Runway backers 'ignore true cost'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 June, 2011, 12:00am


The economic arguments put forward by the Airport Authority in support of the third runway project have been criticised for completely ignoring the social and environmental costs.

Such calculations are not usually part of the assessment of projects in Hong Kong but are often cited by environmentalists and economists elsewhere - including those who opposed the now-aborted expansion of London's Heathrow Airport.

WWF Hong Kong believes the lessons learned from London can shed some light on the ongoing debate surrounding the third runway plan.

'We need a paradigm shift now or we face prices too high for us to pay eventually,' climate programme head William Yu Yuen-ping said.

The change Yu refers to is a new approach in dealing with a project by looking at it as a whole, not just the economic benefits but also the social, community and environmental costs. Without taking these costs into account, Yu said it would be hard to tell if a project was as desirable as the proponent suggested.

Citing a report last year by British think tank New Economics Foundation, which advocates social and environmental cost evaluations, Yu said the costs associated with the Heathrow's third runway actually outweighed benefits by GBP5 billion (HK$62.13 billion). British transport officials had estimated a net benefit of ?5.5 billion.

The difference was found after the foundation ran the costs and benefits model using different assumptions such as carbon emission costs and more up-to-date economic forecasts.

Yu said the foundation also took into account not just the costs of climate change, air and noise pollution, which were also calculated by the British authority, but also costs arising from community blight - such as emotional stress suffered by residents - and costs related to surface congestion.

None of these costs is presented in the Airport Authority's consultation document. The only costs the Hong Kong airport operator cites are the estimated construction cost of the physical infrastructure and the projected losses in passengers, economic growth and cargo throughput if the runway was not built.

'The authority should provide us all this information or we cannot make an informed choice,' Yu said, adding that WWF was liaising with like-minded economists to address these issues itself.

Apart from the costs, Yu said there were also studies in Europe challenging a tendency by airport operators to overstate the economic potential of airport expansions, such as job creation and contribution to gross domestic product.

A spokesman for the Airport Authority did not respond directly to either the issues about social and environmental costs of the project or the possible overestimation of the economic benefits arising from airport expansion.

The authority reiterated that the current public consultation was aimed at forging a consensus on the need for expansion, and the airport has listed five main factors: flight connectivity, economic benefits, construction cost, finance and environmental impacts as the main considerations.

'We will assess the views collected in the consultation exercise,' he said.