Hong Kong plays a crucial role in building climate change resilience in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and, in doing so, can contribute significantly to the whole region’s competitiveness and liveability.
Flooding and storm surges are not new to the Pearl River Delta region, but have been exacerbated by urbanization, landfills, and the dredging of major rivers. According to data from the State Oceanic Administration, China’s southern coast has experienced record rainfall, extreme heat, and sea level rise above historical records in the past few years. Alarmingly, sea levels in the PRD are expected to rise almost four times as much as the global average by 2030, and estimated up to almost half a meter for the South China Sea by 2100. Much of the southern PRD is just 30cm to 40cm above sea level.
The region, already the biggest conurbation in the world in size and population, is expected to further urbanize and industrialize under the Bay Area initiative. While bringing more economic value, accelerating development also brings greater environmental stress and risk of losses when natural disasters strike. Despite being the wettest region in China, many coastal cities still lack the kind of infrastructure to combat climate change-related storms and flooding. Guangzhou was declared one of China’s “sponge cities” last year, installing features like permeable road surfaces and green roofs that can absorb and reuse water. Practically, integrating such green infrastructure with the conventional grey infrastructure built with concrete face great coordination challenges. Whether the long-term funding can be sustained and also whether the benefits materialize given higher intensity of climate change events remain to be seen.
Climate change also heightens the threat of infectious diseases as it brings extreme heat waves and more flooding, fostering environments susceptible to mosquito-borne diseases. Guangzhou has experienced dengue fever outbreaks in recent years due to record-breaking hot and wet weather. These weather patterns, already becoming more frequent as global warming intensifies, leave densely populated cities especially vulnerable. The World Health Organization has warned earlier this year that Disease X, a serious infectious disease likely transmitted from animals to humans, may emerge. Conditions in the Bay Area are ripe for such a disease.
Hong Kong’s participation in the Bay Area initiative should bring opportunities to participate in building climate change resilience. First, Hong Kong is no stranger to climate change effects; the Hong Kong Observatory has predicted higher frequency of extreme rainfall, more intense storms, and accelerating sea level rises. The amount of reclaimed land at sea level further increases vulnerability to storm surges and flooding. Hong Kong has decades of experience in building a densely populated, concrete jungle while preserving areas with ecological benefits. It can share lessons from its new efforts to increase green and blue space planning. Following the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, outbreak in 2003, Hong Kong has gained expertise in implementing faster diagnostic methods, designating isolation facilities, and equipping the healthcare system for infectious disease outbreaks.
Second, Hong Kong is uniquely positioned to serve as a green finance hub in the region, especially with its new Bond Connect scheme that allows foreign investors to purchase mainland bonds. Bond Connect will lower financing costs for Chinese companies by creating greater access to Chinese mainland green bonds, increasing investment opportunities into green infrastructure projects focused on flood control and low carbon transportation options. The development of a pilot zone for green finance in Guangdong is also opening up new opportunities for foreign investors.
On the private sector side, Hong Kong companies can share best practices with their counterparts and suppliers in the Bay Area in building robust plans for business continuity and disaster recovery. This includes how to identify critical operational functions, how to insulate key assets from external threats before they happen, and how to educate and prepare employees for events ranging from severe floods to disease outbreak.
Broader lessons can include better management and preparation of suppliers and increased resource efficiency of operations, increased disclosure of water consumption, and investment into more advanced water treatment and recycling technologies, particularly where existing infrastructure is lacking. Hong Kong businesses can also support and help implement proven climate resilience strategies by Chinese and global environmental think tanks, who advocate for actions such as the creation of incentives for businesses going green, and implementation of green pilot projects on both a local and central government level.
By tapping into these key strengths in the public and private sectors, Hong Kong can help the Bay Area build a resilience to climate change and achieve more sustainable growth.
The author is program director of the Asia Business Council.