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October, 2014:

Urban light pollution: why we’re all living with permanent ‘mini jetlag’

Studies show that exposure to light after dusk is quite literally unnatural, and may be detrimental to health. Do we need 24/7 garages, supermarkets and TV – or should the city that never sleeps be put to bed?


Astronomer Dr Jason Pun of the Hong Kong University department of physics has been studying light pollution for nearly a decade. He says people often ask him if he’s crazy. “‘Hong Kong is supposed to be bright,’ they say. ‘Why are you even talking about light being some kind of pollution?’”

This is a city that is famous for its nightscape: neon signs advertising market stalls, pawn shops and steakhouses; illuminated skyscrapers; swanky malls that stay open – and stay lit – well into the night. “When I walk at night around some of these commercial centres, it’s so bright you almost want to wear your sunglasses,” Pun says.

Indeed, in our collective imaginations, cities are meant to be bright. But as studies begin to show that too much light can be detrimental to health, and fewer of us are able to see the stars when we look up, are cities getting too bright for our own good?

Hong Kong isn’t alone in celebrating light. Paris is still known as the City of Light; only slightly less glamorous Blackpool relies for tourism on its annual illuminations, when more than 1 million bulbs light a distance of 10km.

This celebration of artificial lighting is perhaps unsurprising, given how recently electric streetlights became the norm. It’s easy to forget that being bathed in light is a relatively modern phenomenon. Although electric streetlights first began appearing in European capitals in the mid-1800s, widespread street lighting did not become common until well into the 20th century.

It soon became a clear view of the night sky that was uncommon. Hong Kong is now often touted as the most light polluted city in the world – a view supported by a recent study from Pun and his department, Hong Kong Night Sky Brightness Monitoring Network (NSN), which measured so-called “night sky brightness”.

“We set up about 18 stations around the city, in all sorts of living environments – from the commercial urban centre, to more residential neighbourhoods, to relatively rural areas,” he explains. Then they compared the levels of light to the standard provided by the International Astronomical Union, which states how bright the sky would be without artificial light. In the most-lit areas, it was 1,000 times brighter.

“Similar studies in major capitals like Berlin and Vienna,” says Pun, “would find something more of the order of 100 to 200 times brighter.”

Europe at night from Space. Photograph: SPL/Barcroft Media

Europe at night from Space. Photograph: SPL/Barcroft Media

But with light pollution studies still in their infancy, and without any strict international standards on how to quantify the extent of light pollution, it’s hard to say for sure whether Hong Kong is the most light-polluted city. Other candidates that are often cited by those with the best view – astronauts – include Las Vegas, Tokyo, Seoul and New York.

And Hong Kong, like in many cities around the world, is proud of its illuminated city. “The brighter the better,” Pun explains, mimicking a chirpy toothpaste ad. “Brighter means more prosperous. We have a nickname for Hong Kong: the Pearl of the Orient. So I suppose a lot of people take this actually as a badge of pride without rethinking what all this brightness means.”

That can include health problems. “There’s a cascade of changes to our physiology that are associated with light exposure at night,” says Steven Lockley, a neuroscientist and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He has looked at the impact of light on human physiology, including on alertness, sleep, and melatonin levels.

Because humans evolved in a 24-hour light/dark cycle known as the circadian clock, any light after dusk is “unnatural”, Lockley says. When we are exposed to light after dusk, “our daytime physiology is triggered and our brains become more alert, our heart rates go up, as does our temperature, and production of the hormone melatonin is suppressed”.

Has the way city dwellers live, removed from natural light patterns, confused our bodies? “Not so much confused as shifted: we’ve been shifted later,” Lockley says. “What happens when people go camping? If you don’t have sources of electric light, then you go to bed earlier, shortly after the sun’s gone down, and you sleep for longer.” Every day we don’t go to bed at dusk, we experience what Lockley calls “mini jetlag”.

His colleague, Ken Wright at the University of Colorado in Boulder, conducted an experiment on camping. Wright found that for campers, midnight was the middle of the night: living in brightly lit cities has artificially lengthened our days. “We go to bed later, we don’t sleep as long, and we don’t know of the long-term health impact of changing,” he says.

Las Vegas at night. Photograph: Corbis

Las Vegas at night. Photograph: Corbis

There have been studies about how changes in circadian rhythms – which may be explained by exposure to light at night – can have an impact on humans. Studies of shiftworkers found that circadian disruption is “probably carcinogenic to humans”; female nightworkers, for instance, were found to have a higher risk of breast cancer than women who do not work at night.

“As a society we need to think, do we really need some of these amenities that are putting light pollution into the environment?” Lockley says. “Do we need 24/7 garages, do we need 24/7 supermarkets, do we need 24/7 TV? It was only in 1997 that the BBC turned off and there was the national anthem and we all went to bed.”

The International Dark Sky Association is an organisation of astronomers that aims to teach how to preserve the night sky. Member Scott Kardel says he believes in balance: “While we need certain amounts of light at night for safety, commerce and more, we also need to be more careful about how much light we use, where we use it and for how long.”

But at a more abstract level, Kardel also believes that “having bright skies takes something away from us. All of our ancestors had star-filled skies that inspired countless people in art, literature, religion, science and philosophy.”

It might not be plausible to put the metropolis to bed at dusk, but cities can mitigate some of the worst light pollution. “Proper outdoor lighting,” says Kardel, “conserves energy, reduces glare” and cuts back on so-called light trespass, for example when your neighbour’s bedroom light bleeds into your sitting room.

Pun also suggests limiting the number of light installations and their hours of operation, and controlling the distance between lights and living environments. “It’s a particularly big problem in Hong Kong because it’s a very densely populated city,” he says. Any change, he also points out, would have to be a community effort that involves not just business but government.

“While a great many cities do have laws about light pollution or light trespass, they are still in the minority,” Kardel says. “The number of cities adopting light pollution regulations is growing, but they mostly seem to be appearing in smaller towns where the problem isn’t as great as it is in the larger cities.”

The Empire State Building is seen lit up before Earth Hour in New York, during which lights were turned off for one hour to show support for renewable energy. Photograph: Eric Thayer/Reuters

The Empire State Building is seen lit up before Earth Hour in New York, during which lights were turned off for one hour to show support for renewable energy. Photograph: Eric Thayer/Reuters

Los Angeles, however, is one megacity that has been trying to scrape back some of its nighttime darkness. Not long ago a sprawl of apricot-coloured street lights, LA has since undergone one of the largest LED streetlight replacement projects in the world. LEDs are proving a popular choice for cities wanting to save on lighting costs: they are being rolled out in New York, Copenhagen and Shanghai.

They’re not a panacea. “LEDs offer promise and peril,” Kardel says. “They tend to be very directional in nature, which makes it easier to direct light where it is needed. And they are much better suited than older lighting technologies for integrating with dimming or motion-sensing technologies.” But most energy-efficient LEDs contain a significant amount of blue in their spectrum. “And blue disproportionately brightens the night sky.”

Lockley thinks LEDS are the “problem, but also the solution: they allow much more sophisticated lighting systems.” The blueness can be fixed, he says. “It is possible to create LED light with multiple colours – you can alter the colours for the right time of day and the right application.”

“We might not quite be at the point where cities are putting in those types of tuneable street lamps,” he adds. But many communities in the UK have either adopted or trialled “part night lighting”, switching off the lights where they’re not needed or lowering illumination levels for part of the night. Motion-sensing technologies are being tested in the Netherlands and Ireland.

At the centre of this shift is a change in the attitudes of city residents and their governments. In Hong Kong, until only a few years ago the government avoided even using the term “light pollution”, says Pun. “They wouldn’t even admit such a thing exists. If you call it something else, like ‘light nuisance’, then I guess it will make life a little easier. Even though it seems like a gloomy situation, no pun intended, I do see a change of mindset.”

So what about Hong Kong’s brand – built at least in part on its reputation as a metropolis literally buzzing with electricity? “About 100 years ago in London, we’d be talking about all this soot from the factories nearby, and the poor air quality of the city,” Pun says. “And we move on.”

Tips for reducing your light pollution

• It’s an obvious one, but switch off any lights you are not using.
• Ensure indoor and outdoor lighting is directed at what you’re trying to light and that it’s shaded. Table and floor lamps are better for this than overhead lights.
• Use low-watt lightbulbs – you’ll save on bills and reduce glare.
• Install dimmer switches so you can alter brightness to suit ambient light.
• Use motion sensors or timers so outdoor lights are only on when they need to be.
• Install thick curtains or blinds to minimise light escaping your home at night.
• Ask your local councillor to get street lamps fitted with directional, low energy lights – after all, residential areas don’t need to be lit up like football pitches 24 hours a day.

DEFRA cancels PFI support for Hatfield incinerator

Simon Inglethorpe

20 October 2014

DEFRA has withdrawn £115m of private finance initiative (PFI) support from Hertfordshire County Council’s residual waste infrastructure project.

Veolia is proposing to build a 380,000-tonne capacity energy-from-waste (EfW) plant near Hatfield as part of an £800m, 25-year contract with the council.

The waste management giant said it was “very disappointed” by the news.

“This shortsighted decision will increase the UK’s reliance on landfill to treat our residual waste,” a spokeswoman said. “Veolia believe that DEFRA’s decision points to a lack of government support for new waste infrastructure and fails to address the 17 million tonnes of waste that currently goes to landfill.”

State support for the proposed EfW plant is not warranted, DEFRA claims, because the treatment capacity it would provide is no longer needed to meet landfill diversion targets.

A spokeswoman for the department said: “DEFRA’s responsibility is to ensure public money is used appropriately and as we expect to meet EU landfill diversion targets with the existing infrastructure we now have in place in England, we cannot justify continuing to fund this project.”

DEFRA justified its decision by releasing an updated forecast of waste arisings and treatment capacity prior to the announcement.

Member states need to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill to 35% of 1995 levels by 2020 under the EU Landfill Directive.

But there is now a 99.9% likelihood this target will be met without the Hertfordshire EfW project, according to DEFRA’s latest forecast. The department now predicts that the EU target will be exceeded by about 6.6 million tonnes by 2020 without the project’s contribution.

Other independent forecasts broadly corroborate this prediction, it claims.

“Although conclusions vary regarding infrastructure requirements in general, there appears to be a consensus of results showing sufficient capacity to meet the requirements of the 2020 landfill target,” says DEFRA.

Recent infrastructure capacity reports by the Green Investment Bank, Veolia and Sita and are all consistent with the government’s latest forecast, in the department’s view. This is surprising given that Veolia’s report is highly critical of the “dangerous” assumptions used in DEFRA waste forecasting.

Criticisms of the withdrawal of PFI credits by trade body the Environmental Services Association (ESA) echo Veolia’s concerns.

Its economist, Jacob Hayler, said it was a “wrong” and “short-sighted” decision that would increase the UK’s reliance on landfill and exports of refuse-derived fuel.

Hayler also accused the government of changing its waste composition assumptions to make the landfill diversion target easier to meet. DEFRA’s latest forecast assumes a much lower biodegradable content for waste (50%) compared with the figure used in its previous capacity forecast in October 2013 (65%).

Mounting project woes

The cancellation of government PFI support adds to the difficulties facing the controversial Hertfordshire project.

Communities and local government (DCLG) secretary Eric Pickles blocked Veolia’s application to build an EfW plant on a 12.6-hectare site south of Hatfield over the summer.

Veolia reacted to the planning refusal by launching a legal challenge and has pledged to continue this fight.

A spokeswoman said: “The decision has not affected Veolia’s belief that an in-county treatment solution for Hertfordshire is needed, and Veolia will continue with our legal challenge to the secretary of state’s refusal to give planning permission for the recycling and energy recovery facility at New Barnfield, due to be heard in December.”

The government has withdrawn £1.3bn in PFI support from a total of 12 waste infrastructure projects so far this parliament.

The latest cancellation comes less than a year after the axing of £91m in PFI support for Norfolk County Council’s EfW project.

This followed the removal of £217m in PFI support to three projects in 2013 and the 2010 scrapping of £926m of PFI support for seven projects.

Despite the cutbacks, DEFRA will spend £100m – nearly 80% of its waste and resource budget – on PFI projects in 2014/15.

MPs attacked the government’s “appalling” management of PFI support for waste infrastructure in a report last month

Government seeks to end waste site construction on green belt

17 Oct 2014

Conor McGlone

Developers will find it more difficult to get planning consent to build waste facilities in the green belt under new government rules.

In an update to the national planning policy for waste, published on 16 October, the government said companies and councils looking to develop facilities will have to look for suitable sites on brownfield land before exploring other options.

Responses to a consultation on waste policy, which ran from July, were released on the same day, confirming that planning permission to develop waste facilities on green belt land would only be approved under “very special circumstances”.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles said these measures would ensure the green belt could continue to offer a “strong defence” against urban sprawl in towns and cities, and would “bring waste into line with the policies on other development”.

The new rules also mean that councils can no longer give special consideration to needs based on location or the wider economic benefits of a potential site, over other considerations as justification for building waste facilities on green belt land.

The update follows the release of statistics from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) showing that green belt land, which makes up 13% of England’s land area, declined by 0.03% last year.

Total green belt land fell by 540 hectares to a total of 1.6 million hectares in 2013/14. Three local authorities – Rochford, South Gloucestershire and West Lancashire – reduced the size of their green belt land last year.

Planning guidance on housing, published on 6 October, stated that green belt boundaries should only be changed in “exceptional cases” and any unmet housing need would not justify the harm done to the green belt by “inappropriate development”.

Concerns over “inflexible” policy

While the policy states that planning authorities should consider “any adverse effect on a site of international importance for nature conservation” and any waste facilities should operate without “harming the environment”, some environmental groups have voiced concerns over the government’s appetite for brownfield development.

Earlier this month, the Land Trust and Buglife argued that a large number of brownfield sites are not suitable for development due to their value to society and the environment as public open spaces.

In addition, three quarters of respondents to the government’s consultation said its updated policy on waste was “not flexible enough” and would have “a negative impact” on the industry.

According to a report from the Green Investment Bank published in July, the UK needs to invest an extra £5bn into waste infrastructure in order to close the residual waste capacity gap over the next six years (

That is equivalent to building ten EfW plants a year for the rest of the decade at a capital cost of £750 per tonne.

It was also felt that applications for new anaerobic digestion and composting plants could be blocked under the rules, despite being better suited to rural locations that are closer to their feedstocks.

Respondents were also concerned that the change in policy approach could lead to facilities being located further from waste arisings, leading to higher carbon emissions from transportation.

Despite this, the government confirmed it would push on with hardening planning rules because it attached “great importance to the protection of the green belt

Hills Selects Chinook Sciences for 22 MW Waste to Energy Gasification Plans in Wiltshire, UK

17 October 2014

Ben Messenger

Northacre Renewable Energy (NRE), part of waste and recycling firm, The Hills Group, is proposing to submit a planning application to build a 22 MW waste to energy gasification facility at the Northacre Industrial Park in Wiltshire.

The proposed site is located between Hills Waste Solutions’ existing Northacre Resource Recovery Centre (NRRC) and Arla Foods Westbury Dairies at on the industrial park in Westbury.

The facility would use gasification technology to generate electricity. The company said that discussions with local businesses that are interested in being supplied with local heat and power from Northacre Renewable Energy are ongoing.

Nottingham, UK based waste gasification and clean technology firm, Chinook Sciences, has been selected by Hills as the technology partner for the proposed waste gasification plant.

If the facility goes ahead it will process 160,000 tonnes of high calorific content Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF) Hills’ NRRC, as well as local Commercial and Industrial (C&I) waste  to generate 22 MW. Some of power generated will be used by the waste to energy facility and the adjoining NRRC material recycling facility.

Hills explained that currently the SRF from the NRRC is transported by road to port and shipped to energy facilities located in Germany and Holland because there is not a local waste to energy plant in Wiltshire.

The company said that Northacre Renewable Energy will help fill the gap in the renewable energy market and enable locally produced fuel to be used to generate local energy which supports the concept of regional energy security.

Northacre Renewable Energy will also create 40 new jobs and support Wiltshire’s aspiration for a green economy.

The plan is for Northacre Renewable Energy (NRE) to also provide electricity and potentially heat to adjacent businesses on the Northacre Industrial Park, and to export the surplus electricity to the National Grid.

“We are creating a local circular economy,” commented Northacre Renewable Energy director, Mike Webster commented.

“Wiltshire’s household waste is made into a SRF at Northacre RRC and together with commercial and industrial waste destined for landfill will supply the proposed Northacre Renewable Energy facility right next door which will in turn power local businesses,” he added.


According to Chinook, its RODECS® gasification system, now in its ninth design generation, uses the company’s patented Active Pyrolysis® process to reclaim valuables and transform discarded waste materials into energy.

By combining both pyrolysis and gasification the system is claimed to be capable of processing any form of organic waste, recovering metals and other recyclable materials, and producing a clean synthetic gas (syngas) for energy generation.

The proprietary process is also claimed to not require any form of pre-sorting or pre-processing.

The first RODECS system was commissioned in 2000 and had a batch capacity of 2m3. The company noted that it is still in full operational today. The current generation is said to have a batch capacity of over 100m3 and is capable of processing 100,000 tonnes of MSW per year.

According to Chinook, Hills conducted an extensive two yearlong selection process, using a firm of independent engineers to assess a range of conventional and Advanced Thermal Treatment technologies, before selecting its technology.

Planning process

The planning application process began recently with the launch of a consultation programme. The site has been identified in the Wiltshire and Swindon Waste Site Allocations Plan 2013 as a site suitable for a ‘Materials Recovery Facility, Waste Transfer Station, Local Recycling and Waste Treatment’.

Hills said that an eight week period of pre-planning consultation to seek views on the proposal to develop the Northacre Renewable Energy facility has now begun, with a public exhibition planned for the 4 November from 2pm to 8pm at Northacre RRC.

The company added that at this early stage in the development local businesses, community leaders and residents are being consulted.

Northacre Renewable Energy is aiming to submit its planning application to Wiltshire Council in December 2014. Subject to planning, Northacre Renewable Energy would then be built in 2015/2016 with the facility fully operational in 2017.

Protesters who blocked roads also cleared Hong Kong’s polluted air

09 October, 2014

SCMP Editorial

Heavy roadside pollution is bad for health – of that there is no dispute. The exhaust fumes from vehicles, especially the decades-old diesel buses and trucks common on Hong Kong streets, irritate eyes and skin, exacerbate respiratory problems and, with long-term exposure, can lead to lung cancer and heart disease. Despite the risks, authorities have largely implemented voluntary schemes rather than legislation to improve air quality, leading to little noticeable change and continued risks. An unexpected result of the democracy protests was to give a glimpse of what could be expected were the government to adopt a resolute approach.

Student sit-ins closed our busiest streets to traffic, causing the rerouting or cancellation of hundreds of bus services and the clearing of thousands of delivery trucks. Unsurprisingly, on September 29, a normal working day ahead of a two-day holiday break during which the protests gathered steam, the sky was blue and government monitoring station readings were better than usual in the areas where the demonstrations took place: Causeway Bay, Central and Mong Kok. Official data showed the health risk from air pollutants in the areas was low rather than the typical high; it stayed like that throughout the day in all but Mong Kok, where it shifted to moderate at 3pm.

There was a steep fall in levels of nitrogen oxide, one of the harmful pollutants emitted by diesel engines. In Causeway Bay, it dropped from 125 micrograms per cubic metre of air at 10pm on Sunday night to about 60 micrograms after 9am on Monday; in Mong Kok, from 126 at midnight on Sunday to 70 after 9am; and in Central, from about 110 at 7pm on Sunday to about 60 after 9am. Roadside station readings are less susceptible to pollution from other sources like power stations and cross-border factories. The disruption of traffic by the protests has had an undeniable impact on air quality alongside streets. Without a government policy shift, after the demonstrations have ended, we will have to rely on our memories of the protest days for what clean vehicles on our roads mean for air quality.

Scientists examine the health risks of Hong Kong’s notorious ‘street canyons’

13 October, 2014

Cheung Chi-fai and Ernest Kao

Findings will help urban planners minimise impact of air pollution on residents

Hong Kong’s notorious “street canyons” have become the latest research subject for a group of the world’s top scientists specialising in air pollution and health.

Researchers from Britain, Canada and Hong Kong are conducting a three-dimensional air quality study in the city, which has a unique urban morphology – a dominance of high-rises and a close proximity between the population and traffic.

The study will not only map the three-dimensional movement of air pollutants, but also try to relate the pollution levels to the health of residents living at various heights in high-rises.

It will assist urban planning and building designs to minimise pollution impacts in Hong Kong and other megacities across Asia.

The street canyon effect is often cited as one of the factors in Hong Kong’s worsening air pollution. Closely built high-rises with heavy traffic in between are blamed for blocking ventilation and trapping air pollutants.

Funded by the Health Effects Institute in the US, the 30-month study will be jointly carried out by scientists from King’s College London, University of Hong Kong, the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

The study consists of two parts. The first, which started in March, collects spatial air pollution data from 100 selected sites across the city. The scope of the pollutants includes fine particles, as well as nitrogen oxides and black carbon.

The second part is to identify suitable canyon sampling sites to measure vertical pollution exposure. Small sensors capable of recording pollutant concentrations as well as weather data will be installed on buildings.

Dr Benjamin Barratt, of the environmental research group at King’s College London, who described Hong Kong as an ideal “urban laboratory”, said they had selected estates in different districts to represent varying characters of street canyons.

He said the first-phase vertical monitoring in Mong Kok, Jordan, Choi Hung and Sai Wan had been completed and participants from two more districts – North Point and Hung Hom – were now being recruited.

He did not want to disclose the estate names, however, as he feared it might mislead the public into thinking that they must be pollution hotspots.

He said two sets of four monitoring units had been mounted on the exteriors of the selected buildings at four height levels. Another two sets are installed inside homes to examine the extent of pollution infiltration.

“We are assessing how pollution emitted from vehicles is trapped inside street canyons, how this changes with height and how much enters the homes of residents,” he said. “Our study is primarily concerned with mapping the level of risk to public health, but these questions are also important for city planners.”

He said the study results would help planners design buildings that minimised the impact of air pollution on the health of residents.

Barratt said they would also launch a study “relating hospital records of specific diseases with patients’ home addresses, including floors”.

Dr Wong Chit-ming, associate professor at HKU’s School of Public Health, who is taking part in the study, said the research was the first and “most systematic” ever done in a city.

Wong said the results could provide more understanding about the dynamics between pollution levels and heights.

“The higher the altitude, the less the air pollution should be. But the situation might be far more complicated than that, as city layouts and wind directions have an impact, too,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Department said: ” The dispersion of air pollutants in street canyons is a complex physical phenomenon that the scientific community, including ourselves, has been trying to better understand.

“The research project of King’s College will surely help advance scientists’ understanding of this complex physical phenomenon.”

Clean Air Network chief executive Kwong Sum-yin welcomed the research project as it would provide much-needed urban pollution analysis and modelling on a more micro, rather than a macro, scale.

Hong Kong stops bidding for MTR projects involving UGL

Oct 10, 2014

Hong Kong has halted bidding for railway projects involving an Australian company at the center of controversial payments to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, Apple Daily reported Friday.

MTR Corp. (00066.HK), Hong Kong’s railway operator, shelved the public tender for two projects, including a HK$3 billion (US$386.8 million) train refurbishment program for which Australian engineering company UGL is bidding.

The move may be related to an investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) into MTR’s bidding procedures, the report said, citing an unnamed source.

In July, an employee of the rail company questioned MTR’s bidding process in documents filed with the ICAC which decided to investigate.

The investigation relates to potential violation of the anti-bribery ordinance.

UGL had been tipped to win the train upgrading project because of its experience. MTR chairman Raymond Chí’en sits on the UGL board, the report said.

The bidding will be postponed to the second quarter of next year, MTR said on its website.

On Wednesday, Australia’s The Age newspaper reported that Leung received US$7 million in secret payments from UGL after he became Hong Kong chief executive.

The Australian said the payments were outlined in a secret contract signed in 2011 when Leung was a private citizen.

Leung’s lawyer denied any wrongdoing in a statement in which he rebutted any suggestions of impropriety for the Hong Kong leader.

MTRC and UGL have worked closely since 2002. Last month, they joined forces with construction company Leighton Holdings to win a HK$25.2 billion project in Sydney, Apple Daily said.

Why HK airport is losing out to Singapore’s Changi

Frank Chen

Oct 9, 2014

Some people say the Occupy campaign has been hurting Hong Kong’s transportation efficiency and overall competitiveness.

This is obviously a far-fetched accusation. First, protesters did not occupy the airport and Airport Express stations. Secondly, the number of non-mainland visitors to the city actually rose 9 percent to more than 300,000 on Oct. 1 from a year ago, according to the Immigration Department.

Between Oct. 1 and 4, mainland visitor arrivals in Hong Kong also increased 1.6 percent to 663,000.

In terms of aviation capacity, Hong Kong remains competitive in the South China region. But how does our facilities in Chek Lap Kok compare with Singapore’s Changi Airport?

Changi Airport has recently pulled down Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) from the top spot on the list of the world’s best airports this year, according to a ranking by international airport and airline rating firm Skytrax.

The downgrade came even after HKIA handled more passengers (59.9 million) and cargo throughput (4.12 million tons) than Changi (53.7 million and 1.85 million tons respectively) last year.

The slide in ranking has much to do with the territory’s ill-planned expansion programs and poor management of existing airport resources over the years.

Nowadays, it is not uncommon for passengers at HKIA to find that the travel experience is not what it should be.

Rather than being ferried through a skybridge directly onto the aircraft, travelers often have to take a bus — usually filled with the pungent smell of aviation fuel — to a plane sitting in the open-air apron and climb stairs to get on board. Given the hot temperatures in summer, it’s definitely not a pleasant prospect.

Rivalry in aviation has been a key aspect in the competition between Hong Kong and Singapore. HKIA used to have an upper hand with its status as a predominant transfer hub for long-haul passengers and a gateway to the Chinese mainland. But, as HKIA is now serving more passengers with fewer facilities compared to Changi, there is a price being paid.

HKIA has a total of just 49 aerobridge gates, all in Terminal 1 and unchanged since its inauguration 16 years ago, according to figures from the Airport Authority. Changi, by comparison, now has a total of 92 such gates; 28 have been added since the completion of Terminal 3 in 2007.

Around 40 percent of passengers departing from HKIA are now told to board planes from the apron, whereas at Changi — given its larger number of aerobridge gates and fewer passengers — it is a far more comfortable process for boarding.

HKIA recorded a new high in monthly passenger traffic last month, at 5.8 million.

When Changi completed its sleek Terminal 3, HKIA added its Terminal Two, at the north side of the existing terminal, in the same year. Yet the irony is that, the HK$2.8 billion (US$360 million) new terminal in Hong Kong is not a genuine one as it has no boarding gates at all. Departing passengers must take the automated people mover (APM) or buses to Terminal 1 for boarding. One wonders, what’s the point of building such a facility? Walk into the building, and indeed you realize it is more of a shopping mall than anything else.

The Airport Authority doesn’t stop with its whimsical planning. In 2009 it finished the North Satellite Concourse, a mini terminal located to the north of Terminal One mainly for mainland-bound flights. There is no APM connecting the two buildings and passengers, having been told to go through immigration and security checks in Terminal 1, will have to take shuttle buses there to board their planes. The construction cost of the 20,000-square meter facility is HK$1 billion and it just has ten frontal stands for narrow-bodied aircraft.

Lam Chiu-ying, former director of the Hong Kong Observatory and a well-known conservationist and blogger, lashed out at the concourse in one of his recent articles, saying it is a white elephant as most passengers would rather choose to board planes from the apron than wasting more time in the concourse, an isolated islet in the middle of nowhere.

Another problem, according to Lam, is that the concourse was not included in the original airport masterplan gazetted in the 1990s. It occupies part of the apron and may pose potential safety threat to aircraft taxiing nearby.

Some also question the Airport Authority’s decision to shelve the plan to build an X-shaped new terminal in the reserved middle field, which could have added an additional 44 jet bridge gates. Currently a much smaller terminal is under construction and is expected to be operational in 2015 with only 20 new gates.

Last month, the Advisory Council on the Environment has given its green light to the environmental impact assessment for the third runway, which is scheduled to be up and running within a decade after total investment of HK$200 billion.

Yet Lam and other green groups argue that priority should be given to short-to-medium initiatives to add further capacity to existing terminus, such as adding more jet bridge gates, building an APM to serve the north satellite concourse and rearranging facilities in Terminal 2 for easier and faster boarding.

While green activists and the government continue their debate on whether Hong Kong needs a third runway, the airport needs more terminal buildings and aerobridge gates to use its existing resources.

The airport authority should also seek cooperation with neighboring airports in Shenzhen and Macau in order to boost the overall service capacity in the region.

Plea to reject airport runway impact study

Wednesday, 08 October, 2014

Cheung Chi-fai

Activists question whether advisers acted within law in endorsing report

Green activists yesterday stepped up pressure on the government to reject the environmental impact assessment report on the planned third runway at Chek Lap Kok, questioning the way the government’s advisers endorsed the report.

But they said they had not yet decided whether to launch a legal challenge if the report was accepted by the director of environmental protection later this month. The call followed the endorsement by the Advisory Council on the Environment last month of the Airport Authority’s study of the assessment.

“I regret the council’s decision,” Dolphin Conservation Society chairman Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu said.

“We just can’t accept it. What the authority did was just camouflage to conceal [the fact that it] had nothing to offer at all,” he told a special meeting of the Legislative Council’s economic development and environmental affairs panel.

The meeting also heard from supporters of the runway – mostly from the aviation and logistics industries – who said Hong Kong would pay a high economic price if the project was dumped.

“We have learned a painful lesson of losing our port business to Shenzhen after we hesitated over whether to build more port terminals,” said Pang Chor-fu, an executive director of the Hong Kong Chinese Importers’ and Exporters’ Association.

Cathay Pacific and its subsidiaries and unions also backed the project, as did taxi groups.

Green activists said they would not blindly oppose development but felt it was time to reconsider Hong Kong’s practice of using infrastructure projects to drive economic growth. They also questioned whether the council had acted within the law in endorsing the report.

WWF Hong Kong marine conservationist Samantha Lee Mei-wah urged the director not to approve the report, which she said was “substandard”.

Tang Kin-fai, assistant director of environmental protection, said the department and the council had both adhered to the law. “There was neither concealment nor conspiracy,” he told lawmakers at the meeting.

The third runway project will require reclamation of 650 hectares of sea that is a known habitat for the threatened Chinese white dolphin.