On February 28, 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report assessing the latest status of climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. From 67 countries and regions around the world, 270 scientists and 675 experts in related areas, including 10 mainland Chinese and 3 Hong Kong experts, made reference to more than 34,000 academic journal papers and 62,418 comments from officials and experts, and came to conclude with this 3,675-page report.
This report is a must-reference document for the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, and is also an important basis for reviewing the implementation of the Paris Agreement by the parties. When the Financial Secretary of Hong Kong SAR recently released the Budget 2022-23, he proposed to allocate funds to improve the resilience of low-lying areas, confirming that the HKSAR government has also begun to attach importance to climate adaptation. In fact, the Government's climate adaptation measures can still be strengthened in many places. The report proposes some international best practices, which are worthy of reference by the government.
Climate adaptation measures will only be effective with timely control of global warming
According to the report, more than 40% of the world's nearly 8 billion people, or 3.3-3.6 billion people, will regularly face the threat of climate catastrophe. If we cannot control the global temperature increase to within 1.5 degrees Celsius, at least 350 million people will face the threat of water shortage, half of the world's species are or will be migrating their habitats, and up to 90% of coral reefs will disappear. Even if we adopt climate adaptation measures, the effectiveness may be offset, making it less effective against a direr catastrophe.
Looking at our cities and communities, the report notes that climate change disproportionately affects vulnerable groups. For example, the frequent use of air-conditioning consumes more electricity and therefore increases the burden of medical expenses for poor households, and reduces their income due to the inability to find jobs. Take Hong Kong as an example. According to statistics from the Hong Kong Observatory, the number of hot nights in 2021 was 61 days, while the number of extremely hot days was 54 days, both of which are the highest on record. Many subdivided housing residents and outdoor workers in Hong Kong are faced with the dilemma of living in extremely hot weather every day.
Combining structural poverty, social and economic inequalities, and exacerbating the plight of people with disabilities and the urban poor, the report notes that climate impacts are often multiple and interlocking. Regarding the difficulties faced by the elderly, subdivided housing residents, outdoor workers and people with disabilities in extreme weather, CarbonCare InnoLab has also held a number of community dialogues to discuss the problems and propose solutions with relevant groups. The author will elaborate in another article soon.
Climate change exacerbates inequalities, increases patients’ risks
In addition, the quality of life of citizens in hot weather deteriorates, with the rising occurrence of mental illness, and reduction in sports activities, social activities, tourism and recreational activities. Moreover, the inverse relationship between temperature and global economic output could lead to a potential loss of 23% in global productivity declines by the end of the century.
What's more, there is a clear relationship between increased heat or rainstorms and mental health problems, with suicides, anxiety, depression, and even mental illness, and the need for psychiatric hospital admissions and clinic visits also increased. And in many parts of Asia, heat increases the risk of mental health, including mental disorders, depression and anxiety. Based on global research, every degree Celsius increase in temperature increases the risk of suicide to varying degrees. In addition, the number of hospitalizations for various medical diseases, heat stroke and accidents increased. Salmonella outbreaks are closely linked to rising temperatures and increased levels of allergens such as pollen, leading to an increase in diseases such as asthma and allergic sinusitis.
The adaptability of cities to climate change needs to be strengthened
The report also places great emphasis on the impact of climate change on cities, and the role cities can play. More than half of the world's population currently lives in cities, and by 2050 it is more likely that cities will account for two-thirds of the world's population. But, by the middle of this century, about 1 billion citizens of coastal cities will be threatened by rising sea levels. In addition, heat waves and air pollution directly affect the health of citizens, and the operation of urban infrastructure including transportation, water supply, energy and power systems will also be affected.
Coastal cities like Hong Kong need to strengthen climate risk management, as well as climate change assessment and disaster risk reduction research. The most effective way to limit the increased climate risk for coastal cities and dwellings is to avoid new development in areas vulnerable to flooding or sea level rise. Reserve flooding space is the most widely used adaptation strategy. Experts also warn that climate adaptation measures should not be abused and wasteful, not only failing to withstand disasters, but also depriving groups that should be protected by adaptation measures due to maladaptation.
The report points out that vulnerable groups, including people living in developing countries and small islands, indigenous peoples, women, ethnic minorities, the elderly and children, are more affected by climate change, and puts forward the principle of equity and justice, taking into account vulnerable groups and various generations the need for equitable participation of people with different interests, opinions and values.
Adaptation measures should be based on the principle of equitable participation and inclusion of the most vulnerable
Therefore, for the first time, the report proposes "Climate Resilience Development" as a way for future cities to balance development needs and climate change, while taking into account the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, climate risk reduction, biodiversity conservation and sustainable development as the target. The report proposes that cities need to adopt a combination of nature-based and built-in approaches, building more green and water-friendly public spaces, developing urban agriculture to increase food security, and creating social safety nets to protect vulnerable groups from climate disasters, etc.
As for strengthening Hong Kong's climate resilience, we believe that the five important principles for adaptation measures proposed by the report, including political leadership, clear goals and responsibilities, accumulation and sharing of knowledge, establishment of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, and equity and inclusion of the most vulnerable, should guide Hong Kong's climate adaptation policies. The “Paris Watch Report 2021” published by CarbonCare InnoLab pointed out that the "Hong Kong Climate Action Plan 2050" seems to self-congratulate its past and current climate adaptation "achievements", while there are still rooms for improvement in strengthening adaptation to climate change and disasters, in contingency work, in enhancing public participation and transparency, and in strengthening monitoring and evaluation of adaptation effectiveness. These principles are also applicable to examining how large-scale infrastructure projects such as the Hong Kong Airport's Third Runway and the Lantau Tomorrow Vision projects, which require enhancement of climate resilience. As pointed out in the Paris Watch Report, only if we accelerate the pace of carbon reduction and energy transition, strengthen climate adaptation, and update the goals and details of the “Hong Kong Climate Action Plan 2050” as soon as possible, can we hope to reduce the risks posed by climate change.
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Kevin Li is a Researcher at CarbonCare InnoLab, a Hong Kong-based environmental NGO. He leads research that tracks the annual performance of Asian cities against the Paris Agreement goals.