Our sustainable future will be no-size-fits-all.

From London to Hong Kong, the right technologies and policies matter, but local conditions matter more. The only constant must be a focus on demand.

Anyone who has been to Hong Kong has seen firsthand that it is a truly global city. In fact, looking out over the glittering skyscrapers from Victoria Peak at night, one could be forgiven for thinking of themselves as being in Vancouver, Chicago, Sydney, or Shanghai.

Of course, like any self-respecting global city (ahem) it has a university MBA programme in collaboration with the London Business School. When I had the opportunity to talk to one of its alumni – cleantech expert and Hong Kong resident Kritika Kumar – for an episode of my podcast Conversations on Climate, I jumped at the chance. What could I learn from the experience of an East Asian megacity in facing climate change? Kumar was fantastic, and it was a great conversation – and I took away far more than I anticipated. Here is why.

Unique city, unique challenge

‘In the latest update to the Climate Action Plan for 2050, we see some concrete targets around the timeframe of 2035,’ said Kumar, as she talked me through Hong Kong’s latest carbon policies. So far so good, I thought – mandated targets are used the world over. But the numbers that followed were a real surprise.

‘There is the renewable energy target, which Hong Kong didn’t even have [until now], Kumar explained. ‘In the current mix renewable energy is 0.1%…now there is a target of 7.5% to 10% in 2035.’ Now, something is always better than nothing, and 10% is a long way to travel from such a low base in a dozen years. That said, I simply didn’t see how they can make those numbers fit with any realistic path to net-zero. Here in Europe, we are coming to terms with a near future that will be 80% or 90% renewables, with ongoing arguments around ‘bridge’ gas and nuclear for the rest. What was I missing?

Perhaps this is the wrong question. Better to step back and ask: what is already there?

Hong Kong is a city of nearly 7.5m people, packed into just over 1000 square kilometres. It is the fourth most densely populated place on the planet, with more of those skyscrapers than any other city, and yet only 7% of land is residential. It is number one for billionaires per capita, yet also has universal healthcare and over 90% of travel on public transport. It is a city that imports nearly all of its food and fresh water, yet has two mobile phone accounts for each person.

Hong Kong, in other words, is not Europe. So why should we expect that it would face the challenges of climate change in the same way that we do in London, Berlin, or Dublin?

No Size Fits All

Let me put it another way – diversity should be a means as well as an end. Whilst technologies and policies easily cross borders, there is no single solution that will suit countries the world over. From my conversation with Kumar, I came to see that there are three key factors that will determine the right solution mix for a given place:

  1. Geography. To start with the most obvious, every country has its own landscape and climate which confers a unique mix of advantages and challenges – be it heat or cold, sun or sea, resources or the lack of them. As Kumar pointed out, Hong Kong simply doesn’t have the space to devote to large-scale renewables that will in any way match its population density.
  1. Existing Infrastructure. This could perhaps have been a different conversation if we’d started in earnest in the 1980s or 1990s, but today we have no choice but to adapt to our built environments as they are. With such a high take-up of public transport, Hong Kong can design a very different clean-energy transportation network than car-addicted North America. On the other hand, Kumar pointed out that the propensity of leasehold arrangements, and the specifics of its energy market regulation, discourage tenants from introducing energy-saving technologies which have been so successful in northern Europe.
  1. Political Culture. This is the least visible but by no means the least important. East Asian political culture, with stronger centralised states and a higher degree of cultural cohesion and hierarchy, more naturally suggests top-down solutions – the Green Leviathan potential of China, or small-scale authoritarian efficiency from Singapore. Europe, with its civic history, has a greater degree of bottom-up push for change; whilst the US is a patchwork of beacon cities and revanchism, an ideological commitment to free-market solutions one of the few cross-cutting unifiers. Policy and technology must pay careful attention to the cultural soil in which it is planted.

Finally, these factors only look at diversity between nations. Within our borders, we can no longer ignore the inequalities and injustices that one-size environmental management creates and exacerbates. Leadership in politics and engineering alike remains largely white, male, and wealthy, and anyone with a passing understanding of history understands the legacy connections between our energy systems, colonialism, and class inequalities. There is no environmental future without environmental justice; whatever net-zero path a given state chooses, it must put the perspectives of women, indigenous cultures, immigrants, and low-income communities at the fore.

Can we unify around demand?

Kumar herself was clear that she sees technology – smart devices, automation, and AI – as key to the net-zero puzzle for Hong Kong. ‘That has been the focus for me in the last few years – looking to the technology coming from Australia, the US, Singapore, and seeing how we bring this technology to buildings in Hong Kong,’ she said.

Across all these examples, what I found most persuasive was the focus on efficiency and demand reduction. In Hong Kong, restriction clearly breeds creativity – and the best way to manage carbon is to use a lot less of it in the first place. Yes, we can and must green our energy supply; and yes, we can invent more efficient technologies to make use of it. However, there will come a time when we must accept that we must also use less energy in absolute terms.

Partly this is a matter of geophysical reality when it comes to energy; our current degree of economic complexity is built on a one-time fossil-fuel inheritance which is largely spent (particularly in terms of EROEI or energy-density). Furthermore, we have not yet solved the challenge of creating truly closed production and consumption cycles within renewables.

However, it is also a recognition of the fact that carbon is not the only issue. Whether it is fresh water, land and habitat destruction, pollution, or soil health, our current globalised model of production and consumption would be unsustainable even if it were carbon-free. Hong Kong, again, faces all of these challenges in a real way – this is a place which must flush its toilets with seawater, and has missed nearly 75% of its biodiversity targets in recent years.

Technology, is important, and it is exciting. In particular, it holds great promise for those parts of the world that do not consume four earths, as Americans do. For the global North, however, technology alone won’t save us. What it can do is help us see reality more clearly. I have a lot of hope that the kind of networks and monitoring systems Kumar is building out will make give us more accurate carbon maps, to guide the path to net-zero.

That these maps will all be as unique as the countries they represent is something I hope we can all agree on.


To watch the full conversation with Kritika Kumar, check out our youtube channel here.

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