Scientists ask finance boss for tips at HK climate meet

It was just after the Hong Kong Observatory issued a thunderstorm and amber rainstorm warning in late April that the “4th International Conference on Climate Change” in Hung Hom took an interesting turn.

Around 250 scientists, government officials and businesspeople had gathered at the two-day meeting organised by the Hong Kong Climate Change Forum and the Green Building Council. It was “time to act” following the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the conference brochure stated.

Prof Ding Yihui from China’s Meteorological Administration showed Shanghai after 2 degree Celsius warming (l), and 4 degrees (r). Source: http://www.climatecentral.org/

After a morning where mainland Chinese and Hong Kong scientists talked about worryingly low levels of ice in the Artic and Antartica, sea levels rising to where “aeroplanes become boats,” and no more winters by the end of the century for Hong Kong, it was Dr. Anthony Ma’s turn to speak

Ma is the principal consultant in environmental management at the Hong Kong Productivity Council, and he was there to talk about an innovative way to use food waste in a city where landfills are due to be fill by 2020. A third of all solid waste is made up of food scraps, spilling methane and carbon dioxide into the air.

As Hong Kong is wont to do, plans are afoot to build big infrastructure projects called Organic Waste Treatment Facilities (OWTF) to deal with food waste. But they are expensive to build and run, there is a lack of sites, and it will be a nightmare picking up food from different parts of the city, said Ma.

This is where the “Total Foodwaste Recycling Technology” comes in. The machine breaks down oily Asian food waste into three high-quality products — biogas, fish feed and oil for biodiesel. Small, easy to operate and leaving no wastewater, Ma said the machines could be set up in industrial parks, transfer stations, on campuses and outlying islands.

The plant was pilot tested in Hong Kong in 2014. Source: HK Productivity Council

But the machine funded by the Innovation and Technology Fund has been years in the making and scientists were finding it hard to get it out of the lab.

Up stepped Pat-Nie Woo, partner in business reporting and sustainability from KPMG, to talk about green finance. This is where money is used for sustainable projects, services and products. All of the growth is coming from China and Hong Kong, and there are hopes the city will become the green fund-raising capital for Asia.

This piqued the scientists’ curiosity. When Woo was done talking about the green market potential for Hong Kong from the Paris Accord and Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the scientists at the conference peppered him with questions. Could Woo give them some tips? What did they need to do to get their projects funded and out into the market? And what about their worries about fund managers just being interested in “making big money on the stock market?”

The audience all turned to Woo for answers. After a pause, Woo said a business case is needed to convince private equity firms this is a project they should invest in.

“Are you profitable? How profitable are you? What is the trajectory of your organization,?” Woo asked. “You can raise funds from these private equity companies to grow your company, and your green story will attract the people running these green funds.”

The key question, Woo said, was with the majority of GDP growth being “bad growth or unnecessary growth (through) oversupply or polluting, how do we move that bad growth into good growth?”

Most of the growth in green bonds is in Asia, and specifically China and Hong Kong. Source: Climatebonds.net

At the moment there is a big gap between scientists, business and government, and even within the organisations and sectors they work in, and it is stifling efforts to mitigate and combat climate change, experts say.

“Scientists continue with their research, impact assessment guys do their own impact assessments, the finance sector get excited about their green finance, but there is a lack of communication and togetherness in working out solutions to save the globe,” said Shirley Lee, who worked for the Environmental Protection Department, but is now retired.

Hong Kong’s leaders are urging businesses to step up, but after some early excitement, scientists at the conference felt businesses in this financial hub are sitting back waiting for the government to take the lead.

In January the city released its Climate Action Plan 2030+, promising to cut carbon intensity 65 to 70 percent by 2030. It said it would phase out coal with natural gas, boost renewables and promote energy-efficiency in a city where buildings consume 90 percent of electricity.

But Woo said the city is not yet aligned on green finance. There is hope Hong Kong’s next leader Carrie Lam will push this sector, saying in her manifesto she wanted to make the entrepôt “a pioneer in green finance.” But will leaders move fast enough? With Hong Kong being the no. 1 IPO market, why not make it no. 1 in green bonds?, asked Woo.

Since 2016, all companies listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange have to report on their ESG (environmental, social and governance) performance, and this is a good first step in opening the door to talk and educate board of directors, CEOs and CFOs about these issues, said Woo.

“You have to put it in a business language for them to understand, to get excited and then that opens the opportunity for innovation,” said Woo.

Meanwhile, Ma is optimistic. He is lining up interested parties to support his food waste demo project and is figuring out government regulations. A demo plant has been set up in the Chinese city of Zhuhai, and the plan is to set up another one in Hong Kong.