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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.”

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