Hong Kong is, in some ways, a microcosm of the world; in other ways, it is far from it. After its success in handling the Covid-19 crisis so far, the city can show a way for the rest of the world to avoid the impending climate crisis.

Were it to achieve a zero net carbon economy by 2050, as mandated by its commitment to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommendations, Hong Kong would certainly set an example for others.

hong kong skyline
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“Hong Kong 2050 is now” is a campaign launched by Civil Exchange – a Hong Kong-based non-profit — and World Resource Institute (WRI) – a global think tank. It is exploring this question by engaging with the public. It hopes to contribute to the public consultation process initiated by the Hong Kong government’s Sustainable Development Council (SDC) to evaluate the 2030 Climate Plan and change it as required.

The current plan is relatively unambitious as it aims to reduce Hong Kong’s carbon emission intensity to 60-65 per cent from its 2005 level, which means an actual reduction of only 26-36%.

Most of the saving is expected to be achieved by switching from coal to gas as a fuel for electricity generation, which accounts for the bulk of Hong Kong’s emissions. The plan doesn’t address the most significant other sources of emission, namely imported goods (mainly food), shipping and aviation.

“Hong Kong 2050 is Now” has completed several public consultations and round table meetings with different stakeholder groups, conducted a survey to gauge public opinion on the climate crisis and proposed solutions, carried out focus group discussions and submitted a note to the SDC based on the Energy Policy Simulator model.

This model carries out simulations to show the implications for Hong Kong of different possible policies. A detailed report with policy recommendations based on the model is being prepared.

The major finding of the public opinion survey, which matched very closely with the opinions expressed in the focus group discussions, was that Hong Kong people are most concerned with rising temperatures and more extreme weather as caused by climate change. In particular:

  • As many as 84 per cent think the impact of climate change on future generations is going to be significant.
  • Also, 84 per cent claimed they had very often practised energy saving to reduce carbon emission in the past year, usually by using more public transport.
  • Most people think the government has the main responsibility for tackling climate change. And over half did not think it was doing enough to reduce carbon emissions.
  • Most people think climate change mitigation and adaptation measures should be funded by government reserves and “polluter pays” tax income. More than 70 per cent are willing to pay more for electricity to fund an increase in renewable energy use. On average, they are willing to pay about 20 per cent more.
virus coronavirus mtr hong kong
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The survey clearly shows that the people of Hong Kong are well ahead of the government in treating the crisis seriously, and are willing to make difficult decisions to ensure a liveable future for their children.

The Covid-19 pandemic illustrated this phenomenon very well: the people of Hong Kong were ahead of the government in treating the disease seriously and taking adequate precautions on their own as soon as the news of the outbreak broke back in December. These early and proactive steps by the majority of the population went a long way to keeping the pandemic under control.

On the climate crisis also, the people seem to be ready and eager to act while the government is dithering. The big difference is that unlike the pandemic, the climate crisis does not lend itself well to individual action. It requires difficult system-wide transformation on a global scale.

The year 2050 is absolutely the latest for the world to achieve zero net emissions if we are to keep temperature increases to less than 1.5 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels.

Given the uncertainties associated with the models, the tipping points and feedback loops that are lurking along the way, it would be highly irresponsible to adopt a wait, watch and tinker approach in the hope that some unproven future technology such as carbon capture and storage can help flatten the carbon curve.

As Greta Thunberg pointed out eloquently in her recent address to the European Parliament, the target set for 2050 is no target at all unless targets are set for every year starting now.

Greta Thunberg European Parliament
Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg speaking at the European Parliament in March 2020. Photo: European Parliament, via Flickr.

Extinction Rebellion, a non-violent global campaign against inaction in the face of the escalating climate crisis, has demanded that 2025 instead of 2050 be treated as the deadline to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

While many have dismissed this as impractical and unachievable, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the way it is being handled seem to tell a different story.

If the climate crisis were to be treated as a real crisis like Covid-19, governments would be taking drastic actions like lockdowns, case identification, contact tracing, and quarantine, while keeping the public informed and educated on a daily basis.

Countries like South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have shown the way to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic by bringing it under control. It remains to be seen whether the lessons learned from this crisis will be applied to the climate catastrophe.

Among the things missing in Hong Kong’s approach to policy formulation is a lack of meaningful engagement with the public. In this context, the example of the United Kingdom in forming a Citizen’s Assembly is worth emulating.

Climate change march school
Students in Hong Kong stage climate strike in March 2019. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The doughnut economic model proposed by Oxford University economist Kate Raworth, recently adopted by the city of Amsterdam, may just be the model that Hong Kong will need to look at seriously in the post-Covid-19 world.

It calls for an emphasis on a minimum living standards for all as mandated by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) defined by the United Nations on one hand, and a commitment to respect planetary boundaries such as the climate, soils, oceans, freshwater, and abundant biodiversity on the other. Such a balanced approach would be truly revolutionary for a city that has always put profits and growth above everything else.

Hong Kong is in the privileged position of being a relatively prosperous autonomous city-state, at the cost of being a high-energy and carbon-intensive economy. It is said that if everybody consumed at the rate of an average Hongkonger, we would need 4.2 earths to satisfy the demand!

Therefore, it does fall on Hong Kong to take the lead in the fight against the climate crisis and show a way out. The people of Hong Kong have shown the world their steadfast resolve to maintain their special status and have stood up as one to protect their rights and freedom in recent times. The same revolutionary resolve and spirit will be needed on a global level if the climate crisis is to be addressed effectively.


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.