Hong Kong is among the earliest cities in Asia to take action in addressing and combating climate change. As a direct response to the Paris Agreement, Hong Kong released the Climate Action Plan 2030+ in January 2017, targeting a 26% to 36% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 relative to 2005.
Over the past years, Hong Kong has been making progress towards decarbonisation. Hong Kong’s total carbon emissions peaked in 2014, with annual per capita carbon emissions of 6.2 tonnes. The per capita carbon emissions further declined to 5.3 tonnes in 2019 and 4.17 tonnes in 2020, although early reports suggest that much of the reduction in 2020 may be attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In its Climate Action Plan 2030+, Hong Kong committed to review its actions in 2019 and update the plan in 2020, which led to the announcement of the new Climate Action Plan 2050 in 2021.
Hong Kong announced its Climate Action Plan 2050 on 8 October 2021. It clearly sets out the target of (i) reducing total carbon emissions by half before 2035 from the 2005 level (i.e. from about 40 million tonnes in 2005 to nearly 20 million tonnes in 2035); and (ii) achieving carbon neutrality before 2050. The above decarbonisation targets are going to be achieved by the following 4 decarbonisation strategies:
A. Net-zero Electricity Generation
Hong Kong sets a target of ceasing to use coal for daily electricity generation by 2035, save for backup support. Coal will be replaced by natural gas (with lower carbon emissions) and zero-carbon sources, such as renewables and nuclear energy.
Already in 1997, Hong Kong ceased the construction of new coal-fired power plants. The proportion of coal in the fuel mix has also been reduced from 48% in 2015 to 24% in 2020, largely by replacement with natural gas, which rose from 27% to 48% over the same period. Recognising that transition from coal to natural gas must be followed by further decarbonisation efforts, Hong Kong is also actively promoting the generation and use of renewable energy, such as solar energy and hydro power.
To expedite the reduction of carbon emissions in electricity generation, the share of renewable energy in the fuel mix is targeted to increase from less than 1% in 2021 to between 7.5% and 10% by 2035 (i.e. wind energy 3.5-4%; waste-to-energy 3-4% and solar energy 1-2%). Planned initiatives include the development of more waste-to-energy facilities and offshore wind farms, encouraging communities to instal solar panels and share the power generated, and the increased installation of solar panels on government premises such as reservoirs, government buildings and landfills.
B. Energy Saving and Green Buildings
Buildings account for about 90% of Hong Kong’s total electricity consumption and 66% of its carbon emissions. Hong Kong aims to gradually reduce the electricity consumption of new and existing commercial buildings by 15-20% by 2035, and by 30-40% by 2050; and that of residential buildings by 10-15% by 2035, and by 20-30% by 2050 against the 2015 operational baseline. Emphasis is placed on improving the energy efficiency standards of buildings by making references to international standards and harnessing innovative and intelligent technologies to ensure the energy efficiency standards of building services installations are up to date.
C. Green Transport
Transport sector is responsible for 18% of Hong Kong’s carbon emissions. The long-term target of zero carbon emissions from vehicles and the transport sector before 2050 is mainly driven through the electrification of vehicles and ferries, and the development of new energy transport and measures to improve traffic management. For example, the Government plans to cease the new registration of fuel-propelled and hybrid private cars by 2035. Hydrogen fuel cell electric buses and heavy vehicles will be tested out within the next 3 years. The Government is also planning to roll out a free-flow tolling system and congestion charging to enhance road network efficiency and reduce carbon emissions from traffic congestion.
Furthermore, the Government has been focusing on promoting new energy vehicles and vessels such as electric private cars. Tax incentives are provided to car owners who replace their old private cars with electric vehicles. Vehicle license fees for electric private cars are also relatively low. The Government also subsidises the installation of electric vehicle charging in the car parks of existing private residential buildings.
D. Waste Reduction
Carbon emissions from waste are mainly generated from decomposition in landfills and constitute 7% of Hong Kong’s carbon emissions. To reduce the amount of waste going to landfill Hong Kong is promoting waste reduction, recycling and the development of waste-to-energy facilities. For example, the bill on municipal solid waste (“MSW”) charging, which encourages various sectors to reduce waste and practise more recycling, was passed in August 2021. Hong Kong will begin charging for MSW in 2023, which aims to progressively reduce the per capita MSW by 40-45% and raise the recovery rate to about 55%. The Government also plans to regulate disposable plastic tableware in phases from 2025. Waste-to-energy facilities such as the T-Park (sludge treatment) and O-Park 1 (food waste treatment) have commenced operation in recent years.
In the meantime, the Government will enhance the recovery of biogas collected from landfills as an additional source of renewable energy generation.
According to the Climate Action Plan 2050, Hong Kong plans to allocate about HK$240 billion in the next 15 to 20 years to implement mitigation and adaptation measures to combat climate change. The Environment Bureau will also set up a new Office of Climate Change and Carbon Neutrality to coordinate the works towards carbon neutrality.
The Hong Kong Climate Action Plan 2050 has set a clear and determined target of achieving carbon neutrality through medium to long-term policies and initiatives addressing the three main sources of carbon emissions. However, to achieve the central aim of the Paris Agreement to keep global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C, more ambitious targets and urgent actions may well be called for.
A. More ambitious decarbonisation target
According to Deadline 2020: How cities will get the job done published by C40, a global network of mayors taking urgent action to confront the climate crisis, average per capita emissions across C40 cities would need to drop to around 2.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030 in order for warming to remain within 1.5 degrees. Hong Kong’s 2030 target of between 3.3 to 3.8 tonnes per capita carbon emissions appears to fall short of this. Voluntary targets would also become more realistic when they are made binding by law. More ambitious decarbonisation, coupled with legally binding timelines, can be incorporated into Hong Kong’s decarbonisation plan.
While the Climate Action Plan 2050 focuses on emissions of carbon, other greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, should be included in a more ambitious science-based Net Zero target.
B. Food emissions overlooked
Consumption of meat in Hong Kong is very high, with the average person eating around 5.5 times the international average. Hong Kong’s consumption of meat and dairy products was highlighted as a major driver of Hong Kong’s carbon footprint but is largely overlooked in the Climate Action Plan 2050.
C. Omission of embodied carbon
Another omission in Hong Kong’s ambition involves decarbonisation of its buildings. The Climate Action Plan 2050 addresses only operational emissions of both new and existing buildings. No target or strategy is outlined for tackling embodied emissions, which are generated in the manufacture, delivery, installation and disposal of building materials. This may be a significant omission given that tackling Hong Kong’s housing crisis may necessitate construction of new buildings with large embodied emissions.
D. Greater policy backing required
Commentators on the Climate Action Plan 2050 suggest that the Plan is not well-supported by corresponding government policies. While efforts are to be made to reduce carbon emissions, the city is pressing ahead with carbon-intensive construction projects such as the “Lantau Tomorrow” reclamation plan.
While the phasing out of coal in the fuel mix is a step in the right direction, it is also suggested that there should be greater reliance on zero-carbon energy such as solar, wind and hydro energy. While natural gas emits about half as much carbon as coal to produce the same amount of energy, it is not a zero-carbon energy source and therefore serves as a transitional fuel only. Hong Kong should be more ambitious in developing renewables so they make up a much larger share of the energy mix. Areas to explore include offshore wind farms, solar panels on more buildings and greater regional collaboration to import renewable energy.
The Climate Action Plan 2050 has certainly galvanised discussions on Hong Kong’s roadmap toward carbon neutrality. It lays out concrete and realistic action to be taken promptly by the public and private sectors and by local communities.
Although the Climate Action Plan 2050 contains some omissions and is not currently aligned with the Paris Agreement, it is set to be reviewed every five years. As technologies advance, investments shift and political will builds, Hong Kong can be expected to increase its ambition within the envisaged timeline and address the shortcomings highlighted in this newsletter.