SCMP: Despite the damage wreaked by Covid-19, there is amid all the uncertainty an appreciation of bluer skies and cleaner air across the world. Whether this will lead to lasting change is debatable. Many citizens seem convinced the climate crisis is beyond their understanding, comprehensible only to scientists and highly skilled professionals, and that they cannot contribute to its resolution.
Championing a solutions-based approach is the best way to overcome this paralysis. In this context, I would like to commend the work carried out within the “Hong Kong 2050 is Now” project, and go further by proposing a new institution to kick-start Hong Kong’s efforts to address climate change.
The Hong Kong 2050 is Now report calls for strict government policy frameworks for greener buildings, electricity generation and transport, with enforceable rules and standards. But while regulations send strong signals to society, there can be a significant lag before meaningful action is taken.
Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of time in the midst of a climate emergency. The way forward is to pair local innovation, especially by engineers, financial professionals and young people, with government regulation.
The new body proposed would be named the Hong Kong Centre for a Zero Carbon Future. It would draw cutting-edge ideas from a cross-section of disciplines, with a particular focus on identifying young leaders to drive efforts to achieve the 2050 target of net-zero carbon emissions. In the next decade, the priority has to be a breakthrough in low-carbon technologies.
First, the centre would spearhead innovation and entrepreneurship by providing funding for climate-related business plans and hosting competitions to generate creative solutions and raise the profile of the zero-carbon mission.
For example, a signature annual event could award prestigious prizes, highlighting the best new green tech solution for Hong Kong and the most innovative low-carbon finance mechanism. In addition, the top climate solutions put forward by start-ups, NGOs, universities and secondary schools would all be recognised.
Second, the centre would back innovative research, generating and evaluating plans for the decarbonisation of Hong Kong, while speeding up the reorientation of our outstanding engineering talent towards emissions-reducing technology.
To this end, Hong Kong must engage with the Greater Bay Area to source clean energy, given the space required for most forms of renewable energy. Hong Kong researchers must therefore design renewable energy projects for the Bay Area.
At the same time, we need more research on how next-generation clean power might be generated within Hong Kong. This includes the difficult question of whether to consider nuclear energy (small modular reactors).
Third, the centre would build capacity. A competitive fellowship scheme would teach aspiring environmentalists specialist skills such as campaigning. There would be a cross-fertilisation of ideas through another scheme in which officials from companies, NGOs and government departments are seconded to each other’s organisations.
The centre would also help spread locally generated climate solutions to Hong Kong organisations, especially smaller ones, through training programmes and technical workshops.
Lastly, a much greater effort is needed to communicate the changes required. Recent graduates could compete to serve as paid fellows at Hong Kong media companies with the goal of demystifying global and local scientific and technological breakthroughs.
Hong Kong philanthropists are well placed to help. Globally, only 3 per cent of charitable contributions go to the climate cause, which is inadequate given the gravity of the challenge, and the new centre would offer an innovative philanthropy initiative.
The centre could also play a role in diversifying the Hong Kong economy. The next big global market is green, and Hong Kong has a sufficiently large reservoir of engineering and financial capabilities to be a significant player. With this centre in place, Hong Kong would stand a greater chance of becoming one of the world’s first zero-carbon cities, a role model for the Greater Bay Area and an exporter of green services and technologies.
Justin Robertson is an associate professor at City University of Hong Kong and organiser of the Asian Sustainability Case Study Challenge and the CityU Sustainability Lecture Series
Originally published on SCMP on 23 September 2020.