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HongKongEcho: Hong Kong’s iconic skyline may also be its greatest environmental threat

As a highly urbanised metropolis, Hong Kong’s battle to go green starts with its buildings. We spoke to one property developer on the sector’s shortcomings and how their portfolio is putting the spotlight on sustainability.

Summer in Hong Kong. Outside, the humidity soars. Inside, you’re subjected to a level of air conditioning that rivals the winds of the Arctic Circle.

An exaggeration perhaps, but it’s a reminder that those in the business of buildings have long underperformed in regards to responsible energy use.

“As electricity consumption in buildings constitutes 90% of Hong Kong’s total electricity use, property developers can play a substantive role in reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions,” says Dr Raymond Yau, General Manager, Technical Services & Sustainable Development at Swire Properties. That consumption makes up a staggering almost two-thirds of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions according to figures from the Environment Bureau of the HKSAR Government.

Dr Raymond Yau, General Manager, Technical Services & Sustainable Development
at Swire Properties

Coming under China’s obligations in the Paris Agreement (which aims to limit global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius), Hong Kong has set its official target to cut carbon emissions by 26-36% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

And yet, progress has been poor.

Worrying numbers

A 2019 study by the Business Environment Council paints a bleak picture. It highlighted that electricity consumption in office buildings fell by almost 25% between 2002 and 2008 – but since then further reductions have flatlined. Residential consumption, while at lower levels, has barely changed since 2002.

Their estimates indicate that overall reductions will only reach 10-15% by 2030 without further intervention, well below the roughly 55% reduction (with 2005 as a baseline) that the BEC believes the sector could achieve.

The Low Carbon Charter, also an initiative of the BEC, launched in 2019 as a call-to-arms to those in the property and construction sector. Twenty-nine companies signed up under Pathway 1 of the Charter, which invites companies to work towards setting decarbonisation target(s) consistent with the direction of transitioning towards the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Buildings account for 90% of the city's electricity consumption

Admirable certainly, but only three businesses signed up to the more ambitious Pathway 2 which will require companies to set decarbonisation goals in line with climate science and the Science Based Targets initiative. Swire Properties was one of them (the others are Cundall Hong Kong Limited and Ronald Lu & Partners (Hong Kong) Limited), making it the first real estate company in Hong Kong and mainland China to do so.

Of course, “a charter alone will never be enough to achieve a sustainable future,” says Yau, who underlines their own sustainability strategy aims to position the company as the leading sustainable development performer in its industry globally by 2030.

Doing so means more than adjusting the air conditioning.

The nuts and bolts

Yau and his team approach the sustainable development of their real estate business across three aspects. Operation, construction and ‘green’ certification.

“Since 2001 we have adopted the best-in-class knowledge‐based energy management strategy, with a focus on data intelligence and research,” says Yau. New innovations on this front include a cloud-based smart energy management platform, which was launched in its INDIGO mall in Beijing in 2018.

“The energy management platform tracks energy use, efficiency and key performance indicators, while using data analytics to identify operational gaps and opportunities, and helping predict future energy use,” explains Yau.

Big data aside, physical elements of construction can’t be ignored. “We recognise the importance of managing carbon emissions arising from our construction activities, including the embodied carbon in construction materials used for our new developments. We work collaboratively with both internal and external parties to incorporate low carbon materials and technologies, as well as sustainable best practices into a building’s life cycle.”

Building better: Swire's One Taikoo Place
will feature 70,000 sq ft of open green space

One Taikoo Place (financed in part by Swire Properties’ first ever green bond issued in 2018) is the group’s latest landmark example of such policies.

After its completion in 2018, it became the first commercial building in Hong Kong to feature a bio-diesel tri-generation and adsorption system to supply heating, cooling and electricity – essentially a closed loop waste-to-energy system to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

On the green front, it features a dual-level roof fitted with a combined green roof and solar PV system. “The vegetation on the green roof will insulate the roof from the sun’s heat, reducing building energy use associated with cooling loads. It will also serve to cool the solar PV system above, increasing the system’s efficiency,” says Yau.

Efforts such as these have helped the group reduce its annual energy consumption in its Hong Kong portfolio by 56.9 million kWh at the end of 2018 compared to 2008 levels. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire electricity consumption of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

Looking ahead, 100% of its projects under development (excluding joint-venture projects) have achieved the highest green building certification ratings as of December 2018.

It’s a promising sign for a sector that has long favoured maximising profitability over environmental concerns. The threat of rising sea levels and other adverse effects of climate change should be particularly pertinent for encouraging more developers to move in this direction. After all, much of the city’s – and their – assets lie just above sea level.

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