Official declarations of emergency, urgent consultations with scientific experts and a raft of radical social and economic policies to protect public health and the economy.

That’s the approach that the Hong Kong government has adopted over recent weeks to battle the coronavirus, but it contrasts starkly with the lethargy and collective dragging of feet when it comes to decarbonizing the city to combat that other global threat to the health and livelihood of its citizens: climate change.

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

There is currently no strategy for the long term decarbonization of Hong Kong and the reduction in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Out of date targets are not being reached and the government appears impotent to challenge the vested interests of the powerful energy companies and their preference for fossil fuels and Chinese nuclear energy, over Renewable Energy (RE) alternatives like wind and PV solar.

According the most recent official GHG emission inventory (for 2017) published in July 2019, Hong Kong’s total GHG emissions in 2017 amounted to 40.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e). According to data supplied by the World Bank the tiny land mass of Hong Kong not only emits more GHG than Singapore but also more than large countries such as Kenya and modern industrialised economies like Denmark and Switzerland.

Hong Kong has very little carbon intensive heavy industries, manufacturing or agriculture but according to the International Energy Agency (IEA ) Atlas of Energy it still has a significantly higher per capita GHG emissions (5.5 tonnes of carbon per person per year) than many large industrialized and urbanized nations including the UK, Italy, France and Argentina. Total GHG emissions in Hong Kong are reducing at a painfully slow rate and they actually went up year on year in 2016.

“Clearly, Hong Kong is failing to take on its international responsibilities-the government has failed to recognise the urgency of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions,” says climate lawyer, Professor Benoit Mayer of Chinese University Hong Kong’s Faculty of law.

China Light and Power Sky Woodland. File photo: Wikicommons.

Electricity generation is the major source of local GHG emissions, amounting to 26.6 million tonnes or 65.4 per cent of the total.  How Hong Kong’s energy duopoly of China Light and Power (CLP) and Hong Kong Electric (HKE) generates electricity is critical. Many fear the so called “light touch” provided by the “scheme of control” which regulates the two energy companies is only designed to preserve cheap electricity bills and safeguard the company’s shareholders, not the future of the planet.

“A significant part of Hong Kong energy policy is to protect the power companies,” says Albert Lai an engineer with professional experience in the energy sector and the founding Chairman of the NGO, Professional Commons.

Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan 2030 + , published in July 2017, depends heavily on gradually replacing coal fired generation with another fossil fuel, Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) so that LNG or nuclear would constitute about 75 per cent of the local energy mix by 2020 and “continue to phase down” coal by 2030.

LNG is less carbon intensive than coal but unfortunately, replacing one dirty fossil fuel with a less dirty fossil fuel, offers limited progress in terms of decarbonization. 

“After converting all the existing plants to gas there is no plan as to how we can possibly meet the Paris carbon targets and the gap has to be filled by something,” says Lai. 

File photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

In June last year the Council for Sustainable Development was tasked by the Environment Bureau to undertake a public engagement on Hong Kong’s long term decarbonization strategy and publish a strategy in “late November or early December 2019” but nothing has been heard since.

According to their website they have not held a meeting since June 12 2019 and they did not respond to email enquiries.

“The biggest problem is that there is no strategy to reduce carbon beyond switching from coal to natural gas- there is no integrated energy policy for saving and using green energy- there is a lack of coordination and strategy ,” says Professor Johnny C L Chan, Chair Professor of Atmospheric Science at City University’s School of Energy and Environment.

Professor Johnny Chan. Photo: Stuart Heaver.

Lai suspects the reason for the delay is a secret Chinese nuclear energy agenda which will be extremely unpopular if it’s ever made public. 

On 11 March this year, CLP launched their 2019 CLP Sustainability Report which he claims “gave the game away”. On page 40, the section concerning emissions in Hong Kong, refers to the “Clean Energy Transmission System connecting the CLP grid to Guangdong planned to be strengthened by 2025”. This says Lai and others is an obvious euphemism for Chinese nuclear which is now a powerful vested corporate interest in Hong Kong, where two companies (CNNC and CNG) are listed.

Last month, local media reported how Chinese nuclear power related shares soared across the in Hong Kong and China after Beijing announced plans to invest 81.2 billion yuan (US$12 billion) in four new reactors for the first time since 2016.

CLP paid HK$0.5 billion for a 17 per cent equity interest in Yangjiang Nuclear CLP Group in December 2017 but there was no mention at the time that this might be connected to Hong Kong’s future energy policy. In its Climate Vision 2050 document, published in December 2019, CLP makes no secret of its love of nuclear and indifference to any Renewable Energy (RE) solution.

 Gas and nuclear power are currently the only commercially viable and proven lower- or zero-carbon solutions available today that can meet baseload demand and provide security of supply; we will therefore continue to deploy these technologies in Hong Kong as we move away from coal power.

Page 11.
Solar panels. File photo: Pete Jelliffe, via Flickr.

In response to questions from HKFP, CLP Power said it is “on track to meet the 2020 carbon intensity target” and “supports the Government’s environmental policy and strives to explore practical local renewable energy opportunities despite limited renewable energy resources and land scarcity in Hong Kong.”

The government seems content not to challenge CLP’s enthusiasm for subsidised Chinese nuclear and their lack of enthusiasm for RE. Many believe the current targets for RE set at 3-4 per cent of the total energy mix are far too modest.

Nuclear reactors. File photo: Peretz Partensky, via flickr.

“While Singapore has committed to 20 per cent renewable energy for 2030, Hong Kong has only committed to 3 per cent, even though there is a potential for Hong Kong to generate far more renewable energy or to import it from the Mainland,” says Mayer.

“The reason why we don’t have more RE in HK is that there is no political will,” he says.

One independent university study in 2017 found that PV solar energy could provide 10.7 per cent of local energy and other expert estimates ranged up to 20 per cent. Perhaps to combat over enthusiasm for solar, the Hong Kong government commissioned a consulting engineering firm (Meinhardt) which reported in July 2019 that the PV Solar potential in Hong Kong was only about 1.1 per cent-2.0 per cent. This result coincided conveniently with the original government estimate of total RE potential (3-4 per cent), incorporated in the 2017 Climate Action Plan.

“They would rather spend money proving there is no potential for RE than invest in facilitating RE development,” says Lai.  

Solar energy panels. Photo: Varsity.

“In countries like UK and Korea there is legislation that dictates the percentage of electricity that must come from RE but there is no such directive in Hong Kong,” says Chan.  

In the absence of any legal requirement to invest in RE local power companies are liberated to deliver the best short-term commercial value to customers and shareholders and that means fossil fuels and nuclear. 

I am not defending the power companies but I do understand their predicament,” says Chan and for the two extremely profitable Hong Kong based companies, their track record on RE investment in Hong Kong is pitiful.

The government commissioned report on solar energy by Meinhardt reported that as of March 2017 the total contribution of PV solar to Hong Kong’s energy mix was 0.014 per cent.  

CLP announced earnings of HK$4.65 billion in 2019 and say their 2019 energy mix for electricity generation in Hong Kong includes less than 0.5 per cent from what they call “other sources” which includes oil and RE in the same category. It does not disguise the reality that their investment in RE in Hong Kong is negligible.

CLP conducted a feasibility study into an offshore wind farm near Lamma Island over a decade ago and the EIA was approved in August 2009.   

Eleven years later, the company says “we are continuing the feasibility study and will work with the Government on the appropriate way forward,” and they have not built an offshore wind farm in Hong Kong or anywhere else.

In order to meet government RE targets of 3 per cent, CLP says it is constructing a landfill gas power generation at the West New Territories Landfill which should be in full operation later this year a with a generation capacity of 10MW, roughly enough to supply about 7,500 households.

HKE does not currently use nuclear in its energy mix so is dependent on LNG and RE to reduce its carbon intensity. It installed Hong Kong’s solitary windmill in Lamma Island, fourteen years ago and the company says that combined with their PV solar plant at Lamma power station it can provide a combined RE output of 2.5 million units of electricity in 2020.  Based on official estimates of average electricity consumption per household in Hong Kong of 4,560 units per year that equates to about 548 households out of a total 2.51 million (0.02 per cent). Asked to confirm the accuracy of this estimate, HKE declined to comment.

West New Territories Landfill. File photo: GovHK.

The Government says it is also spearheading large-scale RE projects but progress is slow and the scale very small. The largest solar farm in Hong Kong is located at the Siu Ho Wan Sewage Treatment Plant which can generate as much as 1.1 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually, equivalent to the annual consumption of 230 households.

Last year, after years of lobbying by NGOs, the feed in Tariff (FiT) scheme was introduced so that private households and businesses could connect their own small-scale RE systems like rooftop PV solar panels to the grid and receive a premium of HK$3 to HK$5 per unit generated. To avoid any cost being incurred by government or the power companies the system is financed by corporations and business users which pay a premium of HK$0.5 per unit for purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates, in order to meet their internal green targets.

“That’s an irresponsible policy, which must change,” says Mayer.

After more than a year in operation, CLP says the scheme has been “well received by the community” and say they received over 6,900 applications by the end of 2019 and around 2,500 private RE systems connected to their grid. HKE says that up to end Feb 2020, about 70 renewable energy power systems with a total capacity over 1,100 kW are connected to their grid.

Feed-in tariff for renewable energy. Photo: Electrical and Mechanical Services Department.

The total power generated is still tiny but the successful take up of the scheme demonstrates there is a commercial demand for green energy and a willingness to invest in it if the incentives are in place. The RE certificates have effectively “sold out” already because there is insufficient green energy to sell. Lai says the scheme has been deliberately restricted and reduced to superficial “window dressing” by the government by limiting on all new RE schemes to a maximum of 1MW output.

 “It looks good to see small rooftop schemes but it needs to be scaled up to have a real impact,” says Lai and he think the power companies would only agree to the scheme if it was strictly limited.

It appears the FiT scheme has been designed not to encourage high levels of RE investment but to avoid threatening the interests of the two major power companies or the Chinese nuclear lobby. 

“This problem needs a strong confident government with a mandate for change,” says Chan and until there is significant political change in Hong Kong, protecting the wealth of powerful vested interests is likely to remain a higher priority than the future of the planet.

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Stuart Heaver

A former naval officer and entrepreneur, Stuart Heaver is a full-time freelance journalist and writer based in Hong Kong. Over the last decade, his work has been published in many leading international online and print publications ranging from the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and South China Morning Post to Sunseeker Magazine and Fragrant Harbour. A former graduate of the London School of Economics, he has a special interest in Asian business and politics and a passion for maritime issues and the sea.