[SCMP Column]Tip of the Melting Iceberg

December 05, 2015

Isn’t it sobering that 23 years have passed since the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed in Rio de Janeiro. So many spinning wheels in between. Similar procrastination out of this week’s Paris Climate talks will whisk us in no time to 2038. Are the ambitious targets being talked about in Paris so much hot air?

Jeffrey Sachs, head of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, both an advocate and an optimist, warns that if we are to remain under the 2 degrees Celcius warming ceiling between now and 2100, then annual carbon emissions have to fall from 35bn tonnes today to 10-15bn tonnes in 2050 – and to zero by 2070. Jeffrey, dream on. What possible evidence tells you our leaders can create the aggressive assault needed to bring carbon emissions to zero by 2070?

I have a passing sympathy with Bjorn Lomborg, skeptic and contrarian at the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, who wrote in the Financial Times last week: “This week’s climate conference will be no different from the others held in the past 20 years. There will be an agreement of some kind, and a lot of self-congratulatory talk, but many promises will not be kept.”
Lomborg notes that trillions of dollars will have to be spent cutting carbon emissions: “Spending money that way while billions (of people) lack food, (electricity), health, water and education, is nothing short of immoral.”

He reminds me that long before global warming destroys our present way of life, we face challenges that need to be addressed even more urgently. Global water shortages are acute, and creating increasing political stress. Our obsession with “stuff” is creating massive competition for global resources with potentially deadly conflicts already clear.

With global commodity prices at their lowest levels for over a decade, almost without exception, many of you might dismiss my concern. Oil and coal prices, coffee and sugar prices, soya and wheat prices, are all down 50% to 70% from their post 2000 peaks. But I am not sanguine. The price collapse is a direct result of the global recession that began 7 years ago, and it may still be several years before the global economy begins to recover. But if we assume recovery will begin in earnest by 2020, with consumers in China and then later in India adding literally billions of people to our “stuff” consuming classes, then pressures on these resources will immediately soar. I am still betting that conflicts linked with competition for resources in increasingly short supply will create serious global conflicts long before we begin to pay any serious price for our failure adequately to address the climate challenge.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am as convinced as anyone that the climate crisis needs to be addressed. But from where I sit, the climate is not our only crisis, and several others are graver and more imminent. Resources are needed to address the climate crisis. But they are needed to tackle our other challenges too.  So it is that Lomborg calls for a 10-fold increase in green energy research and development.
Just as important is to invest in education – in particular science education that will eliminate some of the ignorance that underpins so much of the “climate skepticism” that dogs progress on tackling the global warming challenge. We could start with Donald Trump, who said this week: “I’m not a believer in climate change… look it’s weather, and it’s been that way for so long.” Or Ben Carson, another Republican luminary that covets Presidency: “There is no overwhelming science that the things that are going on are man-caused.”
Investing in their education is probably a lost cause. But our governments need to make sure our kids have the kind of education that enables them to make better-balanced and better-informed decisions about our future.

That applies to Hong Kong too… which is one reason why I celebrate today’s launch in Government House of the Hong Kong Academy of Science, to be headed by geneticist and former Hong Kong University vice chancellor Tsui Lap-chee. It will initially comprise 27 members, including two Nobel Laureates, and can at last provide focus for science education and research in Hong Kong.

With the recent approval of the Innovation and Technology bureau after so much inexcusable Legco filibustering, Hong Kong might at last join the world in debating the future strategic direction of science policy. In APEC, for example, where I spend so much of my time, Hong Kong might at last be able to contribute a Chief Science Officer to join discussions on the development of regional science and technology policy. Tsui Lap-chee must surely be an excellent candidate.

And as I jump to the front of the queue to attract the attention of the Academy of Science and the Innovation Bureau, let me table afresh the proposal I first tabled in 2010 – for Hong Kong to provide home to a Global Natural Resources Efficiency Institute. China ought to be the natural leader in this initiative, because of its huge dependency on fast-depleting natural resources. But China has a problem: Radical development of novel or innovative technologies will only occur in economies where protection of intellectual property is strong. Many companies – both Chinese and foreign – would be keenly interested in wrestling with such new technologies for use inside China, but are restrained by anxiety that their brilliant innovative process will be stolen or copied.

This surely provides a marvellous opportunity to Hong Kong – with an impeccable reputation for strong intellectual property protection, sitting so close to thousands of Chinese factories that face resource depletion challenges, and well placed to coordinate globally distributed research on these acute resource challenges.

As thousands in Paris this weekend focus on our climate crisis, why not let’s be contrarian and focus instead on our Academy of Sciences, and the role it might play in creating my pet project, the Natural Resources Efficiency Institute.  For once, Hong Kong could make a difference.

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