Hong Kong Rising Seas Adaptation Is Way Behind New York & Singapore

By Chien Tat Low, Debra Tan 23 August, 2022

Wrong adaptation levels could sink HK’s future. CWR's Low & Tan highlight key planning stumbling blocks & layout steps HK urgently needs to take

HK is adapting for around 0.5m of SLR by 2100, way behind the 2-3m used by NY & SG; this gap puts >43,000 more residential, comm & ind bldgs at risk + up to 82% of revenue
Adaptation plans are inconsistent across govt depts + ignores IPCC’s recommendations on multiple fronts – pick wrong scenarios & timelines = maladaptation + increase financial risks for HK
HKMA’s stress test already shows ~HK$1trn of mortgages/loans at risk at around 0.5m by 2050; a dedicated coastal defence task force must be set up like in NY & SG

Has Hong Kong got its coastal defense levels against rising seas right? It had better, as sea level rise (SLR) is an existential threat to Hong Kong – a sizeable portion of our homes, almost all basic needs and key transportation links that are essential for survival are ALL low-lying.

If we use the wrong SLR levels to plan adaptation, our new Defend HK Property from Submersion” factsheet shows that 38,426 more residential buildings and close to 5,000 more commercial & industrial buildings will be exposed to rising seas. Indeed, up to 82% of the HKSAR’s revenue streams could be affected by rising seas as seen in our new Futureproof HK Revenues factsheet. Even our HK$20bn+ betting revenues will be at risk as we can’t access our racecourses – check out the flood maps in Happy Valley & Sha Tin.

Is this alarmist or are multi-metre sea level rise impacts for real?

NY & SG are adapting for 2-3m SLR by 2100 compared to HK’s 0.5m

Well … it’s real enough for New York and Singapore as they’re using multi-metre SLR estimates to plan long term adaptation. Both cities are using 2-3m of SLR by 2100 to plan resilience so that their adaptation plans to protect against rising seas can be transformative rather than incremental. BTW Hong Kong is using only ~0.5m by 2100. To say that there is a gap is an understatement.

Clearly, we are worried, and it gets worse…

HK’s adaptation plans ignore IPCC’s recommendations on multiple fronts …

The Hong Kong’s Drainage Services Department (DSD) 2018 Stormwater Drainage Manual notes adaption action for the low-to-medium emissions scenario of 0.49m of SLR by 2100. A low-to-medium emissions scenario (RCP2.6-4.5) means an average warming range of ~1°C to ~1.8°C by 2100 but we have already warmed by 1.1°C-1.2°C today and there’s now a 50:50 chance that we will breach 1.5°C by 2026.

We are heading for 2.7ºC by 2100 so HK DSD needs to change from the low-to-medium scenario

Since current global climate policies & actions put us on path of around 2.7ºC (2ºC-3.6ºC) by 2100, surely the DSD should pick the high emissions scenario for adaptation planning? Given the state of current global affairs adapting to the high emissions scenario is prudent as it would reflect reality, not wishful thinking.

To be fair to the DSD, climate science is fast evolving and there was still hope of cutting emissions back in 2018 when they set a level of 0.49m. However, the same excuse cannot be used for the latest Coastal Hazard Study released by the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) in April 2022 which was 8 months after the IPCC’s AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. The latter clearly warns that 2m of SLR by 2100 and 5m by 2150 “cannot be ruled out due to deep uncertainty in ice sheet processes”.

Despite IPCC warning of 2-5m of SLR by 2100 & 2150, the AECOM-CEDD report is still adopting a mid-century wait-and-see adaptation approach of 0.16-0.35m of SLR by 2050

Why did AECOM, not advise CEDD accordingly? Instead, AECOM recommended that CEDD to adopt a progressive adaptive approach” under a medium GHG concentration scenario” and focus on devising enhancement measures up to 2050; in short, 0.16-0.35m of SLR by 2050.

While the AECOM-CEDD report does say it will have flexibility in design allowance so that adaptation actions can be changed or updated as climate impacts change, it is hard to see how planning for 0.16-0.35m of SLR by 2050 will allow flexibility, as works will already be locked in. We cannot “undo” drainage/ levees/ sea walls that are not enough or suddenly redesign parts of a city as SLR accelerates. This means that when risks escalate, adaptation actions will only be incremental – something else that the IPCC warned against.

Haven’t they read the IPCC AR6 Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability published in February 2022? It devotes a substantial amount of its Summary to Policymakers (SPM) to painstakingly highlight maladaptation and the pitfalls of ignoring long-term impacts.

While AECOM-CEDD are on the right track with a “progressive adaptive approach”, rather than setting a lower short-term SLR target and ratchetting up to cater for rising risks, they should have set a higher longer-term SLR target as advised by the IPCC. This would allow them to catalyse transformative adaptation which can be implemented in phases; these phased build-out can be accelerated should rapid SLR occur.

Actions that focus on sectors and risks in isolation and on short-term gains often lead to maladaptation if long-term impacts of the adaptation option and long-term adaptation commitment are not taken into account.” 


AR6 Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability:

We are beginning to wonder if AECOM has a solid grasp on the new climate risk landscape, especially after its unfortunate plagiarism incidence earlier this year. Luckily, despite questionable adaptation recommendations from AECOM to the government, at least the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) has got it right (somewhat)…

With ~HK$1trn of mortgages/loans at risk, the HKMA, DSD & CEDD need to get on the same page!!

The HKMA has been conducting climate risk stress tests using the worst-case scenario; in other words, the high emissions scenario. Finally, a government department that has picked the right scenario! Clearly bankers are more realistic than engineers about the global trajectory of GHG emissions.

Meanwhile, HKMA is stress testing for high emissions scenario by 2050…

According to the HKMA, the stress test of physical risks across 27 banks revealed that around HK$1trn of mortgages/property loans are vulnerable to climate risks, mainly from flooding & typhoons. These stress tests were conducted for a 2050 timeline which under a high emissions scenario points to 0.32-0.55m of SLR.

…but wrong adaptation levels by the CEDD and/or the DSD could put the whole HK banking system at risk

The fact that the CEDD is planning adaptation for the same timeframe at lower levels of SLR (0.16-0.35m) means that wrong adaptation levels by the CEDD and/or the DSD could put the whole HK banking system at risk. This exposure gap will widen with time because whilst SLR levels will likely rise at similar rates to 2050 for both the medium & high scenarios, under the high emissions scenario rising seas will likely accelerate rapidly after around 2060. By 2100, DSD is protecting HK to only ~0.5m whereas impacts could be anywhere from 1-3m.

As adaptation planning to 2050 will not be able to cope with such rapid acceleration of SLR, both New York and Singapore are clearly not taking any chances and have heeded the IPCC’s warnings of multi-metre SLR and are using 2-3m of SLR by 2100 to catalyse transformative action and implementing adaptation in phases. Doing this will reduce impact risks for their banks as the city can ratchet up implementation as risks accelerate.

Hong Kong should follow suit. Already for HK banks, HK$1trn is at risk at 0.32-0.55m of SLR, imagine the impacts at 2-3m of SLR when 38,426 more residential buildings and close to 5,000 more commercial & industrial buildings will be submerged!

Such levels of exposure would certainly trigger financial collapse, HK govt depts must start coordinating!

Since such levels of exposure would certainly trigger financial collapse, different government departments across Hong Kong must start coordinating their resilience works at once. HK bankers cannot assume HK engineers are working off the same scenarios. The clock is ticking … HK seas have already risen by around 0.2m since 1990.

To get everyone on the same page, we have prepared a “8-Factsheet Survival Guide for HK to survive rising seas”. Hopefully, these will prevent banks and corporates from shirking their responsibilities with “I didn’t know” when faced with mandatory disclosure of material climate risks under the new ISSB standards. Let there be no doubt – rising seas are pervasive threats and will impact every aspect of a HKer’s life. We must set up a coastal defence task force that not only straddles all departments but has teeth to make tough decisions – such as which areas should be protected, and which abandoned to rising seas. The AECOM-CEDD Coastal Study cannot be Hong Kong’s roadmap for adaptation. There is simply too much at stake.

HK is behind … not planning for “low-regret” adaptation levels = planning to fail

While New York and Singapore have such coastal defence task forces, HK is sorely missing one. The Steering Committee on Climate Change and Carbon Neutrality is not going to cut it – all of them have other fulltime day jobs; defending HK against rising seas is a fulltime job. Besides, it is more focused on carbon transition, not adaptation.

HK needs a dedicated coastal defence task force like NY & SG

This was made painfully clear to us in the 2-hr discussion session we hosted earlier this year where Singapore’s national coastal defence director, New York City’s resilience lead and IPCC WGII co-chair were present. Representatives from BIS, Japan’s FSA, Citi, StanChart, Moody’s and Manulife were there too as we hashed out a path forward to finance transformative adaptation.

We wished we could have included government representatives from the SAR but only LINK-REIT, Hong Kong’s largest property listco was well versed enough about adaptation to be present; kudos to them … it has stress tested its portfolio for low-regret levels of coastal threat impacts – see its latest annual report.

Of course, we hope that these low-regret levels will never happen. We don’t want a world where emissions keep rising, but we have to be realistic. Given the coastal defence efforts of the two other island financial centres – New York and Singapore, HK must step up or rising seas could strip its status as the premier international financial centre in Asia. Its position as a global shipping and aviation hub could go too.

Even if the world reached net-zero emissions today, seas will continue to rise…

…It’s not a matter of IF but WHEN these SLR levels will materialize…

…the right question here is “can HK afford not to adapt for multi-metre SLR?”

It is worth remembering here that even if the world reached net-zero emissions today, seas will continue to rise; this trend is locked-in and irreversible. Is 2-3m of SLR by 2100 too much? Well … the last time the earth was this warm (0.5°C-1°C warmer than pre-industrial period), sea levels were 6-9m higher than the levels today; the last time the earth had carbon levels at around 400ppm, seas were 25m+ higher.

It’s not a matter of IF but WHEN these SLR levels will materialize … so it’s best to be prepared. Do not be fixated on “exactly when and how likely these sea levels will happen”, because we have already been warned of the rough ballpark. The right question here is “can HK afford not to adapt for multi-metre SLR?”  New York and Singapore clearly have thought these through, so must Hong Kong.


Get on top of the latest SLR Trends


Further Reading

  • 3 First Steps To Protect HK From Rising Seas – The IPCC AR6 warnings on rising seas bring bad tidings for Hong Kong. If you are 20 & younger, HK could become the new Atlantis in your lifetime unless we take action now. See 3D maps of areas submerged and get on top of what you need to do to survive, adapt & thrive
  • It’s Time To Prioritise Sea Level Rise – CWR’s Debra Tan says it’s time to be FOMO about our rising seas. From emission accelerants to accelerated impacts she runs through three reasons to rethink our attitudes towards sea level rise – it’s a big deal, sea level rise is worse than you think. This time, even she’s depressed
  • No-Sense Climate Strategies: From DSD To HSBC – Hong Kong’s shortsighted & unrealistic climate plans will leave key assets & infrastructure exposed that mean the government, companies, investors and the public are even more exposed. China Water Risk’s Dharisha Mirando & Debra Tan expand
  • Key Takeaways From Futureproofing Cities To Avoid Atlantis – Hard truths, disconnects & next steps on coastal protection for the water & finance sectors were discussed at the CWR-SIWW joint event. CWR’s Dawn McGregor shares key takeaways
  • Confronting Storms & Climate Risk In HK – Typhoons Hato and Mangkhut have wreaked havoc in the Greater Bay Area but Dr. Faith Chan from the University of Nottingham Ningbo believes these climate risks can be confronted, with Hong Kong leading the way

More on Latest

  • Dear John Lee, Heed President Xi’s “4 Hopes” & Futureproof HK – Rising seas could sink HK. CWR shows the new HK government how President Xi’s 4 proposals made during the 25th Anniversary can guide the way to adapt & futureproof HK so that it will “rise and shine brighter than ever”
  • HK Stranded! – ‘Asia’s World Low-lying City’ –  With more than 200+ islands, HK is more like Fiji than not. Ready to swim from island-to-island when parts of HK’s well-connected transport system are lost to rising seas? CWR’s Sophie Lam debunks dangerous myths to avoid a stranded island-city reality
  • Triple Whammy Hit for HK’s Poor; the Rich can Escape Rising Seas – Buyer beware! You could lose your homes & savings from rising seas. More so if you are poor in Hong Kong. CWR’s Dr CT Low & Debra Tan share 3 hits + 3 actions to close the gap on climate injustice
  • Hangry & Submerged – A New Vision for HK Food Security – Whilst grocery shopping, CWR’s Sophie Lam becomes ‘hangry’ over absurd food miles & HK food insecurity from climate threats ahead. With no holistic adaptation strategies in place to defend against rising seas, she shares her ideas for a new ‘food’ vision to ensure HK’s food security
  • Young HKer’s Climate Change Revelations on HK & the GBA – Shocked, CWR’s Lam did not realize HK’s hefty reliance on the GBA. See this young HKer’s revelations on why HK cannot be resilient without working together with the GBA & what led her to reject her UK job offer to stay in HK & fight for its climate future
Chien Tat Low
Author: Chien Tat Low
Low has extensive inter-disciplinary research experience, which although wide-ranging, focuses on identifying hotspots to facilitate better planning. At CWR, Low uses spatial modelling and statistical analysis as well as remote sensing, cartography, and geo-statistics to map and assess water risks. In addition, he helps manage CWR’s extensive network of contributors and partners. CWR is Low’s first foray outside academia and he hopes to apply his 12 years of scientific know-how toward enhancing the understanding of water risk in Asia, including spatial temporal variabilities of anthropogenic and natural factors on water resources. Previously, Low was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong where he devised methodologies to measure and benchmark the quality of urban life in an Asian context. As a certified GIS Professional, he also taught GIS and spatial analysis modules there. Low’s research on urban, human and environmental health is published in 11 prominent international peer-reviewed journals; he has also written a chapter in a book on managing environmental hazards. His PhD thesis on place effect on human well-being was prize-winning. Low is currently the reviewer editor for the journal “Frontiers in Environmental Informatics” and also reviews other international journals such as “Applied Geography”.
Read more from Chien Tat Low →
Debra Tan
Author: Debra Tan
Debra heads the CWR team and has steered the CWR brand from idea to a leader in the water risk conversation globally. Reports she has written for and with financial institutions analyzing the impact of water risks on the Power, Mining, Agricultural and Textiles industries have been considered groundbreaking and instrumental in understanding not just China’s but future global water challenges. One of these led the fashion industry to nominate CWR as a finalist for the Global Leadership Awards in Sustainable Apparel; another is helping to build consensus toward water risk valuation. Debra is a prolific speaker on water risk delivering keynotes, participating in panel discussions at water prize seminars, numerous investor & industry conferences as well as G2G and academic forums. Before venturing into “water”, she worked in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker specializing in M&A and strategic advisory. Debra left banking to pursue her interest in photography and also ran and organized philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore and spends her spare time exploring glaciers in Asia.
Read more from Debra Tan →