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Carbon neutrality—How far away are we?

Original text published in Sing Tao Daily “Green Forum” (29 Oct, 2021)
Author: Green Power

Green Power welcomes the government’s latest announcement of the “Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan 2050” (HKCAP2050)—a much clearer blueprint than the previous one, pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

The first blueprint – “Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan 2030+” – was released in 2017 with the mid-term goal of reducing total carbon emissions by 26% to 36% against the baseline level of 2005. In the chapter “Past Achievements in Decarbonisation” of the latest HKCAP2050, the figures showed that per capita carbon emissions are expected to decrease from 6.2 tonnes in 2014 to 4.5 tonnes in 2020, achieving about a 30% reduction that is close to the goal. However, if we look more closely at the selected years and figures, we may be upset by the “numbers game”.

Firstly, the chosen baseline figure of 2014 was in fact the peak since 2005. Secondly, the published local data on carbon emissions was only up to 2019. The 2020 figure used in the latest blueprint was an unproven estimate. A more reasonable comparison should be using the 2005 figure as the baseline, and compare it with the most up-to-date carbon emissions data available, i.e. the figure from 2019. The actual decarbonisation during the 14-year period was from 41,300 thousand tonnes to 40,100 thousand tonnes, a mere 2.9% decrease.

The HKCAP2050 set out the mid-term goal of cutting half of carbon emissions (as compared to 2005 level) by 2035. How are we to achieve the 50% objective, from the 2.9% achieved to date?

Waiting for more years for renewable energy?

The largest carbon emissions—65%—come from electricity generation, and over 70% of the electricity is produced from fossil fuels. Renewable energy accounts for a surprisingly low proportion of 1%. It is obvious that the government must prioritise the change in energy profile, and replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources for decarbonisation.

The government has adjusted the target proportion of renewable energy from 3-4% to 7.5-10% by 2035—although a more promising figure than the previous action plan, it is still way short of the 50% goal. Worse still, the actual figure of 1% has not improved a bit over the last five years.

On the other hand, the HKCAP2050 specified a target of 60%-70% of “zero carbon energy”. Apart from renewable energy, what else is “zero carbon energy”? The blueprint mentioned “hydrogen energy” and “nuclear energy”. The former is still in a preliminary research stage, meaning that by “zero carbon energy” the government actually means “nuclear energy”. Deducting the 10% renewable energy as stated previously, it is very likely that nuclear energy will comprise 50%-60% of the energy mix in Hong Kong. The heavy reliance on nuclear energy brings serious safety concerns and risks for Hong Kong. In the case of leakage or accident, can we bear the irreversible adverse consequences to human health and the environment?

In comparison, solar power has advanced a lot in recent years. Efficiency of electricity generation has increased to 47% and the cost has fallen by 82% in the last decade. The cost of solar power is now 20% cheaper than coal burning (the cheapest fossil fuel) and 30% lower than nuclear energy. It seems only reasonable that the government put more resources into researching the use of solar power.

Great potential in the dense city

The blueprint proposed the installation of renewable energy systems on one-fourth of roof areas of all newly built government properties. In Hong Kong’s urban setting, roof solar power systems are very feasible and the government should consider expanding the proposal to all existing buildings, public facilities and private property.

Similar projects have worked out in Singapore. The Singapore government launched the Solar Nova programme in 2015, which aimed to install solar photovoltaic systems on rooftops of buildings under the Housing and Development Board. To date, about 7,000 buildings have participated in the programme, and the target is to provide electricity for 350,000 three-person households. The similar environments of the two cities make it an ideal model for Hong Kong to learn from.

Climate change affects our daily lives, and causes huge economic losses for society. Green Power has calculated that the increase in ozone concentration due to climate change will cost extra medical expenditure of HK$6.5 billion every year. Temperature rise will also evaporate HK$700 million worth of water resources each year. Before the situation becomes irreversibly severe, it is essential that the government implement more practical measures and actions, besides setting targets. The issue must be tackled at source. Only by driving the development of renewable energy can we, hopefully, catch up with achieving the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

Photo from Pixabay

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