Climate crisis: What can Hong Kong do to adapt to extreme weather events amid global heating?

By Carly Leung

With millions already suffering the economic, social, and ecological effects of climate change, countries and cities worldwide must work together on ways to adapt and survive. It’s time for Hong Kong to get more actively involved.

Members of the UN’s YOUNGO youth climate movement group at the closing plenary of COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. Photo: Carly Leung.

The Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), which ended in November, was seen as doing too little to combat global warming. But parties did agree for the first time to set up a loss and damage fund to help vulnerable countries mitigate its damaging effects.

Historically, COPs have mainly focused on climate mitigation, which means increasing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. At the same time, climate disasters are becoming more common with each passing year, and adaptation – preparing for and adapting to climate impacts – is capturing a growing share of the world’s attention.

Last year was marked by a record-breaking heatwave in the United Kingdom, flooding in Pakistan, storms across Southern Africa, and other extreme weather. In Hong Kong, the city recorded its hottest ever July.

An informal meeting with the UNFCCC Adaptation Committee at COP27 at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. Photo: Carly Leung.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has stated that an annual mobilisation of US$140-300 billion from public and private sources is needed for adaptation. The United Nations Environment Programme’s 2022 Adaptation Gap Report has warned that if climate change accelerates, that figure could rise to US$565 billion by 2050.

The most notable progress made at COP27 was the Sharm-El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda, launched by the COP27 Presidency in collaboration with the High-Level Champions and the Marrakech Partnership in response to the devastating effects of climate change on vulnerable people worldwide. It outlines 30 Adaptation Outcomes aimed at increasing resilience by 2030 for the four billion people living in the most vulnerable communities. 

Even though progress has been made, we need to speed up the implementation. According to an analysis by the IPCC AR6 WG II Report, nearly half of the world’s population will be at risk of severe impacts from climate change by 2030, even if the rise in warming is restricted to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The warning is clear and we need to act fast. 

Hong Kong climate advocate Carly Leung at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. Photo: Carly Leung.

Nature-based solutions, known as ecosystem-based adaptation, are increasingly recognised as crucial. For the first time, the term “nature-based solutions” appears in the final agreed text of last year’s COP. Hong Kong must consider this approach as a priority for adaptation. 

Before then, however, it needs to do its homework. To start with, we should implement an integrated and transparent climate vulnerability assessment and conduct a worst-case scenario environmental assessment during extreme weather. The assessment will aim to identify climate risk areas as well as the best solutions to these environmental problems in terms of city planning and other adaptation measures.

In order to increase climate resilience for urban developments, we must review existing town planning guidelines and regulations and rezone land in high-risk areas.

The government must preserve and implement blue-green infrastructure throughout the city to reduce urban heat island effects and maximise carbon sink and flood prevention capacity, providing emergency response facilities as needed.

Housing estates in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

In terms of financing, the government has promised to allocate HK$240 billion (US$43 billion) over the next 15-20 years for climate change adaptation and mitigation. However, in order to achieve meaningful results, it must be transparent about the funding allocation to reduce emissions.

My most important takeaway from COP27 is to acknowledge the significance of our local actions and bridging the gap to the international stage. At COP27, many countries were unwilling to agree on the targets needed to put the world on a 1.5-degree trajectory.

As a city with a significant global footprint, Hong Kong has a role to play in tackling climate change. It is time for the government to demonstrate the commitment as promised in the Climate Action Plan 2050 by establishing ambitious key performance indicators and a clear road map for reaching carbon neutrality by 2030. 

Carly Leung Pui Yee attended COP27 as a youth delegate of CarbonCare Innolab. She is a member of the Asia-Pacific Youth Advisory Group on Environmental and Climate Justice, which was formed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the United Nations Development Programme and other bodies.

As V’air’s project director, she supports the environmental organisation in promoting eco-tourism and climate education to ensure people have the relevant skills for a just climate transition. She also established Climate Incubator, a youth-led initiative that provides a platform for people interested in climate change to co-learn, network and equip themselves with green skills.

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