Hong Kong authorities have proposed an increase in the size of developments exempted from environmental impact reports from 20 hectares (49 acres) to 50 hectares to streamline the planning process. The proposed amendment, discussed at a Legislative Council panel meeting on environmental affairs on Monday, means more than half of the projects under way at present could skip the evaluation process. The Environment and Ecology Bureau also told lawmakers that a centralised database, to be launched in two weeks, would slash the time required for environmental impact assessments by half. “The purpose of this review is to further improve the environmental impact assessment mechanism in order to optimise procedures, improve operational efficiency, focus more on environmental performance, and strike a balance between environmental protection and development needs,” Secretary for Environment and Ecology Tse Chin-wan said. But Tse pledged the proposed changes would not reduce the statutory public inspection time for environmental impact assessments or compromise the standards of the reports. Deputy Director of Environmental Protection Samuel Chui Ho-kwong said that, on average, 14 out of every 25 developments, including housing, cultural, industrial and commercial, fell between 20 and 50 hectares. Environmental assessments are carried out to gauge the potential effects of development on the natural world in advance so measures can be taken to minimise any potential problems. The bureau said that if the measures were approved the environmental impact assessment time frame would be reduced to 18 months in many cases and to two years for large-scale or more complicated projects. Hong Kong minister proposes halving time to assess building projects’ impact The new database will include information on the environment, as well as water and air quality, and will feature findings from previous assessment reports, universities, other government departments and surveying companies. Chui said developers could use the database to run computer simulations to examine different schemes in the early stages of project design. He added that precautions were already in place to stop developers breaking down developments into smaller packages in a bid to avoid environmental impact assessments. Chui explained the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance did not allow demergers and the authorities could order developers to put split up plans back together again. He said anyone breaching the ordinance would face a HK$2 million fine (US$257,400) and up to six months in jail. Further offences could mean a fine of as much as HK$5 million fine and up to two years’ imprisonment. Other proposed changes include standardisation of the methods used for baseline surveys in assessments and updating the criteria for direct applications of environmental permits. Green groups accuse government of rushing assessment of Lantau project The bureau said the database would allow up to 200 users at a time and would be updated on a regular basis. Officials added that, for example, information on air quality would be renewed every year. They added that sensitive information would only be revealed by request to protect vulnerable animal and plant species and their habitats, such as the incense tree and the golden coin turtle, which are threatened with extinction. But Friends of the Earth Hong Kong warned that relaxing the development size limit would “severely compromise” the purpose of an environmental impact assessment. The organisation added they were also worried about the use of the centralised database instead of environmental impact assessments. The group warned the government should not take the assessments lightly and reduce them to a “rubber stamp”. The proposed amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance were in line with suggestions made by former chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in her final policy address in 2021. The bureau earlier this year recommended four measures to improve the assessment process, including the use of a publicly accessible online database, after public consultation between March and June. Other lawmakers suggested that the government include data concerning light pollution, underwater noises and their effects on the environment in the database. Legco is expected to discuss the proposed amendments in the first quarter of next year.