Hong Kong should explore importing “clean” hydrogen from regional neighbours as an alternative to using nuclear power from mainland China to reduce its carbon footprint, according to the head of a group that advises the government.

Former Hong Kong Observatory director Lam Chiu-ying, now the convenor of the Sustainable Development Council’s support group on the city’s long-term decarbonisation strategy, raised the option on Monday, as local think tank Civic Exchange suggested Hong Kong should switch to generating power drawn from a mix of local and imported renewables to achieve zero emissions by 2050.

“Regional cooperation does not only mean working with Guangdong province,” Lam said. “Our options span the whole of Asia-Pacific from Japan to Australia.”

The city could look into importing clean hydrogen from other countries in the region, he suggested, speaking after Civic Exchange launched its policy report Hong Kong’s emissions reduction strategy.

While burning hydrogen does not emit carbon dioxide, most hydrogen is still produced using fossil fuels. But new technology has made it possible to create clean hydrogen, which splits water into its components of hydrogen and oxygen using solar power for electrolysis. In March, one of the world’s largest solar-powered hydrogen facilities opened in Japan and it eventually aims to export the hydrogen.

“But we will also need to rely on nuclear power for the foreseeable future as the technology that would support power generation from renewables is not yet immediately available,” Lam said.

Electricity generation is the city’s biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions. About a quarter of Hong Kong’s electricity comes from nuclear power imported from mainland China, while fossil fuels, including natural gas and coal, make up most of the remaining sources. Renewables account for about 1 per cent.

Although natural gas is cleaner than coal, local green groups have urged the government to increase the use of renewables so Hong Kong can meet its pledge under the Paris Agreement, the landmark United Nations climate accord adopted by nearly 200 nations that aims to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and ideally to 1.5 degrees.

Hong Kong has said it will slash annual carbon emissions from about 6 tonnes per person to between 3.3 to 3.8 tonnes by 2030, equivalent to an absolute carbon emission reduction of 26 to 36 per cent from 2005 levels.

Civic Exchange said in its report Hong Kong had the potential to achieve zero emissions by 2050, a far more ambitious goal, if the government took drastic and immediate measures to decarbonise power generation, make buildings more energy efficient and improve city planning to allow residents to live closer to work and school, thereby cutting down on commuting.

“Unlike other cities, Hong Kong doesn’t have a manufacturing economy, so it is relatively easier to decarbonise,” said report co-author Lawrence Iu Chun-yip.

But Lam said the government needed to take the lead to push residents to change their habits. “The Civic Exchange report shows it can be done, and I hope it gives some confidence to the government,” he said.

On Saturday, the government released data for Hong Kong’s greenhouse gas emissions for 2018, which amounted to 40.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, an increase of 0.5 per cent from 2017.

However, Edwin Lau Che-feng, executive director of local green group The Green Earth, said that while the emissions from electricity generation had decreased slightly, it was worrying emissions from waste had risen by 6.76 per cent compared to 2017 levels.

Lau urged the government to release details of a long-delayed public consultation on Hong Kong’s long-term decarbonisation strategy to show it was committed to the goal.

“The public engagement started last June, but so far we have not heard anything from the Environment Bureau,” Lam said. “This is an important issue and the public deserves to know.”

The bureau said the report was being held up by the large number of answers it had received, but declined to disclose the total number.

“The Council for Sustainable Development will consider the report compiled by the external consultant and make suggestions to the Environment Bureau, which will release the report as soon as it receives it,” the bureau said.

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