The Paris climate agreement: why Hong Kong must catch up

Ir. Albert Lai, CEO, Carbon Care Asia and Head of the HK NGO Delegation to COP21

Human banner at the Paris talks advocating 100% renewable

The Paris agreement on climate change brings huge challenges and opportunities for the way we organise our economies, societies and technologies; starting now and right through the rest of this century. It represents nothing short of a call to transform the world economy into a new post-carbon era. To achieve this will require changes in our economic and social systems more profound than anything since the industrial revolution.

The World Bank report on climate change and development notes that holding temperatures down to two degrees (let alone 1.5 degrees) will require ‘deep structural changes in the world economy.’ It is not just activists like Naomi Klein who are saying ‘this changes everything.’

Hong Kong stands at the centre of both climate risk and opportunity. Hong Kong is part of China; an emerging superpower and super-polluter which will increasingly need to show leadership beyond its own self-interest. At the same time, Hong Kong’s separate development from China finds it comparable to some of the world’s most advanced and wealthy cities. This provides Hong Kong with a unique role. It can connect to those world cities planning to become leaders in the carbon transition, while also remaining an influential part of China – a country with dozens of new and rapidly expanding cities which badly need to avoid lock-in to carbon-intensive infrastructure.

The changes that the Paris agreement portend for Hong Kong are profound and exciting; the opportunities are great and the risks of doing nothing are immense.

Cities are specifically mentioned in the list of players essential to raising ambition. Initial questions for Hong Kong are evident: To what extent can our city can help China achieve its commitments under the Paris Agreement? To what extent will Hong Kong honour the purpose and intention of the Paris document, recognising that if we fail to meet the agreed targets, we face droughts, deluges, seawater filling our streets – bringing housing and health disasters for our citizens?

It is no longer the alarmist green activists painting this picture, it’s the future recognised by all world leaders who signed the agreement in Paris, and the government-appointed scientists and United Nations agencies that stand behind them.

Cities all over the world now have their own emissions reduction targets, with some heading for ‘zero-carbon’ status by 2050, and several others aiming for an 80% carbon reduction by similar dates. Seventeen international cities like London, New York and Vancouver have joined together to form a Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. Unfortunately Hong Kong is missing from the list.

Speakers at the China Pavilion at COP21

In the absence of government leadership, the business sector has a choice: ignore the risks and hope for the best, or move forward regardless and reap the significant short and medium-term benefits that co-exist with a comprehensive climate change mitigation strategy.

We recommend five key actions for business. The first is to keep track of global trends – including evolving targets and corporate commitments, regulations, markets, risks, technologies, disclosure requirements, and finance and insurance provisions. An encouraging development ahead of COP21 was 412 major companies and investors committing to specific climate action as part of the We Mean Business coalition. Or RE100, led by the Climate Group and CDP, which already has more than 50 companies committing to 100 percent renewable energy by 2020.

Secondly, companies should measure, report and review their business operations to reduce their carbon footprint and avoid locking in to carbon-intensive assets. Conducting a carbon audit is a good first step; we have developed a number of carbon accounting and management tools including the CarbonCare Label, and of course we welcome the recent changes to HKEx’s ESG Reporting Guide, which will compel listed companies to disclosure their carbon performance in future.

Yet simply improving the status quo will not get us where we need to be. We recommend that every business should begin to plan towards a zero-carbon business model – developing new products, services and facilities in order to gain first mover benefits and reduce existential risk. We saw a wonderful example in Paris in Blue Solutions, a company that is developing vehicles, technologies and infrastructure in the city for transport solutions running on 100% renewable energy.

Such things do not happen by chance. To ensure that all departments contribute to a zero-carbon business model, it is really critical to build in-house capacity and innovation processes. As well as staff training and carbon footprinting, we find tools such as roadmap development and SWOT/innovation workshops to be very helpful in maintaining engagement, building momentum and translating aspiration into action.

Finally, while much progress can be made by companies working independently and in collaboration with one another, we cannot pretend that the scale of impact needed can be achieved without government taking the he lead on redirecting and incentivising investment in infrastructure, research and other systems. Therefore, we urge all companies to advocate for a clear, predictable and consistent regulatory framework from government regarding the transition to a zero-carbon economy.

As the best-selling author, Naomi Klein, has pointed out: “Now is not the time for small steps; now is the time for boldness.”

The views of guest contributors do not necessarily reflect those of HKCSS, the Caring Company Scheme or Sustainable Business HK.