While we must wait to see if the government will challenge the High Court decision on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, there are other issues worthy of reflection. The Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance was crafted to balance environmental protection and development needs. Its purpose is to ensure that potential environmental problems relating to a project are foreseen and avoided. It can also help identify alternative designs to avoid or minimise negative environmental impact and outline ways to improve environmental performance.
The practical difficulty for officials is how to deal with politically motivated projects. In the case of the bridge, one must assume that those responsible for environmental protection should want to conduct the most comprehensive assessment they can and find ways to mitigate problems.
The ordinance allows them to prepare technical memorandums and study briefs for projects. In the case of the bridge, the Environment Bureau and the Environmental Protection Department provided these as terms of reference for the Highways Department which then hired consultants to carry out the impact assessments. Environmental officials may then approve or reject their reports.
Therefore, environmental officials have the opportunity to ensure comprehensive assessments are done. They also have the chance to collect public views as these reports have to be made available for public comment, as well as provided to the consultative Advisory Council on the Environment.
The bridge's judicial review throws up questions about whether the responsible officials had done this as well as they could. The dispute was over whether the director of environmental protection had properly discharged her statutory duty in issuing permits to the Highways Department for work to begin, specifically with relation to assessing air quality and impact on health.
The court ruled there was an absence of substantial analysis on these areas and the director should not have issued the permits.
Ever since the idea of the bridge was brought up, years ago, questions about the number of cars using the bridge and worries about air pollution have been raised. In other words, the potential problems are well-known.
Having written the technical memorandum and study brief, the director obviously considered the reports met the requirement. But should the technical memorandum and study brief have been specific about the need for a substantive study on air pollution? And on what basis did the director approve the consultants' impact assessments?
Cynics may say officials didn't really want to address the air pollution issue because a proper assessment would throw the whole project into doubt. Officials must also be thinking that technical memorandums and study briefs may also be open to court challenge in the future. This will affect other projects that the government is very keen to promote.
Community groups are likely to watch every step of the environmental study process much more closely than before. So, where the government wants to push through poorly thought-out projects, environmental officials will find it harder to fudge issues.
The worst thing that can happen now is for the government to push to review the assessment process to make it more difficult for community groups to challenge projects. Such a step won't bring social harmony and it certainly won't improve the environment.
The best thing would, of course, be for the government to accept that it needs to conduct proper environmental assessments. Instead of attacking the assessment process, it should strengthen it, including by ensuring the environmental protection director has the technical competence and high-level support to safeguard our environment where there are powerful interests working to get projects approved. A wise leader would choose this route.
Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange