04 Mar 2021

Hong Kong budget again kicks climate crisis can down the road (South China Morning Post)

By John Sayer, Director, CCA

Environmental issues were thinly scattered through the latest budget, although Hong Kong has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Environmental issues in the latest budget remain a thin patchwork of marginal measures, despite the far-reaching announcement several months ago of China’s pledge of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, followed by Hong Kong’s 2050 target. These climate goals have profound implications for how Hong Kong plans and manages its financial, scientific and social development over the next few years. The obvious truth is: the more we delay action, the more challenging the task will become.

Despite being the first budget since the chief executive announced the city will “strive to achieve carbon neutrality before 2050”, this budget treats climate action as a “nice-to-have”.

In failing to respond to climate goals, the financial secretary has kicked the can down the road again. We learn that fossil-fuel cars will continue to be registered up to 2035. Will these cars have only a 15-year life? Will they become stranded assets? Or will we magically achieve carbon neutrality with large numbers of petrol and diesel vehicles still running on Hong Kong’s roads?

A few measures encouraging the use of more electric vehicles and recycling completely omit the most important climate action priorities for Hong Kong: the switch to 100 per cent clean energy; converting Hong Kong’s buildings, new and old, to near-zero emissions; protecting the city and its water and electricity supply systems from rising sea levels, stronger typhoons and other weather extremes.

The financial secretary noted in passing that revised climate action plans will come out later this year, driven by the Environmental Protection Department. Let’s be honest, this is neither the most powerful nor the most dynamic part of the Hong Kong government. To relegate such important policy to this department is implying that it is a specialist issue which can be bolted onto business as usual.

In Singapore, the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Climate Change is headed by the senior minister and coordinating minister for national security, accompanied by the ministers for finance, foreign affairs, trade and industry, and National Development. The National Climate Change Secretariat sits in the prime minister’s office.

Hong Kong’s long-term decarbonisation exercise was subcontracted to the Council for Sustainable Development; the top adviser resigned, frustrated by delays and lack of transparency.

The UN’s panel of world scientists assessing the measures necessary to avert climate catastrophe (the IPCC) noted in 2018 that pathways to hold temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.”

C40 Cities, of which Hong Kong is a steering group member, said in 2016 that “the next four years will determine whether or not the world’s megacities can deliver their part of the ambition of the Paris Agreement”.

Well, those years have passed. The 2021-22 budget was an opportunity to kick-start climate action after several years of dangerous delay and an opportunity to get some financial muscle behind Hong Kong’s 2050 emissions target. After all, ambitious financing will be the starting point for achieving Hong Kong’s low-carbon vision.

Instead, the financial secretary has suggested we wait, again.


Published by South China Morning Post on 4 March, 2021