Green recovery: how Carrie Lam can protect Hong Kong from future pandemics and climate disaster

While suppressing the spread of Covid-19 must be a top priority, it would be irresponsible to overlook the environmental crisis which, if not handled intelligently, will exacerbate losses to the economy and livelihoods in Hong Kong
The government’s anti-epidemic spending on jobs and businesses has eaten hugely into Hong Kong’s fiscal reserves. The deficit for the year could hit HK$300 billion.
To repair the budget, the administration might be tempted to reduce what it spends on green or sustainable economic policies. That would be regrettably short-sighted.
What we need is not quick fixes but a resilient economy. This can best be achieved through prioritising spending on decarbonisation and sustainability. Western countries are showing the way, with European Union leaders reaching a coronavirus recovery deal that prioritises low-carbon investments.
Likewise, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor must guide her administration by giving a groundbreaking policy address that focuses on Hong Kong’s green economic recovery. This is the only way to protect the city against future viruses and climate change.
Recent extreme weather should strengthen our belief in the need for carbon-neutral sustainable development. Examples include: in late July, the last fully intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic collapsed, losing about 80 square kilometres in area.
In the past two months, 27 of China’s 31 provinces have been battered by intense rain and floods, with estimated economic losses of US$12.3 billion. In the first seven months of 2020, Hong Kong recorded 26 per cent less rainfall than in the same period last year. In July, the city had the highest number of very hot days (20) and nights (21).
While suppressing the spread of Covid-19 must be a top priority, it would be irresponsible not to pay attention to the growing environmental crisis which, if not dealt with intelligently, will exacerbate losses to the economy and the livelihoods of citizens.
The government and larger businesses should have conducted regular risk assessments of various critical systems to ensure the entire economy is resilient to harsh conditions. But our daily lives and commercial activities seem to have been supported by a fragile system which is showing signs of collapse under of onslaught of Covid-19 since January.
The public expects the government to apply what was learned in overcoming the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003 to save us from today’s serious threats of economic hardship, illness and death.
Prevention is always cheaper and better than cure. Although the government has so far committed HK$287.5 billion to anti-epidemic measures, it seems to have been unable to save many businesses and jobs. The unemployment rate stands at 6.1 per cent.
Hong Kong lacks a robust health care system in terms of hardware and workforce. Yes, the city recovered quickly enough from Typhoon Mangkhut, but it remains vulnerable with regard to public health, environmental conservation, and food and water security.
It is to be hoped that the administration will invest the city’s fiscal reserves in various aspects of prevention to make us genuinely resilient to foreseeable threats.
By this logic, the government should suspend its Lantau Tomorrow Vision; the project’s estimated HK$624 billion budget could be more effectively spent on innovative and sustainable projects such as enhancing our health care system and really tackling the twin challenges of climate change and environmental pollution.
The latest report published by think tank Civic Exchange suggests that Hong Kong can still achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 if we act immediately to start decarbonising the power sector.
Renewable energy technologies have advanced a lot. So, investing in the wind farm projects proposed by two local power companies, as well as renewable energy systems beyond our borders that would supply power back to the city, is an essential first step towards carbon neutrality.
The city earned HK$6.3 billion from waste exports in 2018. If we could recover and recycle more waste locally and ban certain types of single-use plastic, it would simultaneously create jobs and solve our waste crisis. Hong Kong’s fundamental problem remains the administration’s lack of political will and an innovative mindset to drive sustainable development, not to mention being open to advice from genuine experts.
Earth Overshoot Day is the date by which humanity has exhausted all the natural resources that the Earth can renew during the year, as calculated by research group Global Footprint Network. This year, because of Covid-19 lockdowns worldwide, Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 22, an improvement of more than three weeks from last year. But we are still consuming much more than nature can regenerate, and current development models can only lead to ecological bankruptcy.
Edwin Lau
Executive Director, The Green Earth
30 Aug 2020 SCMP