Making buildings more energy-efficient is a quick way for Hong Kong to reach its carbon goals

Like many governments post-COP26, Hong Kong is working on phasing out coal
As it waits for green hydrogen and wind farms, a fast and easy way is to legislate for energy efficiency in buildings, which produce 60 per cent of the city’s carbon emissions
(21 Nov 2021 SCMP) Many high-level climate conferences have been held in the past quarter of a century, from the first UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP1) held in Germany in 1995 to the most recent held in Scotland. COP26 has been described as the last chance for nations to join together in tackling the biggest crisis facing humanity.
Unfortunately, only vague commitments and agreements have come out of each conference, with wealthy nations reluctant to commit funding for developing economies to transition from carbon-intensive coal-fired power towards clean energy.
Numbers tell the inconvenient truth. When COP1 was held in 1995, the global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration stood at 360 parts per million (ppm). By the time COP26 arrived, the carbon dioxide concentration had climbed to 414 ppm.
This month, the Global Carbon Project predicted that carbon emissions will rise by 4.9 per cent this year due to the revival of economic activities, meaning that the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration will return to pre-Covid-19 levels.
The situation for humanity may well get worse as it battles the twin crises of the pandemic and climate change.
The knock-on effects of both have given world leaders more headaches. For instance, mainland China has faced serious power shortages since late September, when many factories were forced to shut down.
In some places, even residential neighbourhoods experienced power outages. Nevertheless, Beijing needs to keep reducing its use of coal to fulfil its 2060 carbon neutrality commitment.
As the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, China said in September that it would stop building coal-fired projects abroad. However, it will continue to build coal-fired power units at home. President Xi Jinping said China will not reach its carbon emissions peak until 2030.
As one of the COP26 outcomes, more than 40 nations pledged to phase out coal use. Unfortunately, China, the United States, India and Australia did not sign the pledge, moves that will inevitably weaken the collective effort.
But if we refuse to change our wasteful lifestyle and to stop building coal-fired power plants, simply relying on technology to provide solutions, we will face the dire climate consequences sooner rather than later.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has proposed that slashing 45 per cent of global carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050 would limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 compared with pre-industrial levels.
The Hong Kong government has committed to achieving carbon neutrality before 2050. But will we be able to cut 45 per cent of our carbon emissions by 2030? The Climate Action Plan 2050 suggests phasing out coal-powered generation by 2035.
However, it will take several years at least before power companies can fully supply the city with zero-carbon electricity via the proposed offshore wind farms or imports of green hydrogen.
There is an easier and faster way. Buildings are responsible for about 60 per cent of the city’s carbon emissions. To speed up deep cuts in emissions, immediate improvements in energy efficiency should be a top priority. The cost would be far lower than wind farm development and likely to yield greater emissions reductions.
There is no shortage of solutions for enhancing the energy efficiency of buildings, such as retro-commissioning, lowering the humidity of indoor air to facilitate warmer temperatures in summer, improving insulation to minimise solar heat gain, and recovering waste heat for other uses. But the government must provide subsidies and mandate targets for landlords to deliver results together with their tenants.
First, the standards of the Buildings Energy Efficiency Ordinance must be upgraded. Second, all commercial buildings (new and existing) should be required to meet the upgraded standards within 18 months.
Third, all commercial buildings must be mandated to disclose the total (communal and tenants’) annual average energy consumption per square metre of indoor floor space, and the results published. This will lend peer pressure to landlords and tenants as they won’t like to be at the bottom of the list.
As electricity tariffs will increase by as much as 7 per cent from next January, conserving energy is a way to hedge against the increase. And these are workable and affordable solutions that would spark innovation and green investments. What are we waiting for?
Edwin Lau
Executive Director, The Green Earth
21 Nov 2021 SCMP