Record emigration casts long shadow over Hong Kong’s sustainability community

Some say the sustainability scene has suffered real damage in the wake of a punitive security law and Covid-19 restrictions. Businesses are still putting faith in Hong Kong’s adaptability, even as it faces an ESG talent drought.

In 2022, Hong Kong lost 94,000 people from its working population, the biggest exodus since records began. Image: Airam Dato-on / Unsplash

Over the past year alone, Hong Kong has lost close to 100,000 people from its working population, the fastest rate of emigration since official records began nearly four decades ago.

Some Hongkongers, and the territory’s sizeable population of expatriates, have left to work in places including Taiwan, United States and United Kingdom because of Covid-19 restrictions that dragged on for a year after the rest of the world had returned to normal. 

There is now concern among sustainability professionals working in the financial centre, over whether the exodus and the underlying reasons that have led to their peers leaving will affect Hong Kong’s ability to tackle environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues and meet its key sustainability goals. 

Industry insiders, some speaking to Eco-Business under the condition of anonymity, also point to Hong Kong’s newly introduced curbs on political freedoms as a key trigger point driving people out of the territory. Hong Kong’s national security law (NSL), passed in 2020 in response to the biggest protests in the territory’s history against an extradition bill, gave the government sweeping powers to crush political dissent. 

One head of a local conservation outfit said the law has robbed non-government organisations of the ability to push back against the government, and has had very real implications for the city’s once-thriving NGO scene. 

The NGO representative said she has had to pivot to a new strategy of education and online engagement to sustain operations and drive impact for her cause. Her organisation has also shrunk to one individual – herself – as former colleagues have left the city.

“It’s a lot harder to hold the government to account for the decisions it makes that concern the environment – mass mobilisation and civil disobedience are now impossible,” she said.

The biggest issue is retention. Most corporates don’t have the salaries budget that the Big Four [professional services firms] have. So, we have to look at what else we can do to keep people here.

Senior business sustainability executive, speaking under the condition of anonymity

Gabriel Nam, partner, ESG, strategy and transformation for recruiter Michael Page International, and a Hongkonger, however, told Eco-Business that the sustainability talent pool in Hong Kong was already small, and the net impact of emigration will not be “substantial”.

Nam points to how other major financial centres like Singapore are similarly facing issues of ESG talent shortage, and plays down concerns that Hong Kong is facing a problem that is peculiar due to its circumstances. 

“Three years ago [about the time of peak civil unrest in Hong Kong], the sustainability sector was still building up. Back then, there was still a need to groom talent and invest in headcount,” he said.

Much ado about nothing?

Businesses that Eco-Business spoke to say they have been less affected by Hong Kong’s political situation than NGOs, and already faced an ESG talent crunch before the security law came into being.

Hendrik Rosenthal, director of group sustainability for Hong Kong-based multinational energy firm CLP, said it was too early to tell how severe the talent shortage just weeks after the territory removed all Covid-19 restrictions, on 1 March.

He noted that on a recent trip to the Philippines, some Covid-19 restrictions, such as mandatory mask-wearing on flights and the completion of a lengthy health-check form, are still in place, whereas Hong Kong has lifted all curbs. 

“Hong Kong’s ability to adapt to change quickly is what makes it such a great city,” he said.

Another senior business sustainability executive in Hong Kong said they believe the effect of the national security law on emigration is overblown and the talent situation may now be recovering.

Hong Kong continues to hold appeal as a gateway to mainland China for investment, and as long as that remains the case, there will be interesting opportunities for sustainability professionals wanting to make a difference in Hong Kong, they said.

China’s commitment to sustainability is another reason for sustainability professionals to stay in Hong Kong, with measures such as the mainland’s collaboration with the United Kingdom over biodiversity protection, and the Hong Kong’s stock exchange’s new carbon trading platform to support China’s pursuit of carbon neutrality by 2060.

Even so, Hong Kong’s talent drought is having an impact on businesses’ sustainability programmes in one way or another. Many companies will have to increase their salary budgets to lure sustainability talent.

Where there is an expertise gap, Hong Kong-based businesses will have to rely more on consultancies to get sustainability work done – and that drives up costs, another senior business sustainability executive said.

While consultancies help businesses plug a services gap, they also pose a threat to sustainability teams already short on manpower.

“The biggest issue is retention,” said the executive. “Most corporates don’t have the salaries budget that the Big Four [professional services firms] have. So, we have to look at what else we can do to keep people here.”

Setting up training academies to invest in the soft skills that sustainability teams need to wield influence in large corporates is one retention solution, they said.

Rosenthal commented that his company is exploring how technological solutions can do some of the heavy-lifting in pooling data for sustainability reports that could help work around the people shortage and elevate the strategic importance of existing roles.

An illustration of the Lantau Tomorrow Vision project

An illustration of a 1000-hectare project to create a new central business district on the island of Lantau, Hong Kong. Environmentalists worry about the environmental impact of the reclamation project. Image: Lantau Tomorrow Vision project

Truth to power

Some Hongkongers paint a very different picture of the population dynamics playing out in the city.

A long-time resident of Lamma Island, a 30-minute ferry journey from Hong Kong island, who also wanted to conceal her identity because of the recent arrest of a student who posted a pro-independence message on social media while overseas, told Eco-Business that she is leaving Hong Kong because she no longer feels safe speaking out about the decisions the government makes. 

She took part in the 2019 protests against the extradition bill and is moving to the UK, like the 100,000-plus Hongkongers who have moved to the former colonial power in the two years since British visas were made available for want-away citizens. 

“People say that to stay here, you have to be a quiet Hongkonger. But how are we now supposed to stop the government from making stupid decisions?” she said, referencing a plan to develop Lantau, the largest of Hong Kong’s islands, which is popular with hikers and nature-lovers.

Hong Kong’s HK$580 billion (US$74 billion) Lantau Tomorrow Vision will see three artificial islands created by reclaiming 1,000-hectares of ocean to build a new residential hub and establish a third central business district.

Environmentalists have worried about the loss of so much seabed to reclamation, and what this would mean for the territory’s already threatened corals and marine life, as well as the enormous carbon cost of the project.

Green groups rejected an invitation to a closed-door briefing about the project in February, because in their view the government’s environmental consultations have been prohibitively opaque.

A survey of public opinion of the project by environmental group Greenpeace, published last week, found that most Hongkongers were opposed to the project and do not believe it will bring the promised economic benefits.

“Greenpeace and other green groups have voiced their opposition to the project, but the government has ignored them,” said the Lamma resident, adding that Hong Kong’s media – once famously free compared to its neighbours – can no longer be trusted to hold the government to account.

“Hong Kong doesn’t have a newspaper anymore,” she said, scoffing at the suggestion that Alibaba-owned English-language title South China Morning Post still provided Hongkongers with fair, balanced news on Hong Kong and mainland Chinese politics. 

Pro-democracy titles Apple Daily and Stand News have closed and their editors been detained, developments that saw Hong Kong fall further than any other territory in the 2022 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, to 148th – below the Philippines, Cambodia and regional rival Singapore, which has been another major recipient of fleeing Hongkongers.

The Lamma resident doesn’t believe official data, and suspects that the real number of people leaving Hong Kong is much higher than the 94,000 government sources say left the territory in 2022. Since 2019, from a total population of 7.4 million, 220,500 workers have left, according to official figures.

“What is so hard to take is not so much the devastating crackdown [that followed the 2019 protests], it’s thinking about how Hong Kong and our environment will deteriorate in the coming years under this unchecked government,” she said.

Another Hongkonger who spoke to Eco-Business in Kowloon, who spent some time in jail for his part in the 2019 protests, said Hong Kong may seem the same to the casual visitor.

“Hong Kong still looks the same,” he said. “The difference is in the heads and hearts of Hongkongers who feel our city has been lost forever – and there’s little we can do about it.”

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