By Benoit Mayer
The Hong Kong Government has done very little, to date, to mitigate climate change. There are certainly no lack of policy announcements – in recent years, the Government has pledged to achieve a 20% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 and 26-36% by 2030.
In January, both power utility companies started issuing Renewable Energy Certificates, allowing their customers to finance the development of renewable energy on a voluntary basis. However, the Government’s own statistics show that greenhouse gas emissions remain unabated.
Climate change is widely recognised as the major crisis of our time. As the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions unfold over decades and centuries, it is tempting to postpone decarbonisation – but this is irresponsible.
Any delay in reducing greenhouse gas emissions results in greater climate impacts on future generations. We must not leave it to our children and grandchildren to make up for the consequences of our current way of life.
To ensure that short-term policies are consistent with long-term objectives, the Paris Agreement recommends that states implement long-term low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies consistent with holding global warming well below 2°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that this would require developed states to cease net emissions almost completely by 2050.
By and large, developed countries are in the process of committing to broadly consistent mid-century targets. The European Union committed a decade ago to 80-95% emission reduction by 2050. The European Commission is now considering a mid-century zero-emission target, following the United Kingdom and 19 cities, including New York, London, Tokyo and Sydney.
The United States pledged an 80% emissions cut under Obama, but most candidates to the 2020 Presidential Election support a more stringent target. Norway has committed to achieve zero emissions by 2030.
And Hong Kong?
This summer, the Council for Sustainable Development launched a three-month Public Engagement exercise to determine Hong Kong’s long-term decarbonisation strategy. The exercise will inform the Government’s contribution to a national strategy that China intends to announce by 2020.
In view of scientific reports and announcements made by other high-income economies, Hong Kong’s target should be at least 80% emissions reduction by 2050, but zero emission by 2050 should also be seriously considered.
As Hong Kong’s emissions result mostly from energy generation, such targets would be easier to achieve here than for instance in the European Union, where emissions from livestock, land use and agricultural processes are more of a problem.
In Hong Kong, a mid-century zero-emission target could realistically be achieved with available technologies and a minimum of political will. It would require a switch by the energy sector from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy, and further development of clean transport modes.
Some will likely argue that achieving zero emissions by 2050 would be too costly. Yet, the price of renewable energy is already falling to levels comparable to fossil fuel prices, allowing even countries with limited financial capacities to invest massively.
Hong Kong’s government could make good use of some its massive budget surplus by investing in renewable-energy facilities which, once installed, would produce energy for decades at nearly no cost. The government’s reluctance to fund climate action has more to do with short-sightedness than with a lack of financial capacity.
Others will argue that Hong Kong’s land constraints would impede a massive deployment of solar panels and windmills. A few years ago, geography was invoked to justify the particularly unambitious objective of generating 3-4% renewable energy by 2030 – Singapore, which has a similar population density, committed to 8%.
Offshore wind farms can be built in Hong Kong waters; China has already put up one near Guishan island. Tides, waves and marine currents could also be exploited to generate renewable energy.
Hong Kong power utilities could further invest in nuclear or renewable energy projects on the Mainland. If these are not sufficient, Hong Kong could still finance emission reduction projects overseas in order to offset its own greenhouse gas emissions.
Although Hong Kong is arguably too small to make much of a difference in global carbon emissions, it would be unconscionable for the territory to seek a free ride on mitigation efforts implemented elsewhere. To defend its image of a smart city in the 21st Century, Hong Kong must commit to its fair share of the global efforts to mitigate climate change by adopting a responsible pathway towards zero emissions.
Professor Benoit Mayer teaches climate law and international law at the Faculty of Law of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of The International Law on Climate Change (Cambridge University Press, 2018).