A systematic discourse analysis of the climate change policy in Hong Kong

Grant Data
Project Title
A systematic discourse analysis of the climate change policy in Hong Kong
Principal Investigator
Dr Lo, Alex Yu Hong   (Principal investigator)
Start Date
Completion Date
Conference Title
Presentation Title
Environmental policy, Policy discourse, Climate change, Stakeholder engagement, Environmental governance
Public Administration and Political Science
Block Grant Earmarked for Research (104)
HKU Project Code
Grant Type
Seed Fund for Basic Research
Funding Year
The proposed research will characterize the climate change policy discourse(s) of Hong Kong and assess the prospects for transition toward a market-based policy approach, i.e. emission trading. It will help ascertain what policy-relevant conditions Hong Kong is currently lacking and identify the barriers to institutional transition. Focusing on discourse, I will solicit evidence on the ways in which the policy issue is defined and re-interpreted by various stakeholder groups and delineate the structure of the ongoing policy discussions that pertain to the institutions for dealing with climate change. The study is guided by the following research questions: How climate change is understood and articulated as a policy issue in Hong Kong? Is the dominant policy discourse compatible with the concept of emission trading? Background Hong Kong’s per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions rose from 5.85 tonnes (CO2) in 1995 to 6.29 tonnes in 2012 (International Energy Agency, 2014). The steady increase in per capita emissions has met with lukewarm response from the current government of Hong Kong. A comprehensive climate change strategy was absent from the policy agenda until 2010, when the Hong Kong government, for the first time, dedicated a public consultation exercise to climate change (Environment Bureau, 2010). Strategies and measures proposed by the government include a target for reducing carbon intensity (i.e. CO2 emissions per unit of GDP) by 50-60% below the 2005 level by 2020, and a suite of energy initiatives for de-carbonizing the fuel mix, increasing energy efficiency, educating the public (Environment Bureau, 2010). However, the government has neither specified an absolute emission reduction target nor proposed any major institutional development. The policy proposal has faced criticisms for lacking substance and being incremental (Mah and Hills, forthcoming), perpetuating the administrative-rationalistic and technocratic approach for environmental policy-making prevalent in Hong Kong prior to 2000 (Hills, 2004). The institutional tradition in Hong Kong has contributed to the impasse. Local scholars have argued that Hong Kong’s environmental policy institutions are lacking transformative impulse (Hills, 2004). While moving slowing away from the traditional command-and-control paradigm, the policy system has not yet made further steps towards the potentially more feasible and effective ones, such as ecological modernization. The process of institutional transformation remains incomplete and uncertainties loom large. For the past three decades, the environmental policy-making process has been dominated by the discourse of ‘administrative rationalism’ (Hills, 2004), which emphasizes the role of experts and recognizes the importance of professional management by the state (Dryzek, 2005). After 1997, the post-colonial Hong Kong indicated signs of moving toward another policy approach (Hills, 2004), known as ‘ecological modernization’, which emphasizes the role of business and technological innovations. Yet the local political climate has turned bleak since 2003 and even worse after 2014 as the quest for further democratisation encountered significant constitutional hurdles. Citizens and the civil society have lost trust in the government and the private sector – especially property developers, severely undermining the basis for public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder governance that are required for ecological modernization to work. Current political and land-use disputes have eroded the already low level of trust between them. The policy environments for political and business leadership are deteriorating. The third problem-solving environmental policy discourse identified by Dryzek (2005) is called ‘economic rationalism’, which privileges the use of market-based instruments, such as emission trading. The concept of carbon emission trading is broadly consistent with the liberal political-economic tradition of Hong Kong. However, Hong Kong itself can only afford a small domestic carbon market for trading emission reductions, compromising market liquidity and the size of marginal savings. Market conditions aside, local policy-makers have failed to recognize the idea that environmental problems, including climate change, are a form of market failures and governments have a critical role to play in rectifying these failures (Mah and Hills, forthcoming). Transition toward the economic approach has stagnated. In the absence of better alternatives, the climate change institutions in Hong Kong have shown regrettable tendencies for returning to a ‘sectoral and technological approach’ (Francesch-Huidobro, 2012, p. 801). Prospects for institutional transformation have become uncertain. To identify the conditions for institutional transformation, we need a better understanding about the ways in which climate change is seen as a policy issue. Policy-makers and stakeholders (e.g. NGOs and business groups) in Hong Kong have all recognized the importance of mitigating GHG emissions, but each party has their own interests to address and they have not demonstrated strong capacity for cross-sectoral cooperation on policy development. This runs counter to global trends, where such groups have come together to form a powerful coalition that advocates international and regional emission trading (Meckling, 2011). Expected outcomes This study will record and present the multiple categories of stakeholder viewpoints and assumptions regarding climate change policy in Hong Kong. The outcomes will be used to delineate the climate change policy discourse of Hong Kong and how it deviates from the discourse of emission trading or its variants recently rising to the top of governments’ agenda. Findings can shed light on local climate change response in the context of international policy development. References: Dryzek, J.S., 2005. The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, New York. Environment Bureau, 2010. Hong Kong’s climate Change strategy and action agenda: Consultation document. Environmental Protection Department, Hong Kong. Francesch-Huidobro, M., 2012. Institutional deficit and lack of legitimacy: the challenges of climate change governance in Hong Kong. Environmental Politics 21, 791-810. Hills, P.R., 2004. Administrative rationalism, sustainable development and the politics of environmental discourse in Hong Kong, in: Mottershead, T. (Ed.), Sustainable Development in Hong Kong. Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong. International Energy Agency, 2014. CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion - 2014 Highlights. International Energy Agency, Paris. Mah, D.N.-y., Hills, P., forthcoming. An international review of local governance for climate change: implications for Hong Kong. Local Environment. Meckling, J., 2011. Carbon coalitions : business, climate politics, and the rise of emissions trading. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.