Hong Kong's third runway proposal

Third runway plans exemplify Hong Kong's long-time preference for concrete over conservation

Gavin Edwards and Shirley Poon envision what the public funds pledged for a third runway could instead do for our environment

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 April, 2015, 2:25pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 10:55am

Hong Kong Transport and Housing Secretary Anthony Cheung Bing-leung recently joined hands with the Airport Authority to announce the construction of a new third runway at the airport, financed by user fees of HK$180 per person plus money raised through bank loans and bonds. A closer look at the funding arrangements also reveals a HK$50 billion subsidy to the Airport Authority, to contribute to the HK$141.5 billion construction fee.

Our government is the sole shareholder of the Airport Authority and, last year, it received HK$5.3 billion in dividends. This is a lucrative source of income. But it has just agreed to waive the dividends for the next decade to fund the runway construction; the equivalent of a HK$50 billion giveaway to the Airport Authority.

In his budget speech in February, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announced few measures to protect the natural environment, on the grounds that there is no substantial new money available for conservation and sustainability initiatives.

Here are three examples of what HK$50 billion could do for the sustainability of our city. First, advance biodiversity conservation. The government is formulating a Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan to comply with requirements in the Convention on Biological Diversity. Will the government launch a campaign to promote biodiversity conservation, and ensure that all its bureaus and departments take account of the message in their decision-making?

Second, wetland conservation. The Mai Po Nature Reserve and the wider Inner Deep Bay area is a unique natural treasure belonging to the Hong Kong people, and efforts to conserve this area are recognised worldwide. Today, the bulk of the costs for wetland conservation are borne by non-governmental organisations. Conservation work in the Mai Po marshes, for example, costs over HK$8 million per year, yet the government contributes only 21 per cent of that cost. Perhaps Tsang could do more to protect this deserving natural treasure?

Third is climate change. It is our responsibility to build a living environment for the next generation. Tackling climate change needs to be high on the government's agenda, now and in the future.

Premier Li Keqiang recently announced a series of plans focusing on improving the environment on the mainland. These include the promotion of renewable energy and clean energy vehicles, and the introduction of a "green tax" on polluters. Beijing plans to spend a sizeable 29.1 billion yuan (HK$37 billion) on energy conservation and environment protection this year. If we were to include its investments to improve the electricity grid, this figure approaches 500 billion yuan.

By contrast, here in Hong Kong, the Environment Bureau has set aside only HK$33 million to implement our energy policy.

So, once again, while money for infrastructure flows easily, conservation is left short-changed. Funds of HK$50 billion would set us well on course to become Asia's most sustainable city. Instead, we'll have a third runway and fewer Chinese white dolphins. It's about time we struck a better balance between sustainability and development for this city.

Gavin Edwards is conservation director, and Shirley Poon is policy strategist, at WWF-Hong Kong