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When the air is not so clear look to the government’s coffers

South China Morning Post – Nov. 2, 2011

Readers will be aware that we have long been wondering why the government has been so reluctant to commit to implementing new air quality objectives. These have been agreed on and are supposed to replace the current outdated ones established in 1987. But while the government pays lip service to the idea of better air quality standards it has proved exceedingly reluctant to say when it plans to introduce them.

The reason for this reluctance becomes a lot clearer on reading an article by the Civic Exchange’s Mike Kilburn on the CleanBiz Asia website. He makes the point that under the terms of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Ordinance, air quality objectives act as an absolute standard. They are the air quality benchmarks for environmental impact assessments that have to be done for all big projects. At least in theory, as there are ways of getting around this. The model for assessing predicted air quality is a black box with no need to state input data, assumptions or margins for error. “Any project that breaches the standard cannot legally be approved.” A further complication is that the government’s proposed new objectives would reduce permissible levels of nitrogen oxides by half, by the end of this year.

This, he says, has serious implications for the plan to build a third runway. “Given the additional emissions from the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, the fact that emissions of key pollutants – nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ozone – continue to rise across Hong Kong, and that proposed control measures to reduce this pollution have been largely unsuccessful, there is a strong likelihood that an EIA for the third runway would show that emissions, especially of NOx, will exceed the air quality objectives and would not therefore be approvable.” He cites the preliminary report on air quality impact from the third runway by the Airport Authority’s consultant Ove Arup which shows that failure to meet these new standards is a real possibility. The report says that, “emissions from aircraft can only meet the standard by reducing the capacity of the new runway by some 60 per cent”.

The authority claims the new runway would bring economic benefits of HK$132 billion in contracts and is projected to generate HK$900 billion in overall economic benefit to Hong Kong. It is not hard to see why the government would not want to jeopardise a project of this value by making the air quality objectives harder to meet.

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