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Airline Representatives official distorts Third Runway debate as ‘Environment vs Economy’, pours out the kool-aid.

Mr. Joe Ng, vice-chairman of the Board of Airline Representatives of Hong Kong, wrote in to the SCMP to weigh in on the debate regarding the Third Runway proposal of the Hong Kong Airport:

The current discussion around the proposed three-runway system at Hong Kong International Airport is focused on the potential impacts on the environment.

The environmental lobby and those living near the airport have raised valid concerns about the potential impact on local ecology, noise disturbance and air quality. But there is also the validity of the overall need for a third runway to consider.

Not only is Hong Kong International Airport a major transport hub, it is also vital to the city’s continued prosperity as an economic powerhouse. This brings benefits to everyone in Hong Kong, not just airline passengers or cargo shippers.

It also generates vital benefits through connections between cities and markets that enable foreign direct investment, business development and other spillover benefits that help Hong Kong thrive. Currently, aviation is worth HK$88.9 billion to Hong Kong, representing 5.5 per cent of gross domestic product.

But what is the cost to the environment of these vital benefits? Undoubtedly, aviation, like every other industry, has an environmental impact and currently accounts for 2 per cent of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions. But it is also an industry that is fully committed to reducing this impact. Airlines are investing heavily in the very latest technology. The Airbus A380, already serving Hong Kong, is one of the world’s quietest large aircraft.

New aircraft designs, including the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 XWB, utilise advanced materials such as carbon fibre, making them lighter, reducing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by up to 28 per cent compared to their predecessors. Overall, aircraft are now 70 per cent more fuel efficient than the early jets, with lower emissions. New aircraft are also progressively quieter than those in service even a decade ago. Through technological advances, the industry has managed to reduce overall noise by 75 per cent since the early 1960s. In October, aviation became the first global sector to have its post-2020 carbon dioxide emissions regulated by the UN – something the industry had been calling for since 2008 – and had pledged to achieve carbon-neutral growth by 2020.

Airlines have been preparing for this fundamental change. Far from being the pariah that some have suggested, sustainability has become central to the industry’s future and is playing its part in addressing global climate change.

For Hong Kong, there is much to consider. The airport’s environmental impact assessment will soon be published and the public debate will rightly focus on the importance of preserving our environment. The Airport Authority must take the necessary steps to ensure any expansion minimises overall environmental impact and must follow the recommendations of the report.

But we must also seize the opportunity to provide a sustainable future for Hong Kong and recognise the vital importance that aviation plays in our economy and society. Without a thriving aviation hub, our city will suffer. Without trade and investment, we will be unable to support initiatives that promote biodiversity, conservation and the environment, as Hong Kong loses out to growing competition from emerging markets.

Rather than growth at any price, as some environmentalists believe to be the case regarding the third runway, we need responsible and sustainable growth that respects the environment and mitigates any potential adverse impacts. Expanding Hong Kong International Airport now will help provide the necessary foundations to guarantee our future success and strengthen our position in the world economy – and that will ultimately benefit us all.

Mr. Ng sets a distorted tone at the very beginning by claiming that the discussion on the Third Runway proposal is ‘focused on the environment’. His letter is formatted such that environmental concerns are weighed against the economic benefits that the Third Runway is projected to bring, and very ‘naturally’ brings out the usual narrative that ‘ultimately’ the economic benefits are necessary for the city’s survival, even sneaking in his argument that environmental efforts have to be funded from the economy (attempting to legitimise destruction before preservation).

Mr. Ng’s letter is the standard serving of kool-aid that the Hong Kong Airport Authority has made in advocating the Third Runway proposal. The proposal has always trumpeted its economic benefits to the city, based mainly on projections that extrapolate air traffic growth from past years. This lobby, however, has ignored genuine concerns about the true viability and necessity of the Third Runway, and these are not at all environmental: Hong Kong faces stiff competition from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, whose superior connectivity to Mainland destinations cannot be matched by Chek Lap Kok regardless of expansion; Shenzhen, Macau and Zhuhai competes with Hong Kong over airspace, and the air corridor’s saturation will be the limiting factor for air traffic, rather than the operational runways on the ground; the world economy is also looking at slowdown, potentially affecting global air traffic; this could also affect the movement of cargo from China’s manufacturing sector, when internal consumption reduce freight volume passing through Chek Lap Kok.

Moving back to environmental issues, Mr. Ng suggests that the issue with aircraft emissions should be viewed in light of the improvements in aircraft manufacturing, that leads to reduced fuel consumption and hence, less emissions. This is most certainly going to be more than negated, if air traffic should be successfully increased as projected. Any step forward taken by engineering is therefore dragged back two steps by the short-sightedness in the management of air traffic.

It is curious how the HKIA rarely speaks of expanding the capabilities of the current runway system, despite this option having undergone consultation and has been duly published in their report. An expanded two-runway system is perfectly capable of handling both air traffic growth and buffer against the effects of competition with Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Then again, it is difficult to tell if it is truly coping with handling increased traffic that is at stake, or the opportunities for lucrative gains from property development associated with the Third Runway that barely trickles down to the ordinary citizens of Hong Kong.

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