Developers of mega projects must not shirk duty to protect our environment

Wilson Lau says the government has to find ways to ensure developers of mega projects are held responsible for conserving the environment that they seek to exploit, and profit from

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 June, 2014, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 2:37am

A spate of big developments in the pipeline is going to have a massive impact on Hong Kong's marine environment. These projects are going through the rounds of public consultations, and it is important to watch out for what measures are in place to address their environmental impact.

Mega projects such as the third runway, and the artificial island that the government has proposed to reclaim off the coast of Lantau Island, would infringe on sensitive marine habitats. Of course, the best outcome for the area's marine ecology is to have no interference at all. But if the projects get the go-ahead, a few mandated requirements are needed to minimise the impact on the surrounding environment. After all, shouldn't developers take some of the responsibility for conserving the environment that they will be profiting from?

In the management of wetland areas, for example, the no-net-loss principle is actively applied in Hong Kong. This principle led to the restoration of wetlands that were damaged or lost in the construction of the MTR's Lok Ma Chau spur line.

For marine environments, this and other working examples could be studied and adopted. For example, developers could be instructed to contribute to a conservation trust fund in exchange for the right to develop and destroy a part of the marine environment. The money could go towards the running of programmes to improve the health of marine species and habitats, research and monitoring, or raising awareness.

A more controversial approach - which has been tried overseas with mixed results - is biodiversity offset schemes. Here, the right to develop and destroy a woodland, for example, is offset by the restoration and management of another degraded woodland. The restoration could occur within the same site, or on one unconnected to the original habitat.

Opponents have argued that such schemes could be used by developers as a strategy to build on ecologically important sites. And achieving neutral impact through the scheme could take decades, if it is possible at all. Yet if ecologically important sites are not afforded the protection of law, through the designation of a marine park or reserve status, the scheme could be one option to address a project's ecological footprint.

Projects that have already been approved urgently need these conversation measures. Conservation trusts and biodiversity offsets enable sustained monitoring and evaluation of the development, to tell us whether conservation efforts have been undertaken and if they are effective. Too often in the past, developers that pledged to carry out conservation work as part of their projects have not been held accountable.

While these conservation tools should not be seen as a cynical way for developers to gain approval for projects, they do provide a means for the government to monitor the progress of approved projects, and demand that developers deliver the environmental improvements they have pledged. In this way, these tools can help direct the responsibility of conserving the environment to those who seek to gain from its exploitation.

Wilson Lau is research and project officer at Civic Exchange