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Low-carbon economy will deliver change for Hong Kong


Thomas Ho outlines a plan to turn Hong Kong into a low-carbon economy, beginning with the complement of actions our next government can and should take for a cleaner, more competitive city

Jun 08, 2012

Chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying’s manifesto called for seeking change while preserving stability. Hong Kong people will embrace change – if it improves their lives. A framework that fits the purpose of delivering the change Hong Kong wants is low-carbon development.

Sustainable development means designing growth and physical infrastructure to serve people’s needs for both financial security and quality of life. Done right, it lays the groundwork for sustainable prosperity (SEHK: 0803announcementsnews)- including ample fresh water, clean air and diversity of natural resources – for future generations.

Hong Kong already has a low-carbon economic plan, proposed by the government in 2010. It has four main parts. The first calls for cleaner electricity, half of it generated by nuclear energy, 40 per cent by gas and the rest by coal and renewable fuels. The second proposes significantly increasing the energy efficiency of Hong Kong’s buildings. The third involves segregating and recycling or burning our waste, rather than simply dumping it in landfills. And the fourth envisions lowering vehicle emissions (and roadside pollution) with hybrid or electric vehicles and a 10per cent blend of biodiesel in petroleum-based diesel. All make sense. And all should be rigorously pursued – now.

China is moving ahead. It set a carbon intensity reduction target of 40-45 per cent, which it expects to reach by 2025. HSBC’s Climate Change Centre of Excellence estimates that reaching the target will require China to decrease its carbon intensity by 0.5 per cent annually.

Thus, it’s not surprising that its 12th five-year plan is the most ambitious to date in environment and energy management. It prescribes both defensive strategies, like pollution prevention, and offensive ones, like investments in clean industries.

Hong Kong should help. The “one country, two systems” philosophy demands it, and our own interest in maintaining Hong Kong’s competitiveness requires it.

That leads to the question: How? The Environment Bureau cannot deliver a low-carbon economy on its own – not in the current government or in the restructure foreseen under Leung. In fact, the only way to deliver sustainable development is through a holistic master plan to improve Hong Kong’s competitiveness, environment and quality of life for all.

Success will require political will from citizens, the new chief executive, and at least six departments in a restructured government:

  • The Environment Bureau should urgently approve a new electricity fuel mix commensurate with Hong Kong’s air quality and carbon reduction goals. The infrastructure for cleaner fuels will take eight to 10 years to approve and construct. Cleaner fuels cost more: the government must explain that tariff increases are unavoidable because of market rationale and health and environmental reasons. Concurrently, the bureau should tighten energy efficiency standards for appliances and building equipment.
  • The Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau should develop under-used land rather than reclaim land. Housing and commercial development must be co-ordinated with transport links. This co-ordination should be made visible, and all investments should maximise energy efficiency.
  • The Transport and Works Bureau should work aggressively to take high-emitting vehicles off the road. Bus routes that overlap with rail lines should be done away with.
  • The Civil Engineering and Development Department (in the Transport and Works Bureau) should apply sustainable development to all its engineering works. This department is also well placed to spearhead life-cycle carbon analyses, engendering greater take-up of such analysis throughout the government.
  • The Commerce and Industries Bureau must institute world-class standards for maritime pollution control, as industry has been demanding. It should support both shipping and ports through the rational use of land on and adjacent to current port terminals.
  • The Technology and Communications Bureau should support environmental industries and green research and development, in line with Hong Kong’s contribution to the development of the Pearl River Delta.

The chief secretary and financial secretary are ultimately accountable for delivering these critical policies. Together, they should also drive low-carbon economic development in harmony with Guangdong, to realise the vision of a green, vibrant delta.

Make no mistake: Hong Kong has the capacity to become Asia’s greenest city. One under-celebrated example is our very own airport. Last month, the Airport Authority and 40 business partners pledged to make Hong Kong International Airport the world’s greenest.

The effort is already under way. The airport and its partners have reduced carbon intensity by 10 per cent last year. They are on track to deliver a 25 per cent reduction by 2015 from 2008 levels. This achievement represents over 300 separate actions as diverse as using electric vehicles, phasing in LED lighting, upgrading cooling systems, recycling food waste and investing in environmental education.

Incredibly, there isn’t a global standard that recognises these broad, quantifiable environmental improvements. The Hong Kong airport is now advocating to develop such a standard for airports everywhere. Such voluntary, business-driven commitment could and should be echoed by other Hong Kong businesses.

In short: low-carbon development is simply rigorous application of common sense. It does not make sense to risk human health or essential environmental resources in pursuit of development. It does make sense to build affordable housing that meets the same sustainability criteria as upmarket development does. And it does make sense to invest the intellectual, financial and political capital to change our mindsets – so that rigorous common sense becomes the development criterion of reference for Hong Kong.

In 2010, Leung wrote in these pages: “It has been said that the best time to plant a tree is 100 years ago. The second best time is now. We need to plant both trees and the seeds of a low-carbon, smart-energy economy. Only then can we ensure prosperity for our children.”

Indeed – the time for action has come.

Thomas Ho is chair of the Climate Change Business Forum

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