Climate change “consultation”

Debunking the “public consultation” on climate change

On 10 September 2010 Hong Kong’s Secretary for the Environment, Edward Yau, announced the government’s plan to launch a three-month “public consultation on Hong Kong’s climate change strategy and action agenda”, due to end on December 10.

In making the announcement, he revealed a change of mind on the government’s part that is most likely driven by pressure from the central government than green groups: instead of a 25% reduction in energy intensity (a measure of an economy’s energy efficiency calculated as units of energy per unit of GDP) by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, he said the government was proposing to reduce Hong Kong’s carbon intensity (the amount of greenhouse gases generated per unit of GDP) by 50-60 % by 2020 compared to 2005 levels.

Green groups had cried foul since the original target was made public, but apparently it was because the SAR, as an advance economy, could not make a commitment that was inferior to the one made by China, an Annex I country, to reduce its carbon intensity by 40-45% by 2020 compared to 2005 levels; that prompted the change.

Regardless of why the change was made, this ought to be good news but for the fact that the government’s figure for Hong Kong’s carbon emissions presents a completely false picture of what needs to be done. Its action agenda is equally misleading. This paper explains why.

How much greenhouse gas is Hong Kong emitting?

“If the proposed carbon intensity reduction target is achieved in 2020, we expect an absolute reduction in our total GHG emissions from 42 million tonnes in 2005 to 28 – 34 million tonnes in 2020, representing a 19-33% reduction. Per capita emission is also expected to reduce from 6.2 tonnes to 3.6-4.5 tonnes,” Mr Yau said.

In June 2009 the Environmental Sciences and Technology Journal published a study report called “Carbon Footprint of Nations: A Global, Trade-linked Analysis” that revealed Hong Kong’s per capita carbon footprint to be 29 tonnes, the second-highest in the world after Luxembourg. In August 2010 World Wide Fund HK published its own figure, which is 13.44 tonnes.

How did the government arrive at its figure? Apparently by taking into account local activities only; ie. electricity consumption and transport use. By contrast, the authors of the carbon footprint study based their calculations on overseas emissions that are related to Hong Kong as well as domestic activities – which makes sense, since the city imports everything; the manufacturing and transportation of imported goods account for much more carbon emissions, with domestic activities accounting for only 17%

WWF HK’s figure takes into account Hong Kong’s energy consumption, transport use and air travel – revealing the huge amount of carbon emissions – over half of the total per capita figure – attributable to the aviation sector.

Quoting the “6.2 tonnes” figure suggests that the government’s new commitment is equally inadequate and does not take into account all economic activities that give rise to carbon emissions at all. What’s worse, by quoting this figure, it is implicitly exempting the aviation sector from the need to make any kind of carbon reduction at all. Aviation emissions, whilst it currently accounts for a small portion of total global greenhouse gas emissions, are much more harmful due to the height at which they are generated, on account of radiative forcing; and the sector’s contribution to global warming is set to rise as a result of its explosive growth, especially in Asia.

Mr Yau described the target as challenging; it would be if we were talking about reducing Hong Kong’s real carbon intensity by 50-60% by more than halving the current per capita emissions of 29 tonnes, not “6.2 million tonnes”.

Conflicting agenda

However, even this target will prove difficult to achieve because of the government’s conflicting agenda and inability to get over compartmental thinking.

The “action agenda” proposed by the Government for “public consultation” identifies five specific and separate measures for achieving the reduction:

  1. Maximising energy efficiency
  2. Greening road transport
  3. Promoting the use of clean fuels for motor vehicles
  4. Turning waste to energy
  5. Revamping the fuel mix for electricity generation

These are not separate issues, but we will try to analyse them one by one without too much overlapping.

Maximising energy efficiency

The government’s promotion of building energy efficiency is well-known. Through energy-efficient design and retrofits with existing technologies, the building services industry estimates a reduction of about 8% in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved. A study commissioned by the Climate Change Business Forum, however, suggests that a total reduction of 50% is possible by integrating renewable and recyclable energy equivalent to 20% of building energy use.

However, to achieve this level of reduction will take more than new technology – in fact, some of the technologies already exist – and new legislation: it will take a new look at the whole electricity supply arrangement.

One example illustrates the stumbling block presented by the government’s refusal to reexamine its agreements with the two electricity companies. As a large-scale energy efficiency pilot scheme, the government has proposed to adopt district cooling for Kai Tak. The idea is for buildings in the district to use centrally-supplied water-cooled air-conditioning, which would be much more efficient than using independent air-cooled chillers. However, the most energy-efficient approach would be to develop a trigeneration system – one that supplies hot water, electricity and cooling – that would also give the prospective franchisee ample opportunity to make a healthy return on investment. Unfortunately, supplying the electricity is out of the question because of the monopolies held by the two existing electricity companies. The limited return on investment this – along with the original plan to make subscription to the system mandatory for government buildings only – resulted in bidders pricing its risks to a level that proved too high for the government, thus forcing it to re-tender the project.

Also, distributed electricity generation has been demonstrated in other parts of the world to be more environmentally friendly than the old model of supplying electricity from remote power plants. The Kai Tak system could be one such pilot, but because of the existing electricity monopolies, this becomes unfeasible.

Similarly, waste-to-energy is feasible but the current model anticipated by the government will see big, costly incineration plants in remote locations to which the waste will have to be transported over long distances, generating unnecessary carbon emissions in the process. If electricity supply is deregulated, it would be possible for much smaller plants to be built closer to source, thus eliminating transport-related emissions and generating electricity for the neighbourhood.

Greening road transport and promoting the use of clean fuels for motor vehicles

The government appears to think that it is “greening” road transport by promoting the adoption of private electric vehicles. It refuses to adopt electronic road pricing or introduce bike lanes in urban areas.

Do we really need a policy that encourages adoption of private electric cars, given the city’s excellent public transport network? Electric public transport fleets will significantly reduce roadside pollution, but private electric vehicles will simply worsen congestion. In view of the status obsession of luxury car users, they are unlikely to make the switch to electric cars, however expensive petrol becomes. At the same time, the first registration tax waiver and an attractive price will only serve to attract those who cannot previously afford ownership. In other words, the policy will just put more cars on the road.

The electricity companies, though, welcome the plan, for obvious reasons. What’s more, increasing demand for electricity to power electric cars could well offset the loss of business that results from the government’s building energy efficiency drive. When one prong of the “action agenda” cancels another out, where is the reduction?

The idea of “greening road transport” also fails to take into account the big picture: the best way to achieve reduction in carbon emissions in the transport sector is not to “green” it, but to minimise it. People will be much healthier and more productive if they do not have to commute long distances to and from work. That means rethinking work arrangements by getting employers to allow employees to telework and creating job opportunities in the new towns.

Within districts, real greening will obviously involve the promoting of cycling. In addition to bike lanes, lease modifications and new statutory requirements will have to be introduced to increase the availability of parking areas for bikes. New offices and renovated ones should be required to provide showering facilities for those who cycle to work. That means this is by no means just a transport issue, but one that involves urban planning and a new work culture, which can take root if the government takes the lead.

Turning waste to energy

Before we talk about waste-to-energy, we must first look at waste reduction/minimisation. To what extent can waste be reduced by adopting a far more comprehensive waste reduction plan? According to the government’s waste statistics for 2006, Hong Kong’s municipal waste consists of glass, metals, plastics and paper – which are all readily recyclable (though glass is not, even though a means of recycling them locally into bricks or aggregates has been found) – and “putrecibles”, of which 87% consists of food waste. Much of this food waste is currently thrown away, but the government is undertaking a pilot scheme to study the feasibility of recycling this as well into organic fertiliser. Together with campaigns to urge supermarkets and catering establishments to donate excess food to the needy and households to avoid wasting food, it is conceivable that the amount of food waste can be drastically reduced, with what does still end up in the bin consisting mainly of food that can be collected for recycling into compost locally, within a district, generating energy for local use and compost for municipal or household farms/gardens.

If these measures are adopted, the only waste that will need to be landfilled or incinerated somewhere else will be special waste such as hospital waste, which is already handled by the Chemical Waste Treatment Facility on Tsing Yi.

Instead of focusing on “turning waste to energy” as an “action agenda”, therefore, the government should first focus on ways to improve the recycling infrastructure.

Revamping the fuel mix for electricity generation

According to Mr Yau, the government will in ten years’ time increase the amount of electricity supplied by nuclear power plants to 50% of the total and natural gas 40%, leaving just 10% to be provided by coal-fired plants.

His only concern is that the cost of nuclear power and natural gas are higher relative to coal and will therefore have an impact on electricity tariff. This strategy will indeed cut carbon emissions, but he appears unaware of how short-term this approach is.

The world is running out of resources and the consensus is that we have either reached peak oil already or will reach it by 2015. The ‘peak’ concept refers to the point in time when the maximum rate of global extraction of a non-renewable natural resource is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. While many – in the West if not in Hong Kong – are aware of peak oil (both the US Joint Forces Command Strategic Outlook and the International Energy Agency are in agreement that peak oil will hit in 2015 and the US Department of Defence is already actively planning for life after oil, although this is rarely mentioned by civilian governments), fewer are aware of imminent peaks in the supply of other non-renewable resources, perhaps because peak oil will hit first.

It is worth noting, however, that the world is forecast to reach peak gas about ten years after peak oil. Peak uranium will come later – in about 2040 – but both sets of forecasts do not assume the kind of explosive growth in exploitation that using natural gas and uranium to replace oil or coal will cause.

In the short term, this may just mean a hike in price; in the long term, however, we are staring at depletion long before the 21st century has played out. Remember: by 2040, today’s post-90s will still be just 50 years old; a child born today will only be 30!

So do we want to go along with this kind of short-term thinking and put our children and grandchildren’s future at risk, or do we want to adopt a better approach?

Carbon tax/quota

The Hong Kong government has touted the “polluter pays” principle when introducing the plastic bag levy. In reality, focusing so much energy on reducing plastic bag use is like getting rid of a cockroach with a bazooka.

If the government is serious about addressing the long-term effects of climate change, it should study ways to introduce a carbon tax or carbon quotas. Both approaches will have several advantages:

  • They will be consistent with the “polluter pays” principle
  • They will be equitable
  • A carbon tax will go a long way towards addressing the need to reform Hong Kong’s system of taxation, which, because it’s so heavily reliant on land revenue, has completely distorted the property market
  • Carbon quotas provide the opportunity for creating a domestic carbon trading market

With a carbon tax, a working class household that doesn’t, say, consume so much electricity as a tycoon will automatically be liable to pay less. An allowance can also be introduced to further relieve the burden on the poor. Carbon quotas work by providing every individual a set number of carbon emissions units which they are permitted to generate. If they do not use up their quota, they can sell the extra units for a profit; equally, someone who generate carbon emissions above their quota will have to buy more. Such a system provides the poor with an opportunity to earn extra money while ensuring polluters pay.  In addition to tackling climate change, both approaches offer a way to address the growing wealth gap.

So why is a carbon tax/carbon quota not among the items in the “action agenda”?

Does it matter? Perhaps not. Any genuine attempt to reduce Hong Kong’s carbon footprint will need extensive inter-departmental communication and cooperation – something for which the government is not well-known.

Compartmental thinking is also detrimental to the development of genuine solutions. By framing the “public consultation” in terms of a narrowly-defined “action agenda”, with the aim of cutting Hong Kong’s carbon emissions by an amount which in reality is nowhere near its purported commitment, the whole exercise becomes essentially pointless.

© Angela Tam 2010