Hong Kong Engineer: Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous, rapid and potentially irreversible disruption to ecosystems, leaving billions around the world highly vulnerable. This is strongly emphasised in the three latest Assessment Reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is a United Nations body responsible for providing scientific, technical and socio-economic assessments of climate change. Every six to seven years, the IPCC summarises the latest knowledge on climate change, its impacts, and options for adaptation and mitigation. What insights do the three reports provide on climate change? How can we engineers play our part? First, we highlight below three insights from the IPCC reports.
1. Scientific evidence of the impact of climate change
The reports provide scientific evidence of the impact of climate change. From the destruction of coral reefs to the melting of ice sheets, climate-related impacts are happening much faster than previously assessed by the IPCC.
At least 24 countries have reduced greenhouse gas emissions for over a decade, in part aided by favourable technological developments and rapid deployment and falling costs of renewable energy. Between 2010 and 2019, for instance, the cost of solar energy decreased by 85% and wind energy by 55%. However, looking at the big picture, current plans to limit global warming have failed and greenhouse gas emissions will exceed the boundaries set by the Paris Agreement. In fact, between 2010 and 2019, global greenhouse gas emissions increased by 12%. The level of global warming will determine the extent of vulnerability not just of our ecosystems but also human societies. Around 40% of the world’s population is “highly vulnerable” to the impact of climate change. Hong Kong, for example, will face hotter temperatures, more frequent extreme weather events and a higher likelihood of flooding, with negative effects concentrated among low-income communities.
2. The small window of opportunity for action is closing rapidly
However, not all is lost. Climate change will continue to happen, so the question is how much we can limit it. Ambitious action towards net-zero pathways can help keep global warming to within, if not close to, 1.5°C above pre- industrial levels. To achieve that goal, we need to take every possible action and we need to do so urgently. The IPCC states that the opportunity for action only lasts for the rest of this decade. Limiting global warming will require deep and rapid emission reductions and transformational change across all systems and sectors.
3. Cities play an indispensable role
The IPCC reports make clear that cities provide the opportunity to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. With 55% of the world’s population already living in urban areas and an expected increase to 68% by 20501, cities hold the key to adapting and mitigating climate change. As cities continue to grow, the push can be made for renewable energy, efficient buildings and infrastructure, and green transport. Cities can be a testbed for innovative solutions to cut emissions and increase resilience.
We believe Hong Kong should be and can be a global role model for other cities in this respect. Its compact form, high quality public transit network, relationship with nature and its mature development ethos are all admirable factors. The real threat of increased climate risks combined with an innovative entrepreneurial mindset and some of the best engineers in the world means it is time for Hong Kong to lead the way.
Engineers have this chance to use their innovative minds and professional competencies to develop solutions, such as on retrofitting, electrification, and a shift towards more sustainable production and consumption practices. How cities are designed, constructed, managed, and powered will influence people’s behaviour and lifestyles, thus affecting future emission trends. Moreover, engineering is needed to ensure Hong Kong’s water, food, and energy security, as well as protect its people and assets from unavoidable climate risks.
Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan 2050
China is the world’s biggest carbon emitter, therefore all eyes are on its plans to decarbonise. In 2020, the Chinese Government committed to peak carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. To reach its mid-term goal, in October 2021 the Chinese Government published the Action Plan for Carbon Dioxide Peaking Before 20303, which laid out specific initiatives in different sectors of the economy.
One initiative is the creation of a green and low-carbon energy system. By 2030, the share of non-fossil fuels of total energy consumption will reach approximately 25%. CO2 emissions per unit of GDP will also drop by more than 65% from 2005 levels. Another initiative is the establishment of creating a green and low-carbon society. To make this successful, in discussion are the themes of circular economy, green and low-carbon transportation, green and low-carbon technological innovation, carbon sinks and education.
As part of China, Hong Kong contributes to fulfilling China’s obligations under the Paris Agreement. In October 2021, the Hong Kong Government launched the Climate Action Plan 2050 (CAP2050), setting targets to achieve 50% decarbonisation by 2035 and net zero by 20504.
CAP2050 targets are significantly more ambitious than Hong Kong’s previous plans. However, much more needs to be done. Clearer timeframes are needed, together with policies and incentives to ensure compliance, along with clear instructions to the various stakeholders and implementation mechanisms for the specified actions. Most importantly, the government needs to communicate how decarbonisation is a positive opportunity to improve Hong Kong’s economy, environment and society.
The role of engineers
As engineers, we have a crucial role to play in materialising CAP2050, in terms of both mitigation and adaptation measures being described. Regarding mitigation, the four defined decarbonisation strategies in the plan clearly rely on engineers. These strategies are net-zero electricity generation, energy saving and green buildings, green transport, and waste reduction. The plan also attaches great importance to adaptation and capability of the city’s infrastructure and buildings to be resilient to the impact of climate change including rising sea levels, extreme rainstorms, extreme droughts and extreme heat. Examples of resilience to climate change are enhancing drainage and shoreline management, conserving potable water and implementing blue-green infrastructure and buildings.
For each project, big and small, future climate scenarios should be considered, flagged and addressed. It is time to look beyond typical project horizons and agendas and demonstrate how high-quality engineering can be instrumental. Combatting climate change through sustainable development gives us real purpose to what we are doing. We are designing and building a sustainable future for everyone.
But where to start? Engineers may feel puzzled by the complexity of climate change and be unsure exactly how we can make a real impact on what is being called the biggest threat humanity has ever faced. Keeping in mind the three insights from the IPCC reports, we now list below what we believe are five key actions to take immediately.
1. Conduct whole life cycle carbon assessments on all projects
The first step in reducing carbon emissions from the projects we work on is to calculate them. A whole life cycle carbon assessment from the onset of a project is critical to obtaining a true understanding of both the operational and embodied carbon emissions that relate to a project. This will enable reflections and opportunities for dialogue within a project team and facilitate decision making, for example, on whether repurposing existing buildings, structures and foundations is a better option.
We also urge asset owners and developers to publicly disclose information. Only through transparency can best practices be demonstrated and market pressure created for better performance.
2. Enhance productivity and efficiency
Some people may think that productivity is just about output and increasing profits, when fundamentally it relates to efficiency. Recent studies show that the construction industry is often extremely wasteful, not just in monetary terms, but also wasteful human capital, materials, tools and machinery, time, energy, social capital, land, and ecosystems, as well as information and data.
The Get It Right Initiative research project5 for example, investigated the cost and causes of avoidable error in construction. The study concluded that 10% to 25% of project costs were directly associated with avoidable error. Overspecification is another main contributor to the wastefulness of the industry. The team of Automating Concrete Construction at the University of Cambridge, the University of Bath and the University of Dundee6 revealed how commercial drivers, risk aversion and sometimes plain ignorance have resulted in endemic overspecification of materials in the structures that we build. It was concluded that the industry has been overspecifying to the extent of 30% to 50%.
More efficient operation of the industry effectively means less waste. Less wasted resources from material overspecification, less wasted money on avoidable errors and changes in design, and less unnecessary material transportation all result in avoidable carbon emissions.
3. Accelerate development and application of new technology
The construction sector is notoriously slow at innovation. Existing barriers are the result of prevailing business models and regulatory mechanisms. However, times are changing, with increasing emphasis on social and natural capital of projects, developing requirements on financial reporting linked to climate change, and through initiatives such as the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). Another positive change is a more progressive government approach as elaborated in CAP2050.
The time has arrived to upscale the use of technology and innovation, to collect and manage data, to communicate more effectively, to design and plan optimally, and to manage our operations effectively. Initiatives range from the early adoption of BIM and digital twins to increase efficiency during the various stages of a project, to supporting the research on and application of low-carbon concrete and steel.
4. Build for resilience
If all play their part in the small window of time that remains, we can limit impact of climate change. The sad reality is that we still need to adapt and brace ourselves for what we cannot prevent. Due to its geographic location, Hong Kong is susceptible to climate impacts such as storm surges, sea level rise, rainstorms, tropical cyclones, droughts and heatwaves. Suitable adaptation and resilience measures are essential to reduce and contain potential loss and damage.
Engineers enhance the climate resilience of buildings and critical infrastructure now and in the future through robust climate modelling, conducting rigorous risk assessment and applying comprehensive design strategies. In addition, the application of early-warning systems and emergency preparedness and response should be considered in all projects.
5. Adopt nature-based solutions
Working in tune with natural systems is critical in responding to climate change positively. As an evolving set of methods, nature-based solutions represent an essential step forward beyond “hard” approaches traditionally deployed by built environment practitioners. We believe that nature-based solutions should be incorporated into projects of all scales, delivering healthier and more resilient environments that support communities and biodiversity. This approach to building our future is affordable, available and scalable today.
Nature can help improve flood risk management, green building facades increase energy efficiency and combat urban heat islands, trees and mangroves allow for carbon sequestration and better disaster recovery. A nature-first approach also involves the restoration and enhancement of ecologically valuable areas. Hong Kong’s Mai Po Nature Reserve, for example, is already suffering from the negative impacts of climate change.
Stepping up to the challenge now
We should all heed a famous saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This means we simply cannot maintain the status quo. To discharge our indispensable share of responsibility towards climate change, engineers need to think differently and act now. It takes courage and it will not be easy, but through joint effort, collaboration and persistence – we believe engineers in Hong Kong and beyond can and will make a difference.
Originally published on Hong Kong Engineer on 5 Aug 2022. Written by Jasper HILKHUIJSEN, Lawrence LU, Lauren CHAN, WAN Kai Hong.