of them will have to refocus from the perspective of decarbonization and ecological sustainability.

In logistics, Hong Kong needs to be part of the global effort to decarbonize shipping and aviation since the city is a shipping and aviation hub. The shock of COVID-19 is already pushing supply chains to digitalize, and the same is true for the logistic and banking chains that support trade.

Financial services are starting to go ‘green’ around the world. China’s decarbonization is a multitrillion-dollar opportunity, and professional and producer services will want to serve that transformation. Climate adaptation infrastructure and biodiversity are also increasingly important investment areas. Instead of just thinking about green bonds, blue bonds are also being developed to improve water and ocean-related cleanups.

Tourism too has to rethink how to dematerialize — that is refocus on lower-carbon experiences rather than rampant consumption. Our country and marine parks can be extended and much better protected; and heritage and arts and cultural activities have good potential too. Hong Kong as a food paradise could observe sustainability and no-waste as operational defaults.

The decarbonization and biodiversity implications are profound for Hong Kong. It has to reimagine its development pathway. The good news is these are the things that attract and inspire the younger generations. The chief executive and principal officials should be open-minded about recrafting their policy narratives toward new frameworks rather than repeating tired ones.

An immediate announcement is required to get the waste charging bill back to the legislature and passed so that no more time is lost for Hong Kong.

Actually, all of the above provides a good restart for Hong Kong after our most polarizing protests of 2019 and COVID-19 this year. Let decarbonization, biodiversity and sustainability start a fresh conversation in Hong Kong to give hope to all.

The author is a former under-secretary for environment and a legislative councillor. She is also chief development strategist at the Institute for the Environment at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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