Court ruling on bridge plan can further the green cause

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 October, 2011, 12:00am


Unlike court verdicts that decide the winner and loser of the case, the Court of Appeal's ruling on the planned bridge to Zhuhai and Macau offers the possibility of both sides winning.

On the one hand, it allows the government to regain the environmental permit taken away by the High Court, thus enabling the project to go ahead. On the other hand, it imposes a more stringent standard for future projects: all proponents are legally obliged 'to satisfy the environmental authorities that they are using the best available technique to prevent or minimise pollution', regardless of whether overall pollution levels have exceeded limits.

This has profound implications for public health. For too long, our environment has been treated as a big bucket, into which pollutants may be poured as long as there is still space in the bucket. The evidence of such damage is abundantly clear. According to the Hedley Index compiled by the University of Hong Kong, Hongkongers made over 550,000 doctor visits in August as a result of our barely breathable air, nearly 30 per cent more compared with the same period last year.

Our economic losses, both tangible and intangible, amounted to nearly HK$14 billion last year, more than double the cost of delay to the bridge works, according to the government, because of the judicial review.

But there will only be a win-win situation if the government strictly abides by the law. First, the director of environmental protection has a duty to examine whether these new conditions should be imposed on the bridge plan to ensure that the 'best available technique' is indeed used to minimise pollution.

There are simple solutions, such as banning old and polluting vehicles from using the bridge, discouraging vehicles from filling up with cheap and dirty fuel before coming to Hong Kong, or declaring Tung Chung a low-emission zone. It is hard to see how the director can satisfy herself that the best available techniques have already been employed if none of these is included in the permit to be reissued.

Second, the same principle should apply in all future projects, including the building of waste incinerators, the expansion of Tung Chung new town and perhaps the construction of a third runway. The government should not see these projects and their impact on the environment in isolation. Otherwise, when the 'environmental bucket' is full, there will be no more capacity to allow future infrastructure projects.

In fact, a consultancy report by the Airport Authority revealed the danger: air pollution arising from the bridge project will take up 65 per cent of the overall quota. So, to meet the proposed new air quality standards, the third runway must operate below capacity. If we refuse to act now, Hong Kong's competitive advantage will be eroded on two fronts: poor public health and throttled development.

Unfortunately, neither government officials nor pro-establishment parties are interested in the real issues. They are fanning public sentiment against those who flagged the danger, including the litigant of the judicial review and the Civic Party, accusing them of delay and obstruction. This will only encourage the director of environmental protection to ignore the court ruling.

The fact that the current director is an administrative officer rather than a professional with expertise in environmental protection does not reassure the public. This is ironic, as the court places full trust in the director and hence leaves her with the discretion to decide what is to be included in the environmental assessment reports, and how to apply the new standards. If such discretion cannot be exercised with due care and professional independence under our political framework, all will be lost.

The court verdict has given Hong Kong's environment a glimmer of hope. It will be easy to kill that with populism and narrow-minded politics.

Albert Lai Kwong-tak is vice-chairman of the Civic Party