SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing the current Covid-19 pandemic, has spread around the world in the last few months with a shocking number of confirmed cases and deaths.
Fortunately, thanks to the concerted efforts of Hongkongers and our medical community who lived through SARS in 2003, the epidemic so far is under control here. We are thankful to those on the front lines fighting the epidemic at risk to their lives.
SARS-CoV-2 vs. the environment
The pandemic has hit the global economy hard with a sharp drop in industrial production and curtailment on travel. #GlobalCarbonEmissions estimates for this year will be down by more than 5%. This has meant dramatically improved air quality, for example, as economic activities shut down and people stayed home.
The outbreak highlights our reliance on high-carbon, highly polluting energy sources that make our global economies vulnerable to the sudden change we have experienced.
While this pandemic may recede with social distancing and a vaccine, our high carbon lifestyles and the consequent climate emergency remain a threat to all of humanity, making us equally or even more vulnerable to future disease.
The pandemic highlights that human activities have invaded our natural systems, allowing more chance for transmission of disease between wildlife and humans. We face cycles of destructive diseases new to humans if we continue to trade in wildlife, include wildlife in medicine products and deplete their natural habitats.
There is also the threat of more disease from climate change itself. Even a small rise in temperature leads to permafrost melt and that can wake up formerly trapped viruses. In August 2016, in a remote corner of Siberian tundra, a 12-year-old boy died and at least twenty people were hospitalised after being infected by anthrax from a reindeer that had been trapped under permafrost.
At the same time, a warming earth brings increasing frequency of extreme weather events and expands the range and spread of vector-borne diseases. Recently, Hong Kong confirmed a dengue case, the earliest record of dengue here in 10 years.
Rethink risk, this is an opportunity for reflection, review and action.
Despite the risks to our city and our health, there is not enough government, corporate or public action in Hong Kong to protect our environment and there is even less public awareness about climate change and the future we face without action.
Putting climate on the agenda in Hong Kong
We need to build urgency around climate, understanding relative to why we must decarbonize and the connection between climate, health and ultimately every aspect of our lives. We want people to see that a decarbonized city, for example, is more liveable with better air quality, cleaner power, energy efficient buildings, better public transport and more open space.
In early 2020 Civic Exchange released the results of a public opinion survey on Hong Kong people’s attitudes towards Climate Change, conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. The survey showed 84% of respondents thought livelihood and health challenges were more important than climate, without making the connection amongst the three. Most respondents thought climate change was an urgent problem for the future, not for now.
Yet climate is an urgent problem for us all now. Every day we delay reducing emissions, the costlier and more challenging decarbonization will be in the future. We urgently need an ambitious climate action plan on climate for Hong Kong. Where this plan impacts livelihoods, care must be taken to support a transition to new employment.
Aggregate collective action for change
Undoubtedly, the pandemic will have a significant impact on our economy for some time. We acknowledge and appreciate the government’s proposed relief programs, including policies to help tourism, retail and catering industries, to provide subsidies for employees.
However, the stimulus package should also address basic income, employment challenges and environmental sustainability, as well as climate. Our Government needs a vision of how our economy can transition to Net Zero emissions. With such a vision it can better judge which of the pandemic relief measures fit the longer-term path Hong Kong needs to follow and #protectourhealth.
By Lawrence Iu, Programme Manager, Hong Kong 2050 is Now, Civic Exchange
 “I wouldn’t be shocked to see a 5% or more drop in carbon dioxide emissions this year, something not seen since the end of World War Two,” Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University in California, told Reuters in an email.