Environmental studies on third runway will be hard to push aside
There has been a muted response to the Legislative Council's environmental affairs panel requiring the Hong Kong Airport Authority (HKAA) to conduct a Social Return on Investment (SROI) study, a carbon audit, and a strategic impact assessment. Given the number of organisations that regard the third runway as a done deal, this is surprising. An SROI study on the proposed third runway for London's Heathrow Airport in 2010 concluded that it would leave the UK GBP5 billion (HK$62.6 billion) worse off and played a part in scuppering the plan. The HKAA claims we can expect HK$900 billion in economic benefit. It's estimated to cost HK$136 billion. But whether these estimates bear close scrutiny remains to be seen.
The other surprising element in the Legco decision is the broad party support for the study, including the Democrat Party, the DAB and even the Liberal Party's powerful Miriam Lau Kin-yee. SROI studies are considered best practice and promoted by the United Nations and the World Bank, though, unsurprisingly, are not legal requirements in developer-friendly Hong Kong. The HKAA, for all its smooth talk about openness, has confined its studies to the legal minimum. However, legislators with an approaching election are more finely attuned to the change that appears to be under way in the voting public's collective consciousness. What caught Legco's attention was a survey commissioned by WWF and Greenpeace and carried out by the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme that found that more than 73 per cent of people believe it is important to consider the social and environmental cost of building the runway. An earlier survey commissioned by the HKAA and conducted by the University of Hong Kong's Social Science Research Centre said that 73 per cent of people favoured building the third runway. This was leapt on by the government and other interested parties keen to railroad the project through its various stages in the usual Hong Kong style.
However, as the legislators may have sensed, the mood is changing and people are a lot more wary of big infrastructure projects and Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's modus operandus of setting air quality objectives, for example, to facilitate building infrastructure projects. The Hong Kong-Zuhai-Macau bridge was a big learning curve for a lot of environmental groups, and as the experience of the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator has shown, green issues for these big projects are not going to be pushed aside quite so easily in future.
Tsang speech out of this world
Our Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah recently regaled the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Hong Kong with an account of how the Hong Kong property market works. Since we've been away for a while we're grateful to Webb-site.com for drawing our attention to it. His opening was somewhat startling in that, among others, he addressed were 'friends from the rest of the universe'. It would be interesting to know if Tsang believed he was addressing anyone other than fellow earthlings. But then again, his talk was somewhat otherworldly. What, we wonder, did his fellow earthlings make of his explanation that 'under the natural laws of supply and demand, property prices have inevitably risen over time'. Expanding on the workings of these 'natural laws', he noted that property prices in March were 82 per cent higher than in late 2008. In the weird and wonderful world of Hong Kong, this is entirely normal, enabling Tsang to say the government 'had kept the property sector on an even keel' and had 'avoided a potentially dangerous housing bubble'. This mad talk appears to have gone unobserved by incoming chief executive C.Y. Leung, who is believed to have him in mind for another five years as financial secretary.
Softer side for the vampire squid
Is the great vampire squid, aka, Goldman Sachs undergoing a change? After taking a pounding, at least in reputational terms, since the financial crisis, there are signs the company is emerging from its self-imposed bunker. Last week chief executive Lloyd C. Blankfein spoke on CNBC and Bloomberg, in which, in contrast to recently departed Gregg Smith, he spoke of the company's focus on muppets, er, rather clients. Later he spoke at a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender conference called 'Out on the Street', explaining the company's support for gay rights. Apparently Goldman executives have been seen talking with reporters. We'd say it has some way to go to repair its reputation. How about having some of the staff - well, interns - parading down Wall Street in sackcloth and ashes flagellating themselves. That might get some attention.