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HK’s 3rd runway proposal to go the way of Heathrow’s?

Sunday, May 13th, 2012


Mike Kilburn, Civic Exchange (now Senior Manager Environmen, HK Airport Authority)

On Monday 23 April 2012 the Environmental Affairs Panel of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) passed a motion requiring the Hong Kong Airport Authority (HKAA) to conduct a social return on investment (SROI) study, a carbon audit and a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) in addition to the statutory environmental impact assessment (EIA) which they must conduct in order to secure approval to build a proposed third runway at Hong Kong International Airport.

This decision is significant because plans to add a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport were shelved largely because a SROI study showed that the impacts on residents living near the airport outweighed the economic benefits highlighted in the original proposals. HKAA officials, who are all too aware of the outcome in London, have consistently declined to conduct an SROI despite repeated calls to do so.

It is also significant because the Legislative Council had previously expressed support for the third runway during a meeting of the Panel on Economic Development in June 2011In March 2012 the Executive Council gave its approval in principle, subject to the statutory requirements of the EIA process, for the third runway to go ahead.

So why did a legislature which has been broadly supportive of the third runway – and highly receptive to the proposed HK$136 billion (USD17.4 billion) in contracts and notional HK$900 billion (USD115.4 billion) stimulus to the Hong Kong economy – decide that it needed more information that might derail the project?

The short answer is that they were persuaded to do so by Hong Kong’s environmental NGOs (envNGOs).  During the summer of 2011 the HKAA conducted a consultation exercise to seek the public’s views on whether it should restrict its development plans to optimizing the current two runway system, or substantially expand its capacity by adding a third runway. In December 2011 it released the findings of a survey showing that over 70 percent of the 24,000 respondents supported the third runway.

The envNGOs have not rejected the third runway, but they have expressed considerable concern over the loss of habitat for the globally-threatened Chinese White Dolphin and the negative impacts on air quality and noise disturbance to residents living close to the airport and the flight path. They also stressed that the HKAA’s presentation of the 2030 Masterplan had focused on the economic benefits and underplayed the social and environmental concerns.

In February 2012 WWF (HK) and Greenpeace released their own public opinion survey, also prepared by Hong Kong University. The envNGO survey showed that about 73 percent of the public was dissatisfied with amount of information HKAA had provided on the social and environmental impacts of the project. Choosing the same pollsters was an astute move since HKAA cannot challenge the envNGO’s survey without undermining the credibility of their own.

Prior to the motion, which was raised by legislator Kam Nai Wai, an envNGO coalition – WWF (HK), Greenpeace, Clean Air Network, Hong Kong Dolphinwatch, Friends of the Earth, Green Sense, Conservancy Association and Greeners Action – submitted a written paper and made verbal submissions which were unified in calling for the SROI, carbon audit and SEA.

When questioned by legislators, both HKAA’s Chief Executive Stanley Hui and Transport and Housing Bureau’s Sharon Yip expressed their intention to follow the statutory process – in other words to do nothing beyond the statutory EIA.

And herein lies the problem. Since its establishment in 1997 Hong Kong’s EIA process has been widely recognized as one of the best in the world for assessing the environmental impact of individual projects. Elsewhere, however, impact assessment has expanded to encompass a broader range of considerations, including social and health impacts and the cumulative impacts of multiple projects. Hong Kong has correspondingly fallen behind global best practice.

To make matters worse the Hong Kong public is increasingly concerned about declining environmental quality. There is also growing doubt that the Government’s development plans are truly sustainable.

Most specifically given the persistently high health impacts of air pollution and the long delay in introducing new air quality objectives (they remain unchanged since 1987), the public’s confidence that the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) is an effective, or even committed, regulator of environmental standards is at an all-time low.

The most visible expression of this concern was the judicial review raised by a Tung Chung resident against the EPD’s approval of the EIA for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge in 2010.

This combination of rising public expectations for transparency and quality of life, declining environmental quality and growing distrust of regulators greatly increases the pressure on HKAA and the THB, whose “statutory compliance” response looks as out of touch as the EIA process they would like to rely upon.

That legislators of all parties, including Miriam Lau, who is also a board member of the HKAA, voted unanimously to support the motion requiring the additional studies to be conducted suggests that the envNGOs have got this one right and it is HKAA, THB and the EIA process which must move with the times.

Related Content

Could air pollution block Hong Kong’s third runway?

HK Airport’s green ambitions mask poor government planning

Official report shows Hong Kong’s worsening air quality its own fault

Professional needed as top environmental regulator


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