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December 22nd, 2016:

Development Bureau forum on 2030 Plus vision leaves public none the wiser

I attended the Development Bureau’s second “public engagement” forum on December 18 on its “Planning Vision and Strategy Transcending 2030” ( or “2030 Plus”).

I can attest that the public was not engaged, but patronised and stonewalled by the five government officials there, aided by a biased moderator.

A Planning Department official consumed a quarter of the allotted time with a 2030 Plus presentation full of graphics and feel-good buzzwords like “smart, green, resilient city”, and “urban-rural-nature integration”.

In concrete terms, these jaunty concepts boiled down to creating 1,200 hectares of land for two new towns, New Territories North and East Lantau Metropolis, involving large-scale reclamation, extremely high costs, razing villages and displacing their inhabitants.

Understandably concerned, many in the audience sought specific answers during question time. They submitted their names to a lottery and, if drawn by the moderator, were permitted to speak.

He drew 10 to 15 names at a time and grouped all their questions in one batch for officials to address. This ploy allowed officials to gloss over or simply not respond to many questions.

I would like to look at a few of the questions they didn’t answer.

What is the government’s cost estimate for the East Lantau Metropolis? Comprising 1,000 reclaimed hectares around two islands east of Lantau, this vast new city is likely to cost over HK$400 billion. Its feasibility study alone costs HK$248 million [1], the costliest such study in the history of our infrastructure.

Why won’t the government release the five consultancy studies on the metropolis and Lantau? Why won’t it even disclose a 20-year-old cost estimate for a tunnel connecting Hong Kong Island to one of the two islands? This estimate is in a government study for a 1990s plan to build a new town on reclaimed land around Green Island; a similar tunnel is likely to be built for the metropolis.

Why can’t the government acquire the land from brownfield sites, developers’ land banks, and the 900 hectares reserved under the small-house policy?

Or why not terminate the lease of 163 hectares to the Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling and use the land for public housing?

A director of developer Hopewell said Hong Kong needed the golf course as Asia’s world city. Mindful perhaps that some audience members may live in subdivided flats, even the five officials remained silent on that score.

Of the 30 audience members who spoke, 26 spoke against the government’s plans.

Chai Kim-wah, Lantau
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Hong Kong activists fail in legal bid to challenge decision on construction of third airport runway

Judge rejects their accusations that environmental watchdog did not take into consideration airspace issues, habitat destruction

Hong Kong’s High Court has struck out a bid by a Lantau resident and a conservationist to challenge the decision to allow the construction of a third airport runway, with a judge rejecting accusations that the environmental watchdog had ignored airspace issues and habitat destruction.

Mr Justice Anderson Chow Ka-ming stated in a judgment handed down on Thursday that the grounds of the applicants’ judicial review were not well-founded or valid.

The Airport Authority, a party to the case, said it welcomed the ruling and would reduce the environmental impact of the project.

In March 2012, the government decided to proceed in principlewith plans to expand the Hong Kong International Airport by building a third runway. The director of environmental protection in November 2014 then approved an environmental impact assessment report and granted a permit for the controversial project, which is expected to cost HK$141.5 billion.

But Lantau resident Ho Loy and conservationist Yu Hin-pik applied for a judicial review over the department’s decision, questioning whether it had taken into account the full impact of the runway.

In his judgment, Chow wrote that when it comes to deciding whether to grant or deny an environmental permit, it was not part of the environmental watchdog’s functions to vet the wisdom of the Airport Authority’s proposal to expand the airport.

“[Its] function is to consider the assessment and acceptability of the environmental impact which may be caused by the project,” the judge stated.

Ho also questioned the assessment of noise and air impact due to the use of airspace in the Pearl River Delta area in relation to the projected air traffic movements in or out of Hong Kong.

But the judge said it was clear the airspace issue was not relevant to the project’s noise impact assessment or the protection of the environment – which were the watchdog’s areas of concern when deciding on granting an environmental permit.

Ho claimed that she had not intended to challenge the decision to build the third runway, and that the present review was related to the environmental impact assessment exercise.

She argued that the watchdog’s report failed to take into account the actual ecological impact on the Chinese white dolphin and also failed to provide compensation measures for the progressive permanent destruction of habitat during the construction phase.

Chow, however, found it “incorrect” to suggest that the watchdog had failed to consider compensation measures, adding that findings in the department’s report concerning the habitat loss should be read in their proper contexts.

The director’s approval of the assessment report depended on criteria including whether it complied with the requirements of a technical memorandum.

“I am unable to see in what respect it may be said that there are omissions or deficiencies in the [report] which may affect the results and conclusions of the assessment,’’ Chow wrote in his judgment.

The court’s primary concern was with the procedure to be followed in the environmental impact assessment process, not the merits, unless it was found to be unreasonable, the judge added.

Chow said compliance with the express obligations imposed by the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance should be regarded as a sufficient discharge of the watchdog’s duties in the environmental impact assessment process.

“[The] court should not readily impose additional obligations on the director over and above what is expressly required by the ordinance,” Chow stated in the judgment.

He asserted that the viability and sustainability of the project was related to the airport authority’s wisdom in pursuing it. This made it a matter of public policy, and not a matter for determination in the present judicial review, he added.

Ho and Yu were ordered to foot the legal bills of the director of environmental protection and the airport authority on Thursday, but Ho said she was still studying the judgment and would make public her next step.
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How scientists cracked the puzzle of Beijing’s wintertime smog

Sulphate levels in Chinese capital’s air similar to those produced by volcanic eruptions

Levels of a pollutant linked to diarrhoea and global cooling in Beijing’s notorious smog can approach those produced by volcanic eruptions, according to a newly published international study.

Researchers from Germany, the United States and China recorded extremely high concentrations of sulphate on the Tsinghua University campus in January 2013 during a joint study of air pollution in the Chinese capital.

Sulphate is a salt of sulphuric acid that, in nature, is usually formed in the atmosphere after a volcanic eruption.

The sulphate concentration on the roof of one Tsinghua building hit 300 micrograms per cubic metre of air, comparable to the fallout from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland in 2010, which produced an average, near-surface concentration of 400 micrograms over Scandinavia.

That might explain why some people experience diarrhoea, a typical effect of sulphate poisoning, on smoggy days, alongside other symptoms linked to air pollution.

But the high levels of sulphate in the smog that plagues Beijing each winter puzzled the researchers.

In nature, sulphate is formed when massive amounts of sulphur are thrust high into the atmosphere by a volcanic eruption and transformed by sunlight in a process known as photochemistry.

“No theory could explain why it happened during a cold, dim winter in Beijing with little photochemistry going on,” said Dr Su Hang, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, and one of the scientists involved in the study.

In a paper published in the journal Sciences Advances on Wednesday, Su and his colleagues pinpointed a culprit: nitrogen oxides – a family of pollutants mainly created by industrial and vehicular emissions.

Nitrogen oxides, including nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, could bind with water vapour and create many floating liquid droplets that would not freeze in sub-zero temperatures. The airborne droplets then served as a chemical reactor, absorbing sulphur dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into sulphate. The more sulphate produced, the bigger the droplet and the faster the chemical reaction.

“It was like a chain reaction,” Su said. “Once started, it would not stop.”

That made the smog in Beijing different from the photochemical smog, driven by sunlight, that troubled Los Angeles in the 1970s.

The researchers said the amount of man-made air pollutants in China’s lower atmosphere had reached a level unprecedented in human history and that was triggering chemical reactions previously thought impossible.

In Beijing, Su said, smog could develop rapidly at night, and residents sometimes woke up to find the air outside “as thick as soup”.

Sulphate is also believed to play an important role in planet cooling, with scientists linking the massive spread of sulphate in the atmosphere after volcanic eruptions to numerous episodes of global cooling throughout history due to the chemical’s ability to reflect sunlight back into outer space almost as effectively as a mirror.

Whether the smog in China could help slow global warming required further investigation, the researchers said.

The researchers urged the authorities to treat nitrogen oxides as a major enemy in the battle against smog – with a focus on cutting industrial and vehicular emissions – because the chemistry at work in haze not only produced sulphate but also lots of nitrate, which could cause oxygen levels in the blood to drop, causing dizziness, headaches or even death.

“Reducing the nitrogen oxides can shoot several birds with one stone,” Su said.

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Activists lose judicial review over construction of airport’s third runway

Two activists lost their legal challenge on Thursday to prevent the construction of the Hong Kong International Airport’s third runway. The High Court dismissed their judicial review.

The two applicants, Lantau resident Ho Loy and member of Green Sense Yu Hin-pik, argued that the environmental impact assessment conducted by the Environmental Protection Department was flawed, as it did not provide a sufficient evaluation of the project’s ecological impact.

The third runway system. Photo: Airport Authority

The third runway system. Photo: Airport Authority

The third runway project was proposed by the Airport Authority in 2010 because of increasing traffic at Hong Kong’s only airport. The plan included reclaiming 650 hectares of land north of the airport for the third runway, as well as expanding the existing Terminal Two for immigration clearance.

New marine park

The applicants said the assessment failed to offer off-site mitigation measures regarding the loss of habitat by Chinese White Dolphins. However, Mr Justice Chow said the report already included a list of mitigation and compensation measures to avoid and reduce potential environmental impacts, such as the designation of a new marine park.

The activists also said that noise estimates and the predicted impact to air quality was based on information provided by the Airport Authority and the assumption that the mainland will open up its airspace. The judge said the Civil Aviation Department consulted expert opinion and relevant data to confirm the authenticity of the assumptions and data.

The proposed third runway. Photo: GovHK.

The proposed third runway. Photo: GovHK.

Mr Justice Chow said that the court only had to rule on whether the assessment by the city’s environmental watchdog had followed due procedures – not to examine the “Airport Authority’s wisdom in pursuing the project”.

In August, protesters held a demonstration at the airport in response to the construction of the third runway. They called for the Airport Authority to suspend land reclamation work and to stop charging passengers as a means to subsidise the project.

The Authority said they welcomed the ruling and will continue implementing the mitigation measures according to the environmental impact assessment and permits.

According to Apple Daily, the applicants are currently looking into the judgment and will not rule out the possibility of filing an appeal. Green Sense said in a statement that they were “very disappointed” with the court’s decision.