Could air pollution block Hong Kong’s third runway?
In the last three months Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) has been consulting the public on its masterplan for the next 20 years. In essence this comes down to whether an additional runway should be added to airport or whether growth should be limited to the maximum capacity of the existing two runways.
The AAHK has talked up the economic benefits: HKD132 billion (USD16.9 billion) in contracts to build the runway, which is projected to generate some HKD900 billion (USD115.5 billion) in overall economic benefit to Hong Kong. Environmental groups believe that the consultation is not meaningful unless an assessment of social and environmental impacts of the two options are considered.
Led by WWF Hong Kong they have called for a Social Return on Investment (SROI) study to be carried out, as was done to during the failed attempt to add a third runway to London’s Heathrow Airport. AAHK has refused, saying that all these issues will be fully covered as and when an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is conducted.
Some of the issues raised by environmental and residents groups include increasing C02 emissions, destruction of the habitat of the critically endangered Chinese White Dolphin, increasing noise pollution, and perhaps most significantly, toxic air pollution.
A bridge too far
Air quality is a sensitive issue as the airport adjoins Tung Chung, a town on north Lantau that is already an existing pollution black-spot. Tung Chung is also the home of Madam Chu, who raised the successful judicial review halting the Hong Kong Zhuhai Macau Bridge over concerns about air pollution.
Uncertainty over the HKZM Bridge is on-going, following an appeal by the Hong Kong Government. What is clear, however, is that air quality in Tung Chung is already close to or in excess of Hong Kong’s air quality objectives (AQOs). This is important because under the EIA Ordinance, which aims to minimize the impacts of major development projects, the AQOs act as an absolute standard. Any project that breaches the standard cannot legally be approved.
Given the additional emissions from the HKZM Bridge, the fact that emissions of key pollutants – nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ozone – continue to rise across Hong Kong, and that proposed control measures to reduce these pollution have been largely unsuccessful, there is a strong likelihood that an EIA for the third runway would show that emissions, especially of NOx, will exceed the AQOs and would not therefore be approvable.
A further complication is that the Hong Kong Government has agreed to set a timetable for tightening Hong Kong’s AQOs, which would reduce permissible levels of NOx by half, by the end of 2011. This would make it much more difficult for the AAHK to achieve the standard, especially as many of the measures required to clean up the air to the point that the AQOs are met are beyond the AAHK’s jurisdiction.
A preliminary report in on air quality impacts from the third runway by the AAHK’s consultant Ove Arup shows that failure to meet these new standards is a very real possibility. It states that emissions from aircraft can only meet the standard by reducing the capacity of the new runway by some 60 percent!
Also, these figures do not take into account the additional road traffic that a busier airport would generate. All cargo must be delivered in diesel-powered trucks, while large numbers of passengers come by bus or taxi, both of which have high NOx signatures.
So what does this mean? In effect the AQOs have assumed the role of a de-facto standard for sustainable development in Hong Kong, with anything that breaches them being considered unsustainable, and therefore unapproavable.
However obsolete they may now be, the AQOs are expected to protect public health against air pollution from development projects. While Hong Kong’s air quality remained within the AQOs there was no very great pressure on Government or the business community to keep a cap on pollution or to progressively tighten emissions control standards.
The consequence of two decades of ineffective control of roadside emissions, however, is that there is simply no room under the AQO cap to permit more large scale development projects and the emissions they would generate.
This presents AAHK, the Hong Kong Government, and any business with an interest in increasing air traffic or wishing to bid for the contracts to build the third runway with a major problem. Or to take a more positive view, this problem represents the best hope in years that serious action will be taken to reduce Hong Kong’s air pollution.
Cut back to grow
Until now the most prominent voices in the battle to reduce emissions have come from the environmental NGOs and public health researchers. But now, with jobs, contracts and future growth at stake the much more influential corporate world – ranging from airlines to reclamation contractors to hoteliers – and the Government have a compelling interest in cutting pollution across Hong Kong.
What can be done? It is helpful to separate the actions that AAHK can influence itself from those that would require Government support. Electrification of air-side vehicles and equipment lies directly within AAHK’s control. Making the airport island a progressively tightening low emissions zone, forbidding entry to diesel vehicles which do not meet Euro IV emissions standards (initially) is another approach.
This would drive all companies on the airport island (including the public transport operators) to start thinking hard about upgrading both their own fleets and imposing higher standards through tender conditions on their suppliers. It would also improve the general emissions profile of the Hong Kong vehicle fleet, delivering air quality benefits throughout the SAR. The Housing and Transport Bureau would also need to play a key role in this.
Reducing background emissions from other sources, including marine vessels, power stations and the Pearl River Delta will be more difficult and require support from a much wider sector of the Government.
It will be very interesting to see how these non-traditional proponents for cleaner air respond to a new role as environmental advocates.