A Climate-Ready Northern Metropolis

By Christine Loh 24 October, 2022

Seizing the opportunity, Loh, Chief Development Strategist at HKUST, launched the 'Sustainable Northern Metropolis' project. We sit down with Loh to talk about the project's vision, risks, opportunities for HK to climateproof with Shenzhen & more

The centre of economic gravity is moving from HK Island to near Shenzhen thus, it makes sense HK should plan to connect with Shenzhen on development, climate, transport etc.
HK govt knows Yuen Long is low-lying, the debate will be over what level of risk it will design & build for; climate change requires many policy changes, such as building codes
Planners need carbon neutrality guidelines for Northern Metropolis; another is HK & Shenzhen cooperating on climate risks planning; ultimately the same is needed for all of GBA
Christine Loh
Author: Christine Loh
Christine Loh is the Chief Development Strategist at Institute for the Environment, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She was the Undersecretary for the Environment in the HKSAR Government (2012-17). Between April 2019 and March 2020, she was the Special Consultant to the Office of the Chief Executive of the HKSAR Government on the ecological civilization aspects of the Greater Bay Area Outline Development Plan. She has a long history in public policy and politics, having been a legislator between 1992-2000, and then was the CEO of Civic Exchange, a non-profit public policy think tank. Loh taught a course on nonmarket risks at the Anderson School of Management, University of California at Los Angeles between 1998-2022. She has a wide and unusual range of expertise that spans the environment, energy, development, politics, and US-China relations. She is a published author of many academic and popular works including on the history of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong, and SARS. Her latest book, soon to be published by Hong Kong University Press, is about COVID-19 and its socio-economic and policy implications. Professor Loh is a Director and Trustee of CDP Worldwide, and Director of the Global Maritime Forum, New Forests Pty Ltd, and Towngas Smart Energy Company Limited. She is Advisor on Sustainability to Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, and Senior Advisor to Teneo. She is also a member of BASF’s Stakeholder Advisory Council in Germany. She is a lawyer by training, and a commodities trader by profession.
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Soon after the Northern Metropolis development was announced in the The Hong Kong Chief Executive’s 2021 Policy Address, Christine Loh, Chief Development Strategist at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, grasped the opportunity to launch the ‘Sustainable Northern Metropolis’. Whilst the Northern Metropolis project aims to facilitate HK’s development integration with Shenzhen and connection with the GBA, it lacks the integration of climate mitigation and adaptation strategies into its development plans. Loh sees the Northern Metropolis as an opportunity to kickstart this conversation as she believes planning this new development site in a ‘future-forward manner’ will open a new chapter in HK’s carbon-neutral socio-economic development that is based on achieving sustainable development and ecological civilization. We sat down with her to get more insight on the project and find out about her sustainable and carbon neutral vision for the Northern Metropolis.

CWR: Thank you for sitting down with us, Christine and congratulations on launching the Sustainable Northern Metropolis project. What inspired you to start the project and what does it want to achieve?

Christine Loh (CL): When the idea of the Northern Metropolis project was announced, I noticed it was positively received. I think this was because the project felt right to people. It makes sense that Hong Kong should plan to connect with the development of Shenzhen. We should think about development and living conditions of this whole region.

It makes sense that HK should plan to connect with the development of Shenzhen…

…moreover, with climate change the neighbourhood needs to become more resilient

There are many forces at play, as the centre of economic gravity is moving from Hong Kong Island to near Shenzhen leading with I&T, and as Guangdong continues with leading the nation in GDP growth. Hong Kong needs to plan for more people to live and work near the border, and for improvements in mobility and other service connectivity. It so happens that the Northern Metropolis also has valuable natural assets, which must be better preserved. Moreover, climate change requires the whole neighbourhood to make itself much more climate resilient.

I also want to say that the I&T must serve the major policy challenges – and there is nothing bigger than the transition from where we are today to a green and low-carbon economy within the next three-to-four decades. I hope our Northern Metropolis project can be a driving narrative for holistic planning of the Greater Bay Area.

CWR: Yuen Long is low-lying and a hot spot for storm surge flooding – as our latest “Climate Ready Northern Metropolis” factsheet shows 65% of residents in Yuen Long and the North districts, key links to the Mainland and critical infrastructures such as the water pumping station from Dongjiang are low-lying. This clearly represents great risks but also offers great opportunities to build a future metropolis that is climate ready. What do you think?

CL: It is well-known that the Pearl River Delta region is one of the most flood-prone, low-lying areas of the world. Rising sea levels is the result of global warming. Higher temperatures are powering stronger winds that drive more moisture into the atmosphere from the sea, which all contribute to increasing the risk of heavier rains and hence the higher risk of flooding.

The HKSAR Government is aware of the risks…

…the debate will be over what level of risk it will design & build for

Yes, Yuen Long is a hotspot for storm surge flooding on the Hong Kong side of the boundary. There are areas on the Mainland side that are at risk too. Floods can harm or even destroy assets, so the cost of insurance will rise. If people are concerned today, the risks are much higher in the future, as the planet continues to heat. The HKSAR Government is aware of the risks. It has to consider how to design and build climate-resilient infrastructure.

The debate will be over what level of risk it will design and build for. Beyond defensive hardware, there must be complementary software to organise what people and institutions should do in case of an emergency. Maybe there are also areas where the governments on both sides of the boundary should discourage further development in light of climate change.

CWR: What can the HKSAR government do to ensure the Northern Metropolis is carbon neutral and climate resilient – e.g. building code, regulation, incentives? Should new regulation consider future climate risks?

CL: Policy is in the hands of governments. Governments have the unique role of being entrusted by the people to use tools for the good of society. Codes, regulations, laws, subsidies, penalties etc represent tools that governments can use, and these tools need to be used to drive change.

“Climate change requires many policy changes…”

Climate change requires many policy changes that should lead to reforms in codes, regulations, laws and incentives and disincentives so that the government can use its tools to get people to do more or less of certain
activities. For example, to have buildings that are much more energy efficient, the government in Hong Kong definitely needs to tighten codes for buildings.

HKSAR govt needs to prioritise upgrading tall buildings but also what to do with low-rise village houses exempt from codes

If it wants existing buildings to be retrofitted so that they can be more energy efficient, the government has to consider a way to get building owners to spend the money. This might have to come in the form of tighter regulations and subsidies, for example. Hong Kong is such a dense city with so many tall buildings that the government should make upgrading buildings a top priority. The Northern Metropolis has significant areas of low-rise village houses, which has certain exemptions from building codes. It makes sense for the government to revisit the whole area of these houses, which is also a major vested interest problem in Hong Kong.

CWR: Hong Kong is so reliant on the Mainland especially the Greater Bay Area for food, water and energy. Is this an opportunity to work together more?

CL: Hong Kong is a very small area when compared to Shenzhen and Guangdong, and the Mainland is vital for the supply of food, fresh water, and energy. The whole region has an interest to cooperate to be low carbon and climate resilient alongside its ambition to be a thriving economic hub. There is already a lot of cooperation on many fronts otherwise the pre-Covid day-to-day cross-boundary services would not be so smooth.

An example could be HK & Shenzhen working together on flood risks planning

For example, the Mainland supplies nuclear electricity to Hong Kong, and has gas pipelines that bring gas from much further afield. Food from across the boundary comes daily, and Hong Kong takes water from the Dongjiang. Let’s not forget many transport links service the movement of people and goods. The opportunity to work together must first start with the articulation of goals. It would be a great start if Hong Kong and Shenzhen can work on say flood risks planning together, as an example.

CWR: What should government fast-track to achieve sustainable development in the Northern Metropolis?

CL: The original announcement of the Northern Metropolis did not include clear statements that its planning should be with carbon neutrality in mind. That would be a good start so that there could be clear guidelines for planners to work towards. Another aspect is for Hong Kong and Shenzhen to cooperate on climate risks planning – I mean, this is such a clear need that there is no reason not to cooperate. If you let your imagination fly, the GBA could do what Singapore has done and announce it would have a certain percentage of their nutritional value coming from the region by a certain year. Singapore has set the target of 30% by 2030.

CWR: Who else do you think can be added to your project?

CL: What we have tried to do with our very small effort at HKUST’s Northern Metropolis project is to bring together younger scholars and others to articulate how they see things.

More young planners, techies & designers would be good

Apart from scientists and engineers, we have included people in public policy, and also others who are entrepreneurs and I&T folks. As I said earlier, we are using the Northern Metropolis as a driving narrative to talk about sustainable development in the broadest sense of the term. It will be good to have more young planners, techies, designers, architects and so on.

CWR: Finally, what’s your vision and hopes for this project? Can you reveal more about the upcoming action plans?

CL: We hope to add new materials from time to time that expands ideas from a wide groups of people, as I said. We will have some new videos to launch soon from some exciting start-up companies pushing the envelope on sustainability that are located in the Northern Metropolis!

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