The way humans deal with the climate crisis is one of the strangest examples of our complicated psychology. For example: this has been one of the hottest-ever summers in Hong Kong, and on October 5, the government issued a press release stating that September 2021 was the hottest on record, a full 2.3 degrees warmer than usual.

Policy Address 2021 Northern Metropolis
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The climate crisis is here and it is impacting Hong Kong too. Which means it was only natural for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to address the topic in her policy address. However, if we were hoping for some sense of urgency, innovative thinking or coherent policy, we were severely disappointed. I can’t understand what it will take for those in power to realise that the survival of humans on the planet must become an absolute priority. 

The world (and not just Hong Kong) has demonstrated a dogged unwillingness to accept that the climate crisis was created by a whole range of irrational behaviour. It can only be addressed and reversed through a holistic approach and not by throwing money and bureaucracy at the problem.

The Chief Executive has announced that about HK$240 billion will be devoted over the next 15 to 20 years to as-yet unclear measures on climate crisis mitigation and adaptation. But the ideas put forward so far seem to concentrate on energy and, to a lesser extent, on recycling.

We do not know yet what the Climate Action Plan 2050 will be – it has not yet been announced – but its stated aim is to achieve carbon neutrality by that date, through reducing carbon emissions by 50 per cent by or before 2035. What we do already know is that at least some of this should be achieved through a reduction in energy consumption in commercial buildings (30 to 40 per cent) and residential buildings from 2015.

Climate change march school
Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Unfortunately, six years ago we were already living way beyond what the planet could cope with, so that doesn’t seem ambitious or in tune with the severity of the crisis. But I guess it is better than nothing. And again, Hong Kong is far from being the only laggard in this respect, although this is a detail the planet couldn’t care less about.

However, there is an elephant in the room – actually, two. The proposal to reduce emissions flies in the face of the idea of building a Northern Metropolis and a Harbour Metropolis – the latest name for the environmentally indefensible idea of the East Lantau Metropolis, or Lantau Tomorrow Vision – or the “Let’s dump everything we find into the sea to reclaim a lot of land even if sea levels are rising and it is not sustainable but then we can build very, very much Project.”

Even before considering whether there is a need for these massive projects in terms of population growth and so on, we must come to our senses and realise that the time for development which will destroy what remains of the marine and wetland equilibrium is long past. Tackling the climate crisis and building two new metropolises are mutually contradictory ideas. If the government decides that it would rather have two metropolises than a planet, it is not making sense.

Hong Kong international airport third runway
Photo: HK Gov.

Certainly it is good to promise to switch energy sources: coal must be phased out, and all that. But the desire to do must also be coherent with how we understand transport. First issue: why are we still building a third runway at Chek Lap Kok if it is neither needed, nor indeed environmentally sustainable?

At the opposite end of the spectrum, smaller communities that have been relying on bicycles for transport have had this mode of transport made more, not less difficult. A small but revealing example from Lantau: the number of car permits has been rising steadily, and while there has been a battle against illegally parked bicycles, there is a tacit understanding that illegally parked cars (like gas-guzzling SUVs) will not be towed and cars that illegally use closed roads will not be stopped. Meanwhile the frequency of some bus services has been reduced.

Do not think I am raising too local an issue: climate must be addressed both locally and globally. We need to make more space for pedestrians, public transport and bicycles on existing roads – not build more roads and decide that we will phase out the worst-polluting vehicles. Again: a sense of urgency, please. We are sinking. 

juyl 1 recycle green recycling
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

What about recycling? This seems like a nice idea, especially in a place like Hong Kong that does so little of it. But it doesn’t address the fact that consuming less is more important than recycling. And once again, it is all linked to daily habits that need immediate attention.

Plastic is everywhere in our consumption cycle. Everything comes wrapped in plastic and no one is addressing this. The enforced super-long quarantines and the higher number of takeaway meals throughout this pandemic has multiplied the use of single-use plastic, which is seen as a secondary concern. It is not.

Hong Kong people’s consumption habits must be looked at squarely and everything possible must be done to bring them into line with survival requirements. The current proposal is based on production-based emissions: the emissions we create for what we produce (66 per cent of the total of Hong Kong’s emissions, according to official statistics).

In a place that imports as much as Hong Kong does, we should be basing our assessments on consumption-based emissions: in 2018, our consumption-based emissions were 108.25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent while our production-based emissions were 42.51 million tonnes. Obviously we should address the larger number if we want to have an impact, which means addressing consumption.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam at a press conference after delivering her 2021 Policy Address. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam at a press conference after delivering her 2021 Policy Address. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Take food: it’s not just that everything comes wrapped in plastic, it is also imported. Repurposing the land earmarked for the Northern Metropolis for sustainable farming, for example, would be a way more sustainable approach without the need to whizz in two million people. Also, Hong Kong consumes an unconscionable amount of meat: we need government campaigns that explain what this is doing to the environment, because people are simply unaware of the problem and think it is, once again, a small detail. It is not. We consume a staggering amount of beef, pork and poultry

The problem isn’t simply that the plan falls short, considering that we are in a full-blown crisis. The problem is that if we want to have a planet, preserving it must take priority over all other concerns – even before politics and the Chief Executive’s desire to push at full speed towards integration with the mainland. Without a planet, there is nothing.

Collectively, we are still behaving as if the environment is a “soft” issue, an afterthought for days when we want to feel pious and not talk about ugly politics. It is not. It is the absolute priority to prevent human extinction – burying our heads in two new metropolises will not change that fact. 

The policy address has shown that nobody in government has quite realised this crucial point, or dared to elevate it above all other considerations. They must. 

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Ilaria Maria Sala is an award winning writer and ceramic artist based in Hong Kong. She has been living in Asia since 1988 - first in Beijing, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, with long detours in Shanghai and Kathmandu. Her byline has appeared in Le Monde, the New York Times, the Guardian, ArtNews, El Periódico and La Stampa, among others. Her latest book is Pechino 1989, published by Una Città in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.