The Northern Metropolis could be a Biodiverse Zero Carbon Project
Ms. Olivia TO, Project Manager, Institute for the Environment, HKUST
Dr. Michael LAU, Founder and Executive Director, Hong Kong Wetalnds Conservation Association
Prof. Faith CHAN, Associate Professor, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Nottingham Ningbo China
In October 2021, the current Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, announced the Northern Metropolis Development Strategy (NMDS). The strategy is described as an "Urban-Rural Integration and Co-existence of Development and Conservation" plan that will make the Northern Metropolis (NM) "ideal for people to live, work and travel". The NM aims to integrate Northern District and Yuen Long District, a total of 30,000 hectares of land, with Shenzhen.
The NM could be a biodiverse and zero carbon development, but the strategy would need to be explicit that these are overarching goals. While there are strong nature conservation ideas in the NMDS to build upon, achieving carbon neutrality has received little mention even though Hong Kong has committed to achieving it by 2050, and the Mainland by 2060.
Three board directions
The NMDS states it has followed three strategic directions – national, regional, and local in creating the concept plan. Since those directions were articulated, the national government has evolved its policy in achieving carbon neutrality, and the same goes for regional plans. The commitment for Hong Kong to achieve carbon neutrality was made in November 2020. Hence, plans published before then did not put carbon neutrality in a core position. This should now be corrected with the detailed design of the NMDS, as national, regional, and local policies have changed.
Before addressing carbon neutrality, this paper will first address nature conservation which receives substantial attention in the NMDS.
Nature conservation highlights
The government recognises that the NM has a variety of habitats, including wetlands to the west, a sizable area of fishponds in the centre and, to the east, the proposed Robin's Nest Country Park, a marine park and the Geopark. The NMDS calls for a proactive conservation policy, stating that about 2,000 hectares of conservation area, which includes the Mai Po and Inner Deep Bay area already designated as an internationally important wetland under the Ramsar Convention, would be enhanced for better wetland conservation while creating a good living environment.
As such, in planning the details of the NMDS, the government commits to formulating policies “with an innovative approach … to plan and create liveable communities which can encompass balanced social and economic development as well as ecological and environmental conservation”.
The NMDS states: “Proactive conservation measures should be adopted, and plans for building a major ecological habitat network should be formulated. Efforts should be made to enhance the ecological value of ecologically sensitive areas, expand environmental capacity and preserve the integrity of strategic ecological corridors. Steps should also be taken to guard against damage to the ecosystem by unauthorized developments, and reasonably compensate for the environmental impact of development activities”.
There is a specific chapter in the NMDS listing many ideas: it proposes a new country park, resuming privately-owned fish ponds and wetlands for better protection, creating an ecological habitat network and wetland conservation parks, including mangrove areas, as well as establishing and protecting coastal parks. Efforts will also made to expand protection through the GBA, including developing wildlife corridors to connect habitats.
Lack of attention on carbon neutrality
The attention paid to nature conservation in the NMDS is laudable. However, the lack of similar attention to carbon neutrality needs to be corrected. We propose that carbon neutrality becomes an overarching principle alongside strengthening biodiversity. Indeed, the planning goal of the NM could be to create a Biodiverse Zero Carbon community.
Hong Kong’s Climate Change Action Plan 2050 states the government aims to work with the power utilities to generate and/or source clean power from the Mainland in the coming decade. Assuming this is possible and that electricity in Hong Kong will be increasingly low carbon, Hong Kong should still aim to reduce the consumption of electricity. The NMDS should deal with what can be done. For example, it is well accepted that the major carbon reduction opportunity comes from requiring buildings to be much more energy-efficient. This will make the transition to clean power more affordable. This will require the government to set new regulations and standards for infrastructure and buildings, and the retrofitting of existing buildings to achieve much higher energy efficiency. The NMDS addresses investments in transport, and it should consider waste management too, and how transport and waste management could contribute to carbon reduction.
Nature and Carbon Opportunities
There are good opportunities to combine efforts in nature conservation and dealing with climate change at the same time. We list two examples below:
- Creating carbon sinks: The government can formulate active conservation measures to increase local carbon sinks that help to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases, such as through better management of country parks and natural areas. The NM has rich natural ecological environment as noted by the NMDS. It is possible to develop the scientific methodology through collaboration with universities, scientists, and ecologists, as well as encourage innovation and technology (“I&T”) to capture carbon and sequestrate it to reduce carbon emissions. While Hong Kong is physically small, the knowledge and experience gained here could be scaled-up elsewhere in the GBA, which has a similar natural environment and climate to that of Hong Kong. The use of nature to create carbon sinks as a solution is missing in Hong Kong’s Climate Change Action Plan 2050 but could be added in its next iteration.
To expand the local forest coverage rate and increase biodiversity, Hong Kong can take reference to the “ecological civilization and construction” policy implemented in the Mainland which encourages systematic large scale forest restoration . The government can prioritise countryside areas, such as Hung Shui Kiu, Kwu Tung North and San Tin South in NM, as scientists consider these areas have good reforestation potential. It boosts local carbon sinks potential and could be an attractive visitors’ attraction.
- Implement sponge city infrastructure across GBA: Hong Kong is facing extreme weather, such as more frequent tropical cyclones and rainstorms. The NM is in a vulnerable, low-lying region with “Two Bays and One River” – Shenzhen Bay, Dapeng Bay and Shenzhen River. The government recognizes there are 26 high-risk, low-lying coastal areas, within the NMDS, including Yuen Long and Sha Tau Kok, according to a recent study conducted by Civil Engineering and Development Department. Incorporating sponge city infrastructure into urban planning can help to prevent floods, store and discharge excess urban storm water, which help to improve the ability to cope with climate change. The government already has plans to implement sponge city ideas, referred to as blue-green infrastructure in Hong Kong. The mainland uses the term sponge city, which is being implemented in Shenzhen since 2015. It makes sense for Hong Kong and Shenzhen to collaborate on cross-boundary efforts.
At present, the development of sponge city ideas in Hong Kong is still limited to relatively small projects without comprehensive planning or design. The National 14th Five-Year Plan includes many cities across the country undergoing revolutionary urban blue-green transformation to develop systematic sponge city construction. There are also many successful cases overseas, such as the Water Plaza in Rotterdam Central area, and the green drainage system in Copenhagen. Hong Kong and Shenzhen should be able to implement good projects by working together.
The NMDS already presents many good opportunities that could be built upon to adopt nature-based and climate solutions concurrently. Hong Kong’s plans need to be updated and the detailed design of the NMDS provides an excellent opportunity to do so. The NMDS also contains exciting ideas on promoting I&T, as well as eco-tourism – which could all be made to dovetail with one another to achieve good outcomes.