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July, 2011:

Hong Kong seeks CSI sleuths on mysteries

South China Morning Post – 25 July 2011

Where our school places and air quality study went

The American television show CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) has got to be one of the most successful franchises of all times with the original Las Vegas-based one giving rise to spin-offs in New York and Miami, all three having run for multiple seasons.

The formula is basically the same: bodies are found, painstaking detective work follows, perpetrators are identified. A link is sometimes found between what were initially thought to be unrelated crimes.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has many other successful shows under his belt. I thought of him when considering two major economic crimes in Hong Kong: the first is the disappearance of more than 4,300 places in international schools, and the second is the loss of our air quality objectives.

Let us set the scene for each.

Every international chamber of commerce in Hong Kong reports that the shortage of places in international schools is now a serious barrier to foreign companies investing in our city and creating in the process thousands of jobs for local people. The senior executives who would head the operations decline to move to Hong Kong until they can be assured that they can bring their families with them.

They soon find that landing a place for their children is incredibly difficult. Every good international school has a waiting list a mile long. The horror stories are endless: Macau schools advertising here so that either the children or the working parents have to engage in a daily or weekly commute; families basing themselves in Singapore with the main breadwinner working in Hong Kong and returning “home” only at weekends.

Some companies have even been forced to reconsider their entire business strategy and locate vital business units in other locations.

The government accepts that the situation is tight, but in recent articles and statements Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung and his officials said the occupancy of places in international schools was at 88 per cent. That is another way of saying that 12 per cent of the places are vacant.

According to the government, 48 international schools including those of the English Schools Foundation in Hong Kong provide 36,150 primary and secondary places. The 12 per cent vacancy rate suggests more than 4,300 of these places are still available, but no-one seems able to find them.

A mystery on this scale cries out for a top detective to investigate it. The CSI team should be able to get to the bottom of it. It is a similar story with air quality objectives. The present set were drawn up, literally, in another century when Hong Kong was still a refugee town with hundreds of thousands of people living in squatter huts.

But now we are one of the world’s most advanced and wealthy cities. We even call ourselves “Asia’s world city”. Yet the air we all breathe every day is absolutely filthy. The pollution is a serious health hazard and yet another disincentive for potential investors to set up here. Why would you base yourself in Hong Kong, where the air might kill you or your asthmatic child, when you can go somewhere else that might not be quite as good logistically, but at least you won’t need an oxygen mask to survive?

Some years back, the government commissioned the Arup Group to draw up more modern and appropriate air quality standards. This exercise was to be followed by drawing up an action programme to work towards achieving the new higher standards.

Arup apparently finished its work in 2009, but the resulting revised standards have disappeared. Rumour-mongers have suggested that publishing them would confirm publicly just how far away from decent modern standards we are and how many vested interests we would have to upset to achieve them. Perish the thought!

Another one for the laboratory sleuths. How about it, Jerry? Could you find time for a fourth version of CSI? Hong Kong needs your help.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Green Groups Joint Statement Urging Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) to acknowledge the environmental impact of the third runway project,%207,%2028,%20152,%204590,%204754

Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) recently announced the Hong Kong International Airport Master Plan 2030 (Master Plan 2030), where two options were proposed. Option 1 is to maintain the existing two-runway system, and Option 2 is to expand into a three-runway system. Green Groups including the Conservancy Association, Green Peace, Green Sense, Friends of the Earth (HK), Clean Air Network, Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society (HKDCS) and Greeners Action have jointly declared:

We are disappointed with AAHK’s lack of neutrality during its public consultation. A large amount of resources were used to promote the need for the third runway. We find it unacceptable that the AAHK deliberately trivializes the impact of the third runway on Chinese White Dolphins by altering the distribution map of Chinese White Dolphins published by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department without authorization.

A large part of the Hong Kong ocean would be permanently gone if the proposal were carried out, since the three-runway system would require about 650 hectares of land reclamation. Dolphin expert, Dr. Samuel Hung, pointed out that the proposed third runway is located at the intersection of three core areas visited by dolphins which is very important to them. The proposed adoption of environmentally-friendly reclamation methods is not going to help much when such great damage is done to the marine ecology.

The aviation industry is a polluting industry which emits large amounts of carbon dioxide and air pollutants as part of its operation. The industry accounts for around 4% of Hong Kong’s total carbon emissions. For carbon dioxide that is emitted at high altitudes, the resultant greenhouse effect caused is much greater than that emitted at ground level. However, AAHK spared no paragraphs on explaining the projected increase in carbon emissions in the consultation documents.

Polluting facilities like power plants already exist in North Lantau and Tuen Mun. More projects are being planned in the area as well, such as the HK-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, waste incinerators, Tung Chung Extension Reclamation, Hong Kong-Shenzhen Airport Railway etc. We believe that these infrastructure projects are over-concentrated, and the total reclamation will take up an extremely large footprint and will seriously worsen air pollution.

We stress that building the third runway requires much more discussion and research as it not only involves environmental issues but also issues on airspace constraints, noise pollution, construction cost, demand forecast, cooperation with Pearl River Delta airports etc. To avoid wasting 136.3 billion of taxpayers’ money, the Government and AAHK should not make a hasty decision which may create a “Big white elephant”.

Green Groups call on the AAHK to:
(1) Stop trivializing the environmental impact of the third runway. Face and admit the enormous impact the third runway has on the environment
(2) Extend the public consultation period and present more relevant data on impacts on the environment, public health and ecology
(3) Maintain neutrality when promoting and consulting the public on the proposal. Avoid over-emphasizing the economic impact/benefits of the third runway
(4) Handle environmental issues properly even before the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment(EIA) process

To enhance public understanding on the environmental impact of the third runway, the following website has been set up to explain the stance and arguments of green groups.

Independent look at runway urged

Hong Kong Standard — 22 July 2011

About seven out of 10 those polled by the Civic Party want an independent consultant to evaluate the economic impact of the proposed third airport runway.

About seven out of 10 those polled by the Civic Party want an independent consultant to evaluate the economic impact of the proposed third airport runway.

The party conducted a telephone survey involving 1,365 respondents from June 20 to June 27.

It found that 67 percent agree the Legislative Council should employ an independent consultant to review the accuracy of financial data provided by the Airport Authority.

In its consultation document, the authority estimates that, with the additional runway, economic benefits will reach HK$912 billion in 2009 dollars over a 50-year period from 2012 to 2061, compared with HK$432 billion if the current two-runway system is simply modified.

It claims the model used to estimate the economic benefits of a third runway is widely adopted in the United States.

Party vice chairman Albert Lai Kwong- tak said the criteria used fails to take environmental costs into account and he presented the poll results yesterday to back up party claims.

The poll also found 68 percent agree the government should conduct an environmental assessment of the runway and recommend compensatory measures.

Lai said the strategic environmental assessment should also include the impact of other projects such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai- Macau Bridge and reclamation of surrounding neighborhoods, in particular Tung Chung, Ma Wan and Tuen Mun.

Party member and legislator Tanya Chan Suk-chong said conflicting roles should be avoided as the authority “can’t be the player and referee at the same time.”

Chan said: “The Transport and Housing Bureau should take over the public consultation to show credibility.” Other departments should also be involved, including the Environment Bureau.

Lai reiterated that the party is not opposed to a third runway but information is insufficient to assist a public consultation.

Consider all costs of a third runway

South China Morning Post — 22 July 2011

WWF is not opposed to the sustainable development of Hong Kong. Any questioning of the assumptions and contentions in the Airport Authority’s expensive propaganda campaign supporting the third runway should not be construed as being anti-development.

The information offered by the authority is seriously lacking in specifics about the environmental impacts and the resultant costs. Major infrastructure projects must include an element of the social costs.

The people of Hong Kong are being asked to support an investment of HK$136 billion for a project with too few specifics provided. Our business community would not give a go-ahead on an investment of a lesser magnitude with such limited information.

WWF has expressed our concern about the impact of this huge loss of habitat on the very survival of the Chinese white dolphin. In discussions with WWF, the authority has recognised it is encroaching on the species’ habitat but is at a loss about what to do. WWF has expressed considerable concern about the impact of the ongoing loss of fishery grounds for our fishing community. Nothing is forthcoming on this social and economic cost to our community.

In a meeting with the authority we were astounded that it was unable to provide information on the increase in greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the increased traffic using the runaway. We were informed no such calculation has been undertaken because of the complexity of types of aircraft and predicted fuel efficiencies.

This assertion raises the question: How is the authority able to quantify the economic benefits to Hong Kong using traffic data to support its arguments, yet is incapable of calculating the greenhouse gas emissions?

This is a runway long on promises but woefully short on specifics.

WWF calls for the consultation process to be halted until after this crucial information is provided to the public. Then and only then can a reasoned decision be made.

Eric Bohm, CEO, WWF-Hong Kong

Impact assessment in need of review

South China Morning Post – 22 July 2011

Striking a balance between the needs for development and environmental protection is not easy. In a city where development is synonymous with progress, conservation has always been a difficult course to champion, until a law was put in place to mandate all projects to undergo green impact studies 13 years ago. Over the years, the mechanism is thought to have been working well, until recently when there have been growing signs that a fundamental review is necessary.

Green activists often joked that the environmental impact assessment reports are “invincible” in that they are compiled, tabled, discussed but never rejected. If there is any truth in it, it is hardly a joke. A news report in this paper has rung the alarm bell that the director of environmental protection has only rejected seven – or less than 4 per cent – of the 196 cases handled since 1998. Critics may find this hardly surprising, as the majority of them are government projects which appear to be just rubber stamped as a matter of formality.

The head of the Advisory Council on the Environment, which helps scrutinise the assessment reports, argues that most studies have been endorsed because the concerns raised during the process had been addressed in the final report. It will be less worrying if this is the case. But the expert also agrees to the need for more international experts to help, saying fellow members find it difficult to comment on technical issues. The suggestion, coming from someone with first-hand experience, is worth considering further.

The activists have also rightly challenged if the director has the professional knowledge in approving the studies. Unlike the previous one who was an environmental scientist, a top bureaucrat also acts as the director, raising doubts if she has the expertise in discharging the power under the law.

Concerns over the independence and professionalism of the consultants commissioned by the developers should also be taken seriously. More than one-third of the 196 studies were done by one of the three key consultancy groups in the market. While there is no evidence to suggest they are paid to distort the studies to suit their clients’ need, the lack of an independent panel to monitor their qualifications would inevitably undermine confidence in their work.

Sadly, officials are still dodging a review pending a court appeal over the bridge project across the Pearl River Delta. The judge has ruled that the director of environmental protection had no power to approve the impact assessment reports in the absence of separate analysis of likely environmental conditions if the projects were not built. While the appeal is now a matter for the court to decide, there is no reason why the public should stop debating other perceived inadequacies in the mechanism.

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

Download PDF : Permanent Secretary for the Environment

Roadside Air Pollution in Hong Kong : Why is it still so bad ?

Download PDF : 110706RoadsideAir_en

UK lawyer seeks Asian plaintiffs for cartel case

South China Morning Post – 21 July 2011

Few firms from region act over airfreight price-fixing by airlines including Cathay Pacific

A partner in a London law firm will arrive in Beijing this weekend to start an Asian visit that aims to encourage cargo owners to seek compensation from airlines involved in a price-fixing cartel.

Anthony Maton, of Hausfeld LLP, said more than 300 firms, which paid at least US$3 billion in airfreight charges to 37 airlines including Cathay Pacific (SEHK: 0293), had so far signed up, but most were Western companies.

The Hausfeld action, expected to go to trial in London next year, is one of four compensation cases being brought globally against around 50 airlines over fuel surcharges on cargo between 2000 and 2006. Criminal prosecutions are taking place in six jurisdictions. Cathay Pacific has so far been fined US$145 million. It is appealing against some judgments.

Maton says there are various reasons firms in China, South Korea or Japan might not have acted: they may not understand that they can file a claim in London, some staff may be in denial and managers may be reluctant to admit being overcharged.

“You’ve got some instances of people who are reluctant to believe they have been stuffed,” Maton said. “Undeniably, Asian companies suffered losses as a result of the cartel.”

Putting the cart before the horse

South China Morning Post — 21 July 2011

As the Airport Authority’s campaign for a third runway at Hong Kong International Airport moves into high gear, it feels increasingly like the cart is being put before the horse. Promotional videos and materials are being churned out and the government’s three-month consultation is under way, with its focus on increasing capacity. Of course, the tens of billions of dollars involved dictate that every possible aspect has to be publicly examined and that there is a thorough debate. However, it ignores the fundamental point that increased capacity, allowing for vastly more aircraft to fly in and out, will not be fully utilised unless there is hard-and-fast agreement on flight paths with Shenzhen and Macau.

It is all a matter of airspace. As the authority pointed out in its technical report, fully realising the potential capacity gain of another runway requires redesigning flight paths over the Pearl River Delta region. Hong Kong would need “a northern circuit, long final approach tracks and independent arrival procedures”. As yet, despite three years of bargaining, no deal to allow these has been signed.

Civil Aviation Department officials are nonetheless positive. They say that consensus was recently reached, although they admit that nothing formal has yet been agreed. With all airports in the region competing for rapidly expanding business and jealous of what they have and eager for more, a signed-and-sealed deal is essential. Without it there can be no certainties or guarantees.

The authority has yet to reveal its budget for the campaign, and how much the consultation will cost taxpayers is equally uncertain. Both were rolled out with next to no public discussion. That they were launched without there even being certainty about whether there is a possibility that substantially more planes will be able to fly into Hong Kong seems, in the circumstances, presumptive. If public funds are not to be wasted, we should be handling such matters in the correct order – which, common sense would say, is to get airspace approvals first.

Ban on idling engines delayed

South China Morning Post – 21 July 2011

Legco panel accuses officials of a ‘breach of trust’ after department informs lawmakers of a three-month postponement in long-awaited legislation

A Legco panel has accused environmental officials of “cheating” by postponing for three months the law meant to ban idling engines.

Adding to lawmakers’ anger, a one-month grace period will be granted to offenders after the law takes effect on December 15 – three months after its intended implementation date and 10 months after the legislation was passed.

Carlson Chan Ka-shun, the deputy director of environmental protection, told Legco’s environment affairs panel that the ban had been delayed out of consideration for drivers in the hot weather, who tend to leave their engines running to power a vehicle’s air-conditioning system.

“My understanding all along is that everyone was hoping that the law would not take effect during the hottest days of the year,” Chan said. September was still part of the city’s hottest season.

He said the Environmental Protection Department also needed time to finalise technical details, such as the format of the penalty notice, and to include these in subsidiary legislation which Legco would be able to pass only after it resumes sittings in September.

Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, the panel’s deputy chairwoman, said she was dissatisfied with the delay, saying that “the government has always cheated. [The delay] has damaged our mutual trust”.

She said the legislation could instead have been introduced “in mid- or late October when it gets cooler.”

She criticised the government for failing to present the draft regulations yesterday, as it had promised to do when lobbying lawmakers to pass the law in March.

Democrat Kam Nai-wai said he doubted whether the ban could be executed in December, given that officials had shown little progress in arranging publicity and training staff.

Chan replied that 18 police officers and one environmental inspector had been assigned to prepare the work and that they would receive training in September.

The law, which has 20 exemptions, was passed in early March after 10 years of debate over the desirability of such a policy.

After negotiations with the transport industry had been completed, the result represented a much toned-down version of a proposal made by the government in 2007. The original ban offered no grace period, no exemption on bad-weather days, and excluded only the first two taxis and minibuses waiting at a rank.

Changes were introduced in 2009 to exempt more taxis and minibuses, and to cover buses with at least one passenger on board. A three-minute grace period was also introduced. The ban will be suspended on any day when the Observatory issues warnings for storms or very hot weather. The ban will apply to all roads in Hong Kong. Drivers caught parked with their engines running will be fined HK$320.

Thomas Choi Ka-man, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth, said he was disappointed. “The ban has been so much watered down and now it’s further delayed. I wonder how determined the government is in executing its policy.”

Choi said it would be more helpful to enforcement officers if the ban was launched in summer along with the one-month trial period, as hot days should be the time when most disputes arose over its implementation.

Man Chi-sum, of Green Power, said the delay was a political consideration to avoid strong reaction from the transport industry but was at the expense of pedestrians, street vendors and workers.