The outbreak of Covid-19 across the world has led to unprecedented disruption, challenges and hardship for governments, businesses, societies and individuals. Millions have been infected and hundreds of thousands have died. Cities have been locked down and healthcare systems put under extreme pressure. The global economy has been severely hit.
The number of new daily infections continues to rise, as of mid-July, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, the number of confirmed new cases has rebounded in most of the 50 states. Fresh outbreaks in Europe, Australia and Japan have forced some cities to reconsider lockdown.
In Hong Kong, the third wave of the outbreak has seen an alarming surge of locally transmitted cases with unknown source, prompting the Government to tighten measures again. Just when we thought we were finally able to control the outbreak, the latest developments around the world have sparked fears that the pandemic situation is slipping out of control again.
Despite all the uncertainties, one thing is clear: when we emerge from the lows of the pandemic, we will have a choice to make – we can either revert to “business-as-usual” and restore the previous “normality,” which is evidently unsustainable and non-resilient to external shocks, or we can learn from our mistakes and tackle the health crisis and climate emergency as one with a green recovery approach.
With the pandemic, we have witnessed first-hand the destruction and disruption that systemic shocks can pose to our governments and communities, impacting our collective health and prosperity. Some argue that we are actually getting an early taste of what may happen in the future with the impacts of climate change in terms of the type of risks and hardships created, the level of uncertainties and desperation, and the extent to which everyone and everything is swept aside by the potentially catastrophic consequences of global warming.
This is why the Hong Kong SAR Government, in spite of the short-term adversities stemming from the political and social unrest in 2019 and more recently exacerbated by the Covid-19 outbreak, should never lose sight of longer-term, major policies such as investing in climate resilience and supporting the business sector in climate action.
Unlike Covid-19, there will be no vaccine for climate change. The only way forward is to limit the average global temperature rise to 1.5°C through joint government and business action towards a resilient and zero-carbon economy by 2050. It is now or never.
Globally, the call on governments to seize the opportunity to “build back better” by providing green stimuli to create more sustainable, resilient and inclusive societies is gathering pace.
For example, in Europe, instead of discontinuing the European Green Deal due to Covid-19 – as had been suggested by several member states – the European Commission put together a green recovery plan in May 2020 with a combined focus on the European Green Deal, climate actions and investment in a green, digital and resilient Europe. This sends a strong message to businesses that the European Union deeply supports a sustainable, green business recovery for a better future.
More recently, in July, mayors of the C40 Cities launched the “Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery” that outlines bold steps to create green jobs, invest in green industries and resilient public services, invest in safe and reliable mass transit, support essential workers, and give public spaces back to people and nature. They also call on national governments to put an end to fossil fuel subsidies as a means to avert climate change. There are 96 cities in the C40 climate leadership group, including Hong Kong.
Business leadership and action are equally important. In the United Kingdom, more than 200 leading businesses, investors and business networks are calling on the government to deliver a Covid-19 recovery plan that builds back a more inclusive, resilient and stronger economy.
Likewise, in the United States, more than 330 major businesses are calling on Congress to build back a better economy by embedding resilient, long-term climate solutions into future economic recovery plans that both create jobs and reduce emissions.
In the largest ever CEO-led climate advocacy effort backed by the United Nations and convened by the Science Based Targets initiative, the UN Global Compact and the We Mean Business coalition – including over 150 major global companies that span 34 sectors and have headquarters in 33 countries – called for policies that will build resilience against future shocks and urged governments around the world to align their Covid-19 economic aid and recovery efforts with the latest climate science.
A study by Oxford University published in May 2020 confirms that green Covid-19 recovery packages and climate-friendly projects, compared to traditional fiscal stimuli, can create more jobs, deliver higher short-term returns per dollar spent and lead to increased long-term cost savings. In addition, climate action also reduces air pollution and delivers other benefits to the environment and people’s well-being.
Back in Hong Kong, the business sector has demonstrated growing commitment to climate action in recent years through government-led programmes like the 4Ts charter and framework on energy saving, as well as business-led, voluntary initiatives such as the BEC Low Carbon Charter. Several Hong Kong-based companies have already committed to setting science-based emission reduction targets, and others have joined international initiatives to switch to 100% renewable electricity with RE100 or accelerate the transition to electric vehicles with EV100.
It is imperative that the Hong Kong SAR Government sees the opportunities in using green stimuli after Covid-19 to not only kick-start economic recovery, but to also build resilience into our economic structure and the built environment for longer term sustainability and prosperity. The Green Employment Scheme and the Graduates Subsidy Programme as part of the Government’s recovery plan is a good start, with the intention to create more green jobs and to support fresh local graduates in pursuing a green career.
With the Chief Executive’s 2020 Policy Address approaching, it is hoped that other green stimuli are already in the pipeline to support business climate action and investment. With greater resilience, both the business sector and the city itself will be better equipped to withstand future shocks, be it another pandemic, severe climate impact, deteriorating China-U.S. relation, or other unforeseen challenges.
Simon Ng, Director – Policy and Research, Business Environment Council