It’s mid-summer. The issue of climate change is more pressing than ever. Enter “record-shattering heat” in any internet search engine and you will be bombarded with news of hottest temperatures on record in different parts of the world: temperature hitting over 18℃ in Antarctica, over 30℃ in Northern Europe and close to 50℃ in Canada… The globe is heating up. Are humans committing slow suicide?
To address the crisis of global warming, China announced its “Emission Peak” in 2030 and “Carbon Neutrality” by 2060 last year. Hong Kong appears even more ambitious with the pledge of achieving Carbon Neutrality by 2050. The goal is now set. The next key questions are whether the goal can be achieved and how to proceed. In the 2017 “Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan 2030+” from the HKSAR government, the mid-term objective is to reduce 65-75% of carbon emissions by 2030. It is questionable whether the objective can be met, in view of the policy measures implemented by the government in recent years. It will take arduous efforts indeed to pass the various detailed objectives set out in the Action Plan.
The biggest blind spot in the carbon reduction master plan in Hong Kong is the negligence of renewable energy. The government put its emphasis on natural gas to replace coal burning to reduce carbon emissions in electricity generation. With the new gas-fired generation units in place last year, natural gas has reached 50% of the local fuel mix. It may look promising. However, natural gas is only a “cleaner” energy and does give off greenhouse gases, albeit as 50% less carbon emissions than coal burning. The fracking to obtain natural gas also releases large amounts of methane, which is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. During the extracting process, enormous amounts of water resource are consumed and the chemicals used may pollute precious underground water. The fact is, natural gas accelerates global warming, only the deeper impacts occur outside Hong Kong.
The government has also formulated a roadmap on popularisation of electric vehicles. Phasing out fuel-propelled vehicles may be an important step in carbon reduction. However, how would it be possible to reach carbon neutrality if vehicles are still powered by electricity generated from fossil fuels?
On the other hand, the government shows its lack of determination in promoting renewable energy. At present, the percentage of renewable energy accounts for less than 1% of overall energy use and the official target is 3-4%. Putting it against the context of carbon neutrality in 2050, the target looks more like a joke. The official document went to great lengths in defending the modest target—immature technology, high cost, lack of land, etc. These excuses have been heard by the public for many years. Have we not actually overcome any of the difficulties?
Among all kinds of renewable energy technologies, solar power has achieved more mature development. In the past, energy efficiency was about 15-18%, meaning that for every 100 units of solar energy received, 15 to 18 units can be converted into electricity. In 2016, the Solar Farm at Siu Ho Wan Sewage Treatment Works—the largest one owned by the government—started operation. The photovoltaic panels deployed have an efficiency of 15.8%. However, in April 2020, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory succeeded in fabricating solar panels with record high efficiency of 47%, almost three times the existing level in Hong Kong.
As technologies advance, the cost of renewable energy has drastically reduced. According to figures from the International Renewable Energy Agency, the cost of solar power has dropped 82% in the last decade, reaching $0.31 Hong Kong dollars per kWh of electricity, which is even 20% lower than coal (the cheapest fossil fuel) and 30% lower than nuclear power. Continuous innovation in science and technology has made the talk of unready technology and high cost of renewable energy untenable.
Taking it further, do we have sufficient space for the deployment of solar power in Hong Kong? According to information provided by the Legislative Council Secretariat, there were 391 hectares of vacant government land and 4,200 hectares of land allocated for the government, institution, community facilities and public housing in 2019. The Solmunity, an advocacy group of solar power use, has calculated that if solar panels are installed on 50% of the vacant government land area, 20% of total roof area and 30% of total reservoir area, the electricity produced can fulfil 21% of overall demand in Hong Kong. Critics may say that the suggestion is too “aggressive”, and there are more details to attend to in actual operation. Nonetheless, in the face of the worsening climate crisis, we do not have much room to hesitate. In fact, the 2050 carbon neutral objective by the Hong Kong government is rather “aggressive” but also necessary.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that if the global temperature raises over 1.5℃, climate change becomes irreversible. 2050 may be literally the “deadline” for humans. There is a real urgency to achieve carbon neutrality. Mr. Wong Kam-sing, Secretary for the Environment, said in a media interview that more details of the action plan will be announced in the third quarter of this year. We are anxiously awaiting more concrete actions instead of mere slogans for the transition to zero emissions in Hong Kong.