The current discussion around the proposed three-runway system at Hong Kong International Airport is focused on the potential impacts on the environment.
The environmental lobby and those living near the airport have raised valid concerns about the potential impact on local ecology, noise disturbance and air quality. But there is also the validity of the overall need for a third runway to consider.
Not only is Hong Kong International Airport a major transport hub, it is also vital to the city's continued prosperity as an economic powerhouse. This brings benefits to everyone in Hong Kong, not just airline passengers or cargo shippers.
It also generates vital benefits through connections between cities and markets that enable foreign direct investment, business development and other spillover benefits that help Hong Kong thrive. Currently, aviation is worth HK$88.9 billion to Hong Kong, representing 5.5 per cent of gross domestic product.
But what is the cost to the environment of these vital benefits? Undoubtedly, aviation, like every other industry, has an environmental impact and currently accounts for 2 per cent of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions. But it is also an industry that is fully committed to reducing this impact. Airlines are investing heavily in the very latest technology. The Airbus A380, already serving Hong Kong, is one of the world's quietest large aircraft.
New aircraft designs, including the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 XWB, utilise advanced materials such as carbon fibre, making them lighter, reducing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by up to 28 per cent compared to their predecessors. Overall, aircraft are now 70 per cent more fuel efficient than the early jets, with lower emissions. New aircraft are also progressively quieter than those in service even a decade ago. Through technological advances, the industry has managed to reduce overall noise by 75 per cent since the early 1960s. In October, aviation became the first global sector to have its post-2020 carbon dioxide emissions regulated by the UN - something the industry had been calling for since 2008 - and had pledged to achieve carbon-neutral growth by 2020.
Airlines have been preparing for this fundamental change. Far from being the pariah that some have suggested, sustainability has become central to the industry's future and is playing its part in addressing global climate change.
For Hong Kong, there is much to consider. The airport's environmental impact assessment will soon be published and the public debate will rightly focus on the importance of preserving our environment. The Airport Authority must take the necessary steps to ensure any expansion minimises overall environmental impact and must follow the recommendations of the report.
But we must also seize the opportunity to provide a sustainable future for Hong Kong and recognise the vital importance that aviation plays in our economy and society. Without a thriving aviation hub, our city will suffer. Without trade and investment, we will be unable to support initiatives that promote biodiversity, conservation and the environment, as Hong Kong loses out to growing competition from emerging markets.
Rather than growth at any price, as some environmentalists believe to be the case regarding the third runway, we need responsible and sustainable growth that respects the environment and mitigates any potential adverse impacts. Expanding Hong Kong International Airport now will help provide the necessary foundations to guarantee our future success and strengthen our position in the world economy - and that will ultimately benefit us all.
Joe Ng is vice-chairman of the Board of Airline Representatives, Hong Kong