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Tuesday, December 08, 2020, 01:39
HK’s future could hang on achieving carbon neutrality
By Christine Loh
Tuesday, December 08, 2020, 01:39 By Christine Loh

The overall aim of the Policy Address by Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is reasonable — to put the pandemic under control, revive the economy, restore social order, and rebuild Hong Kong’s confidence and international reputation. It would be even better if there was a clearer unifying theme.

It could easily have one. The most ambitious aspect of the whole Policy Address was for Hong Kong to build a low carbon economy, green finance, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. This could have been articulated in a way that would resonate with local people, as well as nationally and internationally. 

After all, achieving carbon neutrality represents a revolution in every aspect of Hong Kong life, touching infrastructure and housing development, innovation and technology, commerce and trade, tourism, public health, social equity, finance and education.

Moreover, other places around the world, including the Chinese mainland, will increasingly use climate change as the fulcrum to steer their decarbonization paths. 

Why not for Hong Kong to step ahead?

Perhaps this will come midyear when the SAR government publishes its next climate change plan, as its intention is to show how our city will achieve carbon neutrality. 

The Policy Address is full of nuggets that could be refashioned into an exciting plan that resonates with the younger generations.  Through that, they can see the future of work and opportunities

There are many initiatives embedded in the Policy Address. They deserve to be seen in a fresh light — and carbon neutrality provides that opportunity.

The chief executive said the government will examine various means to reduce carbon emissions, including exploring different types of zero-carbon energy and decarbonization technology, enhancing the energy efficiency of both new and existing buildings, promoting zero-carbon vehicles and green transportation, and building large-scale waste-to-energy facilities. 

The chief executive is right to say to lower the cost of achieving carbon-neutrality, Hong Kong needs to reduce the demand for energy through stringent energy efficiency standards. 

She also pointed out that the government needs to enlist the full support of various sectors in society to adopt low-carbon lifestyles and economic transformation. 

Bearing these important statements in mind, if one were to consider her massive commitments afresh in housing and infrastructure, the siting, design, construction and use of them must take into account their climate change impacts.

What new instructions will the Development Bureau and its departments adopt in mitigating and adapting to climate change for all these projects under their purview? For example, for Hong Kong’s buildings to be highly energy efficient, building codes and regulations have to be reformed. How fast can it be done? 

Likewise, transport and planning policies need to be rethought to enable zero-carbon transport. The government wants to popularize electric vehicles but charging requires major change to our infrastructure. Moreover, taxis, mini-buses and buses also need to be electrified; and the time to work out how to do it with the right business plans must begin immediately since the technologies are available.

Large new infrastructure is almost always controversial. 

The three government towers in Wan Chai North are to be redeveloped into a convention-exhibition facilities, hotel and office complex. A previous decision was to retrofit the buildings instead. From a climate change perspective, the old decision would seem preferable. However, if they are to be redeveloped, consideration should be given to minimizing the carbon footprint.

As for the East Lantau reclamation, this has to be very carefully considered as there are multiple environmental challenges. It might also not carry sufficient public support at a time when people’s sustainability awareness is rising in light of the national and international push for carbon neutrality. 

The chief executive estimated the annual infrastructure spending to be over HK$100 billion (US$12.9 billion) on average in the next few years. This is serious money. It would make sense for every project on the table to now take on a climate neutrality perspective.

It is potentially exciting there will be more support to promote high value-added sustainable urban agriculture and fisheries. This too should take climate change into account in the issuing of new marine fish culture licences and designating new fish culture zones to increase fish production. It is a good idea for Hong Kong fishermen to participate in the development of deep-sea mariculture in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, which should likewise take sustainability into account. 

The “Invigorating Island South” initiative has many attractive aspects for the Southern District. Again, climate mitigation and adaptation, as well as community resilience are vital aspects to integrate into plans. It should be welcomed by residents and visitors alike.

Tourism has to be rethought altogether, not just in Hong Kong but all over the world. The old days of “shopping and eating till you drop” will go out of fashion in a carbon conscious world. Travel experience will have to dematerialize. So, what has Hong Kong to offer? 

It will be about the place, its sights and sounds, its people and their history and culture. Investments need to go into education, history, arts, culture, heritage, crafts, nature and placemaking. In-person and digital experiences will merge — and yes, visits to our country parks and marine areas will be priceless assets for visitors and that experience will be worth a payment. Too crazy to imagine? 

As for food — this too can be reimagined. Hong Kong has the capabilities to be the center of sustainable, low-carbon, no-waste and healthy eating. We can provide Chinese, Asian and Western cuisine with equal confidence across price ranges. 

The Policy Address is full of nuggets that could be refashioned into an exciting plan that resonates with the younger generations. Through that, they can see the future of work and opportunities. They might even see Hong Kong as a worthy enough place for them to hang their future on.

The author is a former Under-Secretary for Environment and a Legislative Councilor. 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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