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July 19th, 2011:

Environment law that can’t ease ‘urban canyons’

South China Morning Post – 19 July 2011

The environmental impact assessment is not the magic bullet to solve the city’s woes. At best, it helps keep things from getting worse.

Many people pin so much hope on the law, critics say, that they forget how limited it is in solving our deep-seated environmental problems.

When the law was introduced in 1998, it was designed as a gatekeeper of big development projects – not a tool to promote green policies proactively, like the Air Pollution Control or Waste Disposal ordinances do.

Nor does it apply to all projects. Residential blocks – Hong Kong’s most common form of development – are exempt from the process unless the project has more than 2,000 flats and no sewage network linked to it.

The law is powerless to decide how buildings should be positioned, distanced or shaped, even though Hong Kong suffers from a unique “urban canyon effect”. That issue rests in the hands of the city’s planners and the appointed members of the Town Planning Board.

And the law stops at the border – at a time when major infrastructure projects involve cross-border co-operation. “All we do is to scrutinise if the environmental impacts are acceptable,” said Dr Man Chi-sum, of the Advisory Council on the Environment. “As to why a development is needed is not within the ambit of our power, we have no say at all.”

For instance, Man said, the council was barred from discussing whether Hong Kong needed one or two incinerators, or whether a particular site was superior to another one.

“Most often, the feasibility study of a project is not made public and this prevents people from voicing their views earlier,” said Roy Tam Hoi-pong, president of Green Sense.

Ultimately, a lack of power to question the necessity of a project was limiting the law from realising its goals, said Dr Ng Cho-nam, a veteran environmentalist who teaches environmental impact assessment at the University of Hong Kong.

“If you can’t avoid [a project], you try to reduce [its impact], say, by looking for other options or downsizing the project,” he said. “The last step is mitigation – adopting steps to minimise residual impacts. These principles are widely recognised, though not clearly stated in the law.”

Critics say the environmental protection department is not independent when vetting ecological impact assessments submitted by developers

South China Morning Post – 19 July 2011

Green activists like to joke that environmental impact assessments are “invincible”. They are compiled, tabled, commented upon – but never rejected.

The joke is not far off. Just seven EIAs have been turned down, compared with 162 approved, since the reports were mandated in 1998, according to the latest figures available on the Environmental Protection Department’s website.


Critics say that the biggest reason for this imbalance is that the EPD is not independent enough. It’s a branch of the government – the same government that, in many cases, is seeking an environmental ruling, or is the beneficiary of a positive decision. Since 1998, the government has been the biggest subscriber to the environmental impact assessment process. It filed 123 reports to the EPD for approval, compared with 73 submissions from the private sector, according to the Post’s analysis.

The biggest single client has been the Civil Engineering and Development Department – the government department responsible for new town development, reclamation projects and land formation – which requested 51 reports. Next came the Highways Department with 26 reports and the Drainage Services Department with 22 reports. The EPD itself submitted eight reports; all were approved.

Paul Lam Kwan-sing, a professor specialising in marine life, chairs the Advisory Council on the Environment, which must clear a project before the department approves it. He disagrees that the EIA process is just a rubber stamp. He said that only a few assessment reports were rejected because consultants had sought advice from various government departments as they compiled their reports.

However, he agreed that the system could be improved by forming a pool of international experts who would review the reports and advise council members on the shortcomings of the consultancy studies.

“I believe council members are very committed. But it is difficult for them to comment on technical issues without certain expertise,” Lam said.

An EPD spokesman said the EIA process was objective and transparent, requiring that issues raised by the public and the council were addressed before a decision could be made. But Mike Kilburn, of the think tank Civic Exchange, says there’s a problem, and it goes back six years, to when the top posts at the watchdog were taken over by policy bureau administrators.

“Up until 2005, the director was an environmental scientist, a career scientist who understood the ordinance and the science, but this is no longer the case,” Kilburn said. “The director no longer has his professional judgment as an environmental scientist to rely on.”

Kilburn said the merger blurred the roles of the director and led to conflicts of interest.

“The key role of the director is as a regulator. And when the role of a regulator is combined with the role of somebody whose job is to deliver policy outcome, he has a blurred distinction, which could possibly lead to a conflict of interest, particularly on government projects,” he said.

The problem doesn’t end there.

The consultants who write the EIA studies are hired by the people pushing for projects to be approved.

“The current EIA arrangement is for the project proponent to hire the consultant for the study, and this calls the consultant’s independency into question,” said Edwin Lau Che-feng, director of Friends of the Earth. Most of those consultants hail from a small group of large consulting firms, the Post found. The 196 studies compiled in the past 13 years were produced by approximately 30 firms. Just three of them – ERM Hong Kong, Maunsell Consultants Asia, and Ove Arup – accounted for about 35 per cent of the reports. The same three also accounted for a third of the studies commissioned by the government.

Most of the studies were large-scale projects like power infrastructure, site formation, and rail and road development.

There is no estimate as to how much these firms were paid, because the cost of a study usually depends on the scale of a particular development. The cost estimate is usually buried in the engineering feasibility budget.

While there is no evidence to suggest the consultants would distort their studies to suit their employers, some critics said these big players, with their long experience, can easily get around the EIA requirements with their technical expertise.

“They know well the technical tricks by adopting different modelling methods for their purposes,” said Roy Tam Hoi-pong, president of Green Sense.

Unlike doctors, lawyers or accountants, there are no professional bodies governing the consultants’ qualifications, standards, ethics and discipline. The closest equivalent is the Hong Kong Institute of Environmental Impact Assessment. But it is not a statutory body such as the Medical Council and has only loose control over its members.

Andy Brown, executive director of Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, said there was great room to improve the quality, accountability and professionalism of environmental consultants and transparency of the EIA.

“The EIA report should list all consultants involved, their credentials, exact role, time input, with time and date of surveys provided,” Brown told lawmakers in a recent meeting on the need for an EIA review. At present, reports present the name of the company but not the individuals involved, nor survey details.

Brown says too many studies appear to have been done on the cheap.

“The quality of some of the ecological surveys and assessment can be rather variable,” he said. “This is due to market competition forcing consultants to carry out ecological surveys at the lowest possible cost and in the shortest possible time. There is also the possibility of hiring people without the expertise and experience needed.”

He proposed that the EPD maintain a registry listing professional consultants’ training, expertise and experience.

An independent committee should be set up to provide scientific advice to the Advisory Council on the Environment in scrutinising EIA reports.

The last environmental impact assessment report rejected had nothing to do with Hong Kong. It was the Tonggu Channel dredging project, proposed by the Shenzhen port authority to enable the Shekou container cargo terminal to expand in May 2005. The project was pronounced dead by Keith Kwok Ka-keung, an administrative officer and then the department’s chief.

The rejection, based on the assessment report’s failure to adequately assess the environmental impact and risks to the Chinese white dolphin, came just two months after Dr Rob Law, an environmental scientist, chose to leave the top post after 24 years with the watchdog.

Law was remembered for rejecting the impact assessment of the Lok Ma Chau rail spur line project, which was originally designed to traverse the bird haven at Long Valley, in 2000. The project was proposed by the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, a public-funded body, and managed by a former top official, Yeung Kai-yin.

The current director of environmental protection, Anissa Wong Sean-yee, has not rejected a single one of the more than 70 assessment studies she has handled. A former administrative officer, she took over from Keith Kwok Ka-keung in 2006.

Green law has limited impact

Approval for major works is almost a foregone conclusion despite requirements of 1998 act

Cheung Chi-fai and Olga Wong
Updated on Jul 19, 2011

The Environmental Protection Department has rejected only seven out of 196 environmental impact assessment studies on major construction projects over the past 13 years, according to the latest figures available on its website – prompting critics to question the effectiveness of the law and call for reforms.

When Hong Kong introduced the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance in 1998 , it was hailed as the most important milestone in its environment policy. The ordinance makes it mandatory for major construction projects to go through a process of identifying potential damage to the environment, to engage in public consultation and undergo government experts’ scrutiny before construction can begin.

But the records for the past 13 years tell a different story. Since the law was introduced, the department has rejected seven assessment reports – less than four per cent of the cases it handled. Twenty-seven were withdrawn before the final process and a total of 162 applications were approved.

Details of the seven rejected reports are scarce, but the government is clearly the biggest beneficiary of the low rejection rate, as government projects account for roughly two-thirds of the 196 cases.

Because different countries have different systems to carry out environmental impact assessments, there is no directly comparable foreign experience. But most experts said the rate is “extremely low”.

Roy Tam Hoi-pong, president of Green Sense – a group advocating better urban planning – said the problem was inherent in the system, which takes environmental impacts into consideration only at the final stage of decision-making.

“The rejection rate is bound to be low under the existing set-up, in which [government] has already pre-determined a project to be necessary for development [before conducting the assessment]. The EIA process is almost the last step to make that happen. Unless they find there is a risk of massive damage to the environment, an impact study is rarely rejected,” said Tam.

Paul Lam Kwan-sing, chairman of the government’s Advisory Council on the Environment, disagreed.

He said only a few assessment reports were rejected because it was a long process and many issues raised during the assessment were addressed and revised in the final report.

Similarly, “few university theses are failed by examiners, as they have been continuously revised with advice given by professors”, Lam said.

However, he agreed the system could be improved and made more independent by inviting foreign experts to participate.

A spokesman for the Environment Protection Department said the EIA process was strictly governed by law, and stressed that the operation is objective and transparent.

Wildlife group warns of runway risks

Hong Kong Standard, Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A third runway may increase carbon emissions by 75 percent when flights connecting the SAR and 14 leading Asia Pacific destinations take off in 22 years, World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong has found.

It urges the Airport Authority to provide more analysis on the impact the third runway would have not only on the Chinese white dolphins but also on the recovery of the marine ecosystem.

“The authority seems able to quantify the potential benefits of the third runway but is strikingly reluctant to inform the public of its true environmental costs,” said Andy Cornish, director of conservation at WWF-Hong Kong.
The projection is based on factors including passenger numbers from published reports of airline trade associations and travel distance between Hong Kong and destinations such as Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Japan.William Yu Yuen-ping, head of the group’s climate program, estimates that with the third runway, emissions from flights connecting Chek Lap Kok to 14 destinations may jump 75.7 percent to 18.1 million tonnes in 2030, from 10.3 million tonnes in 2008.

The group also assumed that fuel efficiency will increase by about 20 percent from 2020 with the advancement in technology.

Yu said the emissions could at least double if long-haul flights are also calculated.

Cornish said members met with the authority on Thursday asking for more information on potential environmental impact but the authority declined their request.

WWF will today at the Legislative Council’s panel of economic development demand a halt to the consultation exercise.

A spokesman for the authority said it remains committed to completing the consultation on September 2 as scheduled.