On March 15, some 1,000 Hong Kong school students joined the global march for climate action inspired by 16-year-old Greta Thurnberg. She came into the international limelight by protesting alone in front of the Swedish parliament last year, demanding the government take urgent action to stop climate change.

Millions of school children and young people around the world have since followed in her footsteps as she continues to boycott school every Friday in protest. She has since addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, the UK parliament and the European Parliament. She was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by some Swedish parliamentarians.

In their letter to the government, the Hong Kong school children made three specific demands:

  1. Youth representation in the Hong Kong government’s steering committee on climate change;
  2. An increased target for renewable energy use from the current 3-4% by 2030;
  3. Appointment of an officer in the environment department to monitor action on the Climate 2030 plan.
Photo: PH Yang.

The school strike in Hong Kong seemed to take both school authorities and the government by surprise. They thought Hong Kong was doing as well as it could to prepare, mitigate and adapt for climate change. School authorities discouraged the students strongly. Some schools said they would treat absence on the day as unauthorised leave.

The government, responded to the children’s demand through a letter from the secretary for the environment. It explained how the formation of the steering committee, the climate action plan 2030+ and recent actions such as bringing in feed-in tariffs for roof-top solar, were more than what Hong Kong has to do to meet its obligations under the Paris agreement.

Photo: PH Yang.

Hong Kong – ‘the world city of Asia’ – is already the global leader on many fronts. It is the number one city in the world when it comes to any number of financial and economic indicators. It is in the top ten cities in the world on many other rankings. Hong Kong impresses all newcomers with its breath-taking skyline and world-class infrastructure.

It is therefore pertinent to ask whether Hong Kong has the potential to lead the world in the all-important battle against climate change.

Photo: GovHK.

Last week the Inter-Governmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services presented a comprehensive assessment of humanity’s ecological footprint. More than a million species face immediate extinction. Last year the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate warned of dire consequences in the current trends of greenhouse gas emissions.

In the meantime, the cautious optimism created by the signing of the Paris agreement has been completely decimated by the election of Donald Trump and the US withdrawal from the treaty.

The increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere correlate strongly with the average global temperature, now over 1 degree centigrade above pre-industrial levels. The last time – over 2 million years ago – when CO2 levels were this high, there was a forest growing in Antarctica and sea levels were several feet higher than today.

File photo: Pixabay.

The Hong Kong Climate Action Plan 2030+ falls far short of the city’s potential to be a global leader in the fight against this crisis. While it recognises the certainty of climate change and maps its impact on Hong Kong quite accurately, the actions planned – such as switching from coal to natural gas and generating 3-4% of energy from renewable sources – are underwhelming.

The vast potential for renewable energy is treated as unfeasible for some patently silly reasons. For example, the vast water bodies that could be used for floating solar panels are considered out of bounds, being reserved for public recreation.

A major flaw of the report is its calculation of per capita emissions, which are under-estimated by a factor of 2 to 3. It disregards all the emissions due to the outside production of Hong Kong’s imports. It ignores food consumption patterns, which in Hong Kong are dominated by beef and pork, a major source of greenhouse gases. On promoting electric vehicles for transport, Hong Kong can do much more; its neighbour Shenzhen is implementing ambitious plans such as converting its entire fleet of buses to electric.

Photo: Alex Hofford.

Hong Kong has ambitious plans to keep its economy growing and to also address the acute housing shortage. One is to create a new large artificial island: the east Lantau metropolis project. This is estimated to cost 50 to 100 billion US dollars depending on the sea level rise it has to be fortified against. It shows the kind of resources Hong Kong can mobilise and the kind of solutions it can think of when faced with a challenge.

A similar approach to the climate crisis can easily pave the way to global acclaim for Hong Kong. It’s time we declared a climate emergency, following in the footsteps of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England as well as 528 councils covering 52 million people around the world.

Only by treating the climate crisis as an emergency, and involving people – as opposed to corporate interests – can the world move towards a more equitable and sustainable model for future survival.

Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.

Dhanada Kanta Mishra

Dhanada Mishra has a Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Michigan and is a professor in India. He is currently visiting the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as a Research Scholar. He has a strong professional interest in climate science as well as a personal interest in activism against climate change. He has published regularly in leading newspapers in India both in his mother tongue Odiya and nationally in English. He is a founding member of Extinction Rebellion in Hong Kong.