With no strategy for long term de-carbonisation, a powerful energy lobby with an appetite for fossil fuels and Chinese nuclear power, and a government more concerned with protecting corporate interests than the future of the planet, Hong Kong’s efforts to battle the climate change emergency have faltered.
In contrast, the government has adopted official emergency declarations, urgent consultations with scientific experts and a raft of radical social and economic policies to protect public health and the economy in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
This approach contrasts starkly with the lethargy and collective over decarbonising the city to combat that other global threat to livelihood and health: climate change.
There is currently no strategy for the reduction of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Out-of-date targets are not being reached and the government appears impotent to challenge the vested interests of the energy companies alongside their preference for fossil fuels and Chinese nuclear energy, over Renewable Energy (RE) alternatives like wind and PV solar.
Hong Kong’s total GHG emissions in 2017 amounted to 40.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e), according to the most recent official GHG emission inventory for 2017, published last July. Data supplied by the World Bank showed that the tiny land mass of Hong Kong not only emits more GHG than Singapore but also large countries such as Kenya as well as modern industrialised economies like Denmark and Switzerland.
Hong Kong has little carbon intensive industry, manufacturing or agriculture. But according to the International Energy Agency (IEA ) Atlas of Energy, it still has significantly higher per capita GHG emissions (5.5 tonnes of carbon per person per year) than many larger industrialised and urbanised nations including the UK, Italy, France and Argentina. Total GHG emissions in Hong Kong are reducing at a painfully slow rate. In fact, they have been rising year on year since 2016.
“Clearly, Hong Kong is failing to take on its international responsibilities. The government has failed to recognise the urgency of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions,” said climate lawyer Professor Benoit Mayer from the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of law.
Electricity generation is a major source of local GHG emissions, amounting to 26.6 million tonnes or 65.4 per cent of the total. The generation of electricity by Hong Kong’s energy duopoly of China Light and Power (CLP) and Hong Kong Electric (HKE) is critical.
Many fear the so-called “light touch” of the scheme regulating the two energy companies is only designed to preserve cheap electricity bills and safeguard the company’s shareholders, not the future of the planet.
“A significant part of Hong Kong energy policy is to protect the power companies,” said Albert Lai, chairman of the NGO Professional Commons and an engineer with experience in the energy sector.
Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan 2030 + , published in July 2017, commits heavily to gradually replacing coal-fired generation with another fossil fuel, Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), so that LNG or nuclear energy would constitute about 75 per cent of the local energy mix by 200 and “continue to phase down” coal by 2030.
LNG is less carbon intensive than coal. But, unfortunately, replacing one dirty fossil fuel with a less dirty fossil fuel offers limited progress in terms of decarbonisation.
“After converting all the existing plants to gas there is no plan as to how we can possibly meet the Paris carbon targets and the gap has to be filled by something,” Lai said.
Last July, the Environment Bureau tasked the Council for Sustainable Development with engaging the public on Hong Kong’s long term decarbonisation strategy, to be published in “late November or early December 2019.” However, nothing has been heard since.
The group has not held a meeting since June 12, 2019, and has not responded to email queries, according to their website.
“The biggest problem is that there is no strategy to reduce carbon beyond switching from coal to natural gas. There is no integrated energy policy for saving and using green energy. There is a lack of coordination and strategy ,” said Professor Johnny C L Chan, chair professor of Atmospheric Science at City University’s School of Energy and Environment.
Lai suspects the reason for the delay is a secret Chinese nuclear energy agenda that would be extremely unpopular if it were publicised.
On 11 March this year CLP launched their 2019 CLP Sustainability Report which Lai claimed “gave the game away”. Page 40, in the section concerning emissions in Hong Kong, refers to the “Clean Energy Transmission System connecting the CLP grid to Guangdong planned to be strengthened by 2025.”
This, Lai said, is an obvious euphemism for Chinese nuclear power, which is now a powerful vested corporate interest in Hong Kong, where two nuclear power companies (CNNC and CNG) are listed.
Last month, local media reported that Chinese nuclear power-related shares soared across the exchanges in Hong Kong and China after Beijing announced plans to invest 81.2 billion yuan (US$12 billion) in four new reactors for the first time since 2016.
CLP paid HK$0.5 billion for a 17 per cent equity interest in Yangjiang Nuclear CLP Group in December 2017 but there was no mention at the time that this might be connected to Hong Kong’s future energy policy. In its Climate Vision 2050 document, published in December 2019, CLP makes no secret of its love of nuclear and indifference to any Renewable Energy (RE) solution:
“Gas and nuclear power are currently the only commercially viable and proven lower – or zero-carbon solutions available today that can meet base load demand and provide security of supply; we will therefore continue to deploy these technologies in Hong Kong as we move away from coal power.” (page 11)
In response to questions from HKFP, CLP Power said it was “on track to meet the 2020 carbon intensity target” and “supports the government’s environmental policy and strives to explore practical local renewable energy opportunities, despite limited renewable energy resources and land scarcity in Hong Kong.”
The government seemed content not to challenge CLP’s enthusiasm for subsidised Chinese nuclear power and their lack of enthusiasm for RE. Many believe the current targets for RE set at three to four per cent of the total energy mix are far too modest.
“While Singapore has committed to 20 per cent renewable energy for 2030, Hong Kong has only committed to three per cent, even though there is a potential for Hong Kong to generate far more renewable energy or to import it from the mainland,” Mayer said.
“The reason why we don’t have more RE in Hong Kong is that there is no political will.”
One independent university study in 2017 found that PV solar energy could provide 10.7 per cent of local energy and other expert estimates ranged up to 20 per cent. Perhaps to combat over-enthusiasm for solar, the Hong Kong government commissioned a consulting engineering firm (Meinhardt) which reported last July that the PV Solar potential in Hong Kong was only about 1.1 per cent to 2.0 per cent.
This result coincided conveniently with the original government estimate of total RE potential (three to four per cent), incorporated in the 2017 Climate Action Plan.
“They would rather spend money proving there is no potential for RE than invest in facilitating RE development,” Lai said.
“In countries like UK and Korea there is legislation that dictates the percentage of electricity that must come from RE but there is no such directive in Hong Kong,” Chan said.
In the absence of any legal requirement to invest in RE, local power companies are liberated to deliver the best short-term commercial value to customers and shareholders – fossil fuels and nuclear.
“I am not defending the power companies but I do understand their predicament,” Chan said. But for the two extremely profitable Hong Kong based companies, their track record on RE investment in Hong Kong is pitiful.
The government-commissioned report on solar energy by Meinhardt reported that as of March 2017, the total contribution of PV solar to Hong Kong’s energy mix was 0.014 per cent.
CLP announced earnings of HK$4.65 billion last year and said its 2019 energy mix for generating electricity in Hong Kong included less than 0.5 per cent from “other sources”, which included oil and RE in the same category. It does not disguise the reality that their investment in RE in Hong Kong is negligible.
CLP conducted a feasibility study into an offshore wind farm near Lamma Island over a decade ago and the EIA was approved in August 2009.
Eleven years later, the company said “we are continuing the feasibility study and will work with the government on the appropriate way forward”. They have not built an offshore wind farm in Hong Kong, or anywhere else.
In order to meet government RE targets of 3 per cent, CLP said it is constructing a landfill gas power generation plant at the West New Territories Landfill, which should begin full operation later this year, with a generation capacity of 10MW – roughly enough to supply about 7,500 households.
HKE does not currently use nuclear in its energy mix so it is dependent on LNG and RE to reduce its carbon intensity. It installed Hong Kong’s solitary windmill on Lamma Island 14 years ago, and the company said that combined with their PV solar plant at the Lamma Power Station, it can provide a combined RE output of 2.5 million units of electricity in 2020.
Based on official estimates of average electricity, consumption per household in Hong Kong of 4,560 units per year equates to about 548 households out of a total of 2.51 million (0.02 per cent). Asked to confirm the accuracy of this estimate, HKE declined to comment.
The government said it is also spearheading large-scale RE projects but progress is slow and the scale very small. The largest solar farm in Hong Kong is located at the Siu Ho Wan Sewage Treatment Plant. It can generate as much as 1.1 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually, equivalent to the annual consumption of 230 households.
Last year, after years of lobbying by NGOs, the feed in Tariff (FiT) scheme was introduced so that private households and businesses could connect their own small-scale RE systems like rooftop PV solar panels to the grid, and receive a premium of HK$3 to HK$5 per unit generated.
To avoid any cost being incurred by government or the power companies the system is financed by corporations and business users, who pay a premium of HK$0.5 per unit for purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates, in order to meet their internal green targets.
“That’s an irresponsible policy, which must change,” Mayer said.
After more than a year in operation, CLP said the scheme has been “well-received by the community” and they received more than 6,900 applications by the end of last year, with around 2,500 private RE systems connected to their grid. HKE said that up to end of February this year, about 70 renewable energy power systems with a total capacity over 1,100 kW were connected to their grid.
The total power generated is still tiny but the successful take-up of the scheme demonstrates there is a commercial demand for green energy and a willingness to invest in it if the incentives are in place.
The RE certificates have effectively “sold out” already because there is insufficient green energy to sell. Lai said the scheme has been deliberately restricted and reduced to superficial “window dressing” by the government by limiting all new RE schemes to a maximum of 1MW output.
“It looks good to see small rooftop schemes but it needs to be scaled up to have a real impact,” Lai said. He thinks the power companies would only agree to the scheme if it was strictly limited.
It appears the FiT scheme has been designed not to encourage high levels of RE investment but to avoid threatening the interests of the two major power companies or the Chinese nuclear lobby.
“This problem needs a strong confident government with a mandate for change,” Chan said, adding that until there is significant political change in Hong Kong, protecting the wealth of powerful vested interests is likely to remain a higher priority than the future of the planet.