The World Sustainable Built Environment Conference 2017 (WSBE17) was held in Hong Kong from the 5th to 7th June 2017. It was co-organised by the Construction Industry Council (CIC) and the Hong Kong Green Building Council (HKGBC). Attended by about 1,800 delegates from across the globe, the event brought together several experts and advocates of sustainable urban developments, which included industry practitioners, developers, academics and a significant number of public sector leaders who directly impact various facets of the built environment.
The event eclipsed President Trump’s decision a few days prior, to withdraw the United States from the landmark 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. Aptly, one of the leading voices of the conference was Christiana Figueres (Vice-Chair, Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy), who in her former capacity as the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was the architect of the agreement. In her words, President Trump’s decision had in fact benefitted the climate change dialogue by putting it back on the headlines and inspiring nations, organisations and individuals to do more; a thought echoed by most of the speakers in this conference.
The WSBE17 was also part of the marquee events being organised this year to celebrate 20 years since the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Matthew Cheung Kin-chung (Chief Secretary for Administration, Government of HKSAR) spoke about Hong Kong’s efforts over the past two decades in improving the performance of the built environment. He also highlighted the government’s Climate Action Plan 2030+: using 2005 as the base, it aims to achieve a 40-percent energy intensity reduction target by 2025 and reduce carbon intensity by 65 to 70 percent by 2030. These goals are aligned to Hong Kong’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.
The WSBE17 puts the spotlight on Hong Kong together with several high-density Asian cities, which are at the fore of tackling the challenges of intense urbanisation. Asian cities will be the barometer of the efforts of the global community to arrest climate change and sustain a liveable environment. Underlining this, Sean Chiao (President, Asia Pacific, AECOM) said that “the world needs Asia to get it right”. Figueres added that future urban developments will be characterised by three mega-trends: they will be crowded, connected and be driven by the need for clean energy. She emphasised that it is crucial that this community understands
them. The efforts over the past few decades to reduce emissions have been inadequate and have failed to arrest global warming. She declared that the focus of all our efforts needs to shift from reducing emissions to that of total decarbonisation to limit the earth’s temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. She stressed the time sensitiveness of this challenge with a few simple numbers: the earth’s atmosphere can only absorb 600 more gigatonnes of CO2. With current average global emissions at 40 gigatonnes a year, there are just 15 years left.
The building sector is one of the largest sectors for energy consumption and remains critical to this goal of total decarbonisation. With rapid urbanisation predicted over the next 15 years, a large building stock is going to be constructed. If measures are not adopted, the world risks having buildings with environmental performance that are below-par and consequently locking itself out of the decarbonisation target. Hence, roadmaps like the Climate Action Plan 2030+ are steps in the right direction that the built environment needs to take. Similarly, Su Yunshan (Director-General, Department of Science & Technology and Energy Saving on Buildings, Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, People’s Republic of China) reflected upon the numerous efforts undertaken in China to reduce emissions against its own backdrop of rapid economic growth and urbanisation.
Interview with Christiana Figueres
by Alakesh Dutta
Christiana Figueres is an internationally recognised leader on global climate change. As the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) from 2010 to 2016, she directed the successful conferences of the Parties in Cancun 2010, Durban 2011, Doha 2012, Warsaw 2013 and Lima 2014, and culminated her efforts in the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015. She has been credited with forging a new brand of collaborative diplomacy.
Currently the Vice-Chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors, Figueres is working with many other international organisations to ensure that the world bends the curve of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. She spoke to FuturArc writer Alakesh Dutta.
AD: In light of the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, do you foresee a risk that other nations/organisations may follow suit and forego their commitments to the Agreement?
CF: That would be a risk, but I don’t see that happening. What I see is actually quite the contrary—an enormous wave of support, not just for continuing the efforts of the Paris Agreement, but actually accelerating those efforts. We have heard that from almost 50 countries already and I am sure we will hear from more. We have heard it from the leading forces of the real economy in the United States as well.
AD: This brings me to the next question of urban leadership. Several mayors and urban thought leaders are taking a proactive role. Do you think their initiatives can be independent of the direction of the national political leadership?
CF: Well obviously, the ideal situation is to have an alignment all across: all the way from international to national and sub-national, at the state and city levels, and down to the communities. That’s the ideal situation that provides the most effective policies and measures that get the most impact out of the least amount of investment. But that is the ideal situation. You don’t always get that. The situation we apparently have in the United States now is that the federal government will not align itself. But the moment you go down to the states, cities and communities, that alignment will continue to happen and we will get the emission reductions that can be achieved at that level. What is important to understand is that those activities are not being taken forward because of the emission reductions. They are taken forward because it makes the economy more competitive, as you are depending on lower prices, safer investments, more creation of jobs and better energy independence. All those actions are taking place in order to strengthen the economy.
AD: I would like to ask you about your current role as the Vice-Chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors. You were dealing with international leadership while working with the Paris Agreement—what is the role of the Global Covenant of Mayors?
CF: The Global Covenant is also an international alliance. It has about 7,000 mayors of more than 7,000 cities around the world, with almost every country represented. What brings these mayors together is their interest in taking advantage of the climate opportunities in the investments into renewable energy and better transportation, to make their cities more liveable and improve the quality of life for their citizens.
AD: Asian cities face tremendous pressure as large number of people from the rural areas continue to emigrate and strain resources. This is exacerbated with the lack of pace in developing rural infrastructure. Do you think it is essential for governments and agencies to improve infrastructure in the rural areas to mitigate such imbalances?
CF: Yes, definitely. Like everything in life, you can’t go from one extreme to the other. So while the process of urbanisation is a global one, in Asia certainly but also around the world, it is going to be important to continue to invest in the rural areas because you don’t want to force even more pressure on cities. Except for the food that cities will be able to produce for themselves, it is the rural areas that will be producing the food. Thus, it is important to keep them productive from the food, economic and liveability perspectives.
AD: In your speech earlier, you spoke about decarbonisation as something the cities must work towards to. How can cities be inspired to do better? Perhaps with certain incentives to decarbonise?
CF: Decarbonisation is not the incentive. The incentive is to have cleaner air; better transportation; better energy reliance; cheaper and more distributed energy; as well as better access to energy in the rural areas. It is about those kinds of improvement to life rather than decarbonisation itself; decarbonisation is not a motivation to anyone. You have to look for the motivation in the direct positive impact on peoples’ lives.
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