The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China took place over a week in mid-October. In the midst of that period, Hong Kong’s new chief executive announced his much-awaited Policy Address.
Among his many initiatives, John Lee Ka-chiu said he will chair a high-powered steering group on integration into national development, the purpose of which is to steer the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government from “a strategic and macro perspective, enhance communications with mainland authorities, and regularly host briefing sessions on national policies”.
It is a good idea for Hong Kong to ensure local plans dovetail with national plans and the regional efforts of Shenzhen and Guangdong province so as to increase “a greater flow of people, goods, capital and information” between Hong Kong and the mainland.
No doubt, the steering group will take note not only of China’s current 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) but also what has transpired at the 20th Party Congress, since China’s ruling Party leads national government policies.
What should become obvious is that Hong Kong has missed an important heartbeat in national thinking — and that is the pride of place that green development has in both the Party’s and the national government’s strategic vision and strategy.
Lee might disagree with this assessment because he could say the environment is featured in his Policy Address. However, what he has yet to do is to embed green development as a strategic mission throughout the special administrative region’s policies.
The Chinese mainland has fastened green development in its overall vision and strategy, whereas Lee and his predecessors have only seen the environment within a relatively narrow silo. Contrasting the mainland’s and Hong Kong’s climate policies illustrate the gap.
China’s national timeline and target to achieve its carbon peak by 2030 and neutrality by 2060 come with a series of specific action plans, supporting policies, as well as sector specific plans to transform the nation’s economy.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s target and timeline to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 is fragmented and lacks an economywide and industrywide approach. To correct this, Lee should ask the entire administration to take action, as his counterparts are doing on the mainland.
China’s leaders see green development as a powerful driver for innovation and technological advancement, as it will create huge new markets and investment opportunities, which will in turn generate new jobs, as well as high-valued exports for many years to come. Indeed, green development has also become a foreign-policy driver for China in fostering cooperation with other countries.
Our Hong Kong leadership can benefit by seeing green development much more widely. It should take note that the mainland combines it with promoting harmony between humanity and nature at a philosophical level because “nature provides the basic conditions for human survival and development”, and a healthy environment lies at the heart of not only the people’s livelihoods but also the security of the nation.
Why has the HKSAR administration not taken green development more seriously throughout its policy framing?
It may well be that the different bureaus and departments have yet to truly digest national thinking since they have traditionally seen the “environment” through the lens of pollution control and not through the wider angle of business, commerce, industry, transport, innovation, technology, finance and public health.
In recent years, finance officials have started to pay attention to green finance because it has become a global trend, and Hong Kong is following what others are doing. It is certainly helpful, but many other parts of the bureaucracy have yet to get on board.
Lee’s steering group needs to adopt an interdisciplinary approach as the mainland is doing. He can take the direction in the 20th Party Congress and the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) to heart and “accelerate” green development throughout Hong Kong’s economy since many ingredients are already in place but not yet joined-up. There is a lack of strategic coherence.
For example, in designing and implementing the Northern Metropolis — one of his major projects — the government should work with the built environment sector to achieve multiple outcomes that include high-performance, low-carbon urban designs that enable smart and healthy living, as well as protecting biodiversity and ecosystems.
The government effort is already halfway there, as it is promoting better construction design and more-efficient building methods. What the government has yet to do is revise and reform its policies, regulations, standards and codes for infrastructure and buildings to make high performance and low carbon truly achievable.
It is well-known that local developers and built environment professionals have been telling government officials for years that they can design and build better buildings in other jurisdictions than they can in Hong Kong because standards are too low in Hong Kong. This has prevented the city from leading in a large economic area that it could if the government gets on with upgrading all the relevant regulations, standards and codes for the built environment.
High standards should not be seen as a cost but as an investment opportunity. There is no reason why the government, together with the private sector in the built environment and financial services sectors, could not come up with a 20-to-30-year plan to retrofit Hong Kong’s existing building stock so that the city will be in tiptop shape for not only climate resilience, but so that people can benefit from what redesign and technology can do in the longer-term.
Such a plan will require public and private sector financing — another aspect that Hong Kong can excel at if given the chance. If Hong Kong can do this with a credible plan, it will no doubt create many economic and investible benefits. This will not be possible as long as the government is unwilling to do its part by setting high standards.
The private sector is ready — it just needs the government to adopt a wide-angle lens rather than resist change. Such a plan would also win applause from the mainland and globally, as it could provide a guide for other cities to follow since retrofitting existing buildings for energy and water savings is key to decarbonizing urban areas.
The author is chief development strategist of the Institute for the Environment, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS