Time to face the Ferraris

It’s a busy week in Hong Kong for anyone with an interest in climate change. There are no fewer than three climate conferences. The week began with a day long meeting on business leaderships and climate and will end with a C40 cities meeting. In between, Civic Exchange is hosting a two day Climate Dialogue, focusing on science and policy. There are dozens of side events and guest lectures by visiting experts.

But climate conscious visitors have been surprised to find themselves discussing these issues in a city that is not only devoted to consumption at the highest levels, but also likes to light itself up to the maximum. Hong Kong is ablaze with light, illuminated day and night  by high energy incandescent bulbs, once described as heating devices that also, incidentally produce light. Visitors have also been distressed by fierce air conditioning in hotels that no amount of ingenuity can find a way to turn off.

In the multilevel car park under one apartment building, a former employee of a Chinese state-owned enterprise keeps no fewer than 12 Ferraris, 10 red and two black, some with customised number plates and some with no number plates at all. A neighbour told chinadialogue that he is understood to have bought the apartment above because of the generosity of its parking provision. He may be an unusual case, but many in Hong Kong still believe that such empty displays of wealth convey status. On the upside, at least he can only drive one at a time.

Hong Kong’s special status as a highly developed economy within the Peoples Republic of China has meant that, despite its developed world emissions level, it has no emissions commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. In fact, while the mainland government has been busy tightening building standards and promoting energy efficiency, Hong Kong has been strikingly slow to get with the programme.

Now, however, the government has announced a plan to reduce energy density by 50% to 60% by 2020. This would certainly be an improvement, but so far it does not involve much effort to change public attitudes or behaviour. Perhaps this is a challenge that the Hong Kong government feels is too daunting to take on, despite the fact that two recent studies showed people in Hong Kong are concerned about the issue but feel that they are insufficiently informed.

Instead, the government’s focus will be on greening the energy supply through the relatively simple expedient of buying more nuclear-generated power from China and tackling Hong Kong’s backward waste disposal system. Currently in land-starved Hong Kong, the city’s garbage goes to landfill. Now the government hopes to institute a more environmentally rational system, with its potential for biogas production and other co-benefits.

Two big questions stand out, however. Why, as the former deputy mayor of London Nicky Gavron asked this week in Hong Kong, does the government not use the enviable powers that it has to mandate much tighter building standards? And when might the government think it necessary to challenge the high energy-burning, Ferrari-loving habits of its residents?