Senior Executives: Hong Kong as a Sustainable City

HONG KONG, June 7, 2013 — Hong Kong lays claim to a number of enviable titles. It is the "best city" in the world, ranked first in a liveability index. Its women live the longest in the world.

Can it also be the world's most sustainable city?

"Hong Kong is actually a very energy-efficient place because we're a service economy," said Andrew Brandler, CEO of CLP Holdings Ltd, in a panel discussion here at Asia Society Hong Kong Center. Energy consumption per capita, he adds, is "very low."

The city's commuters also emit much less carbon dioxide than those of other countries, noted Dr. Jacob Kam, Operations Director of the MTR Corporation.

And yet we still face huge problems with sustainability. Our buildings gobble up 90 percent of electricity consumption. We generate the most garbage per capita worldwide. And then there's the pollution.

Many of the problems can traced back to the prevailing culture and habits of Hong Kong people, said Dr. Chan Lai Kiu, Director of Design and Project at Hysan Development Co. Ltd. Prices of electricity and water, for example, are too low, creating a wasteful "luxury of overconsumption." "We're never conscious of what we're using," she said.

One member of the audience even ventured to suggest that Hong Kong's rents are too low, leading to an excessive development of buildings. His comment, perhaps inevitably, was met with a murmur of consternation around the room.

These days, many new buildings are constructed with sustainability as a key priority. Hysan Place, which opened with much fanfare last August, has a rooftop urban farm, a public community garden and will soon have a wetland on its podium roof. Structurally, its exterior has many holes "to let air pass through," explained Dr. Chan. "The building's not like a block, giving us lots of semi-external space."

But new buildings alone will not make Hong Kong a sustainable city. Much more needs to be done.

"At the end of the day, in order to really push towards energy efficiency, we must do two things," said Brandler. "One, the government has to legislate — buildings codes, energy codes. Two, it must push up prices quite materially." This will take political courage, he added, but it is something the Hong Kong administration must grapple with.

Another solution is to retrofit Hong Kong's many old buildings, built in the three decades between the 1960s and 1980s with little attention paid to sustainability.

A member of the audience, Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council, suggested benchmarking existing buildings on a scale of one to a hundred based on their energy efficiency, citing the example of New York City. Might Hong Kong follow suit?

Reported by Mary Hui

Video: Watch the complete talk (54 min., 48 sec.)