Concerted action to reduce carbon emissions must happen now if the world is to avoid the catastrophic effects of a warming planet. This was the stark warning from COP 24, which took place in December in Poland.
Three Hong Kong-based experts discussed the key takeaways from the annual UN conference on climate change at a Chamber seminar on 16 January.
Grim, cold, overcast and polluted – this was the introduction to Katowice provided by Robert Gibson, Adjunct Professor, Division of Environment and Sustainability at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The city that hosted COP 24 does not sound like much of a holiday destination. But Katowice, a coal-mining hub, also showed the visiting delegates that moving away from fossil fuels is not easy.
“The transition from coal to something else really knocks the guts out of the local economy,” Gibson said.
Gibson, like the other speakers, said that one of the biggest talking points at the event was the “Global Warming of 1.5%” report – widely known as the
1.5 Report. Released in October by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the report found that the world needs to cut its carbon emissions drastically by 2050 if it is to stay on track of 1.5˚C warming above pre-industrial levels.
The report compared a 1.5˚C increase with 2˚C, which would have much more severe consequences, such as the melting of the Greenland ice cap, leading to sea levels rising by as much as 7 metres. But the world is currently not on track to achieve the 1.5˚C target.
“We need to do good earth stewardship to get off this path towards ‘Hothouse Earth,’” Gibson said, adding that even to remain within the 1.5˚C target was “a hell of an ask.”
But it is not impossible, and he presented a range of different options that would keep the Earth within a relatively safe temperature increase. The first does not involve the use of carbon capture. “To achieve this, we all live like monks, eat vegetarian and never fly anywhere,” he explained. “Humanity will not vote for this one.”
Other options all involve differing degrees of BECCS – bio-energy with carbon-capture storage. “We need massive BECCS if we are to continue our current lifestyles,” Gibson said.
Fortunately, he explained, the necessary BECCS technology has already been developed, or is within sight. Other developments give reason for optimism. In the shipping industry, for example, a switch to hydrogen fuel is under way.
Gibson added that “Wright’s law” – the more you produce, the better the product – means that the cost of renewable energy should drop to the point where it can compete with fossil fuels.
John Sayer, Research Director at CarbonCare Innolab, shared with members two of the most discussed speeches from COP 24. One was by the British broadcaster David Attenborough, who warned of the collapse of civilization, and the other by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who criticized governments for not listening to scientists.
One disappointment of COP 24 was that the plan to officially welcome the 1.5 Report was blocked by a handful of counties including the United States and Russia. This followed the decision by the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
But Sayer pointed out that most of the world is determined to work together and reduce their emissions. “We are still on track,” he said.
Mainland China has won plaudits in recent years for its attempts to tackle pollution, and was an active participant at COP 24.
“China played a leadership role and a positive role in brokering agreements between developed and developing nations,” Sayer said. “It is also leading on the development of renewable energy.”
But the Mainland is also helping to build coal-fired stations and investing in fossil fuels outside of China.
There are also worrying signs on climate policy from populist leaders, and not just in the U.S.. The local government in Katowice has said it wants to continue mining coal for another 200 years. But this may be a short-sighted approach. “The young people of Katowice do not want to be coal miners,” Sayer said.
He then turned his focus to cities, which are already responsible for three-quarters of the world's carbon emissions.
“There is strong evidence we must start now to achieve carbon neutrality. Cities must lead, and wealthy cities like Hong Kong must be the leader of the leaders,” he said.
So what is Hong Kong doing to reduce its carbon emissions?
Davie Kan, Principal Environmental Protection Officer (Cross-boundary) at the Environmental Protection Department, explained some of the Government’s plans.
He told members that it had been his first time at COP, and that he had been struck by the commitment of his fellow attendees. “I could really feel the passion of people trying to do as much as they can to combat climate change.”
The Hong Kong Government is also committed, Kan said, and has been working hard to meet its Paris Agreement requirements. Beside the 2030 targets already in place, which include a significant reduction in emissions, it is developing targets for 2050.
Kan revealed the main source of carbon emissions in Hong Kong is electricity, which accounts for 67%. Of this, 90% is from buildings. “So there is a big need to do something about power generation if we are to reduce carbon emissions,” he said.
To meet its targets, the Government is looking at a range of options including energy and carbon audits, tax concessions and enhancing building efficiency. It has also created some innovative tools to help people understand the importance of the issue.
“We introduced a carbon calculator that has been widely used by schools and young people. It lets you know how your lifestyle is contributing to the problem.”
Transport is the second biggest contributor to Hong Kong’s emissions, and the Government also plans to further promote public transport, walking and cycling to make it easier for the public to play their part.
“There is a big scope for all of us to help out in reducing carbon emissions,” Kan said.