Google satellite images of north Lantau Island show bits and pieces of land emerging from the South China Sea just north of Chek Lap Kok. As this new land rises out of the water and becomes the third runway at Hong Kong International Airport, new questions arise about the wisdom of the project which was originally scheduled for completion in 2024.  

As is customary in huge engineering projects, cost overruns have already appeared and there is little chance that the runway will be operational by the originally projected date. However, the cost and timing no longer appear to be the main issue at stake.

The reclamation site of Hong Kong airport’s third runway project. Photo: FactWire.

If Cathay Pacific’s share price, now at a two-decade low even with a huge government cash injection, can be taken as a proxy for the airline industry as a whole, one has to wonder at the wisdom of reclaiming 650 hectares of ocean at a cost of hundreds of billions of Hong Kong dollars. Not to mention the environmental costs.

Of course, a few years ago, no one could have predicted that a capricious virus would come along and cripple air travel. After all, the current two runways at the airport, also built at a massive cost, provided a smooth and seemingly necessary transition from Kai Tak over two decades ago, and have served Hong Kong very well since. By the time Covid-19 arrived, runway capacity had almost been reached at Chek Lap Kok, so it did seem to make sense to build another one.

At least that’s one way of thinking.

Cathay Pacific planes at the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: GovHK.

But the folly of the third runway runs much deeper than simple notions related to the expected expansion of cargo and passengers. And it may be that we needed a nasty virus to bring the bigger picture to light: the airline industry’s significant contribution to global carbon dioxide emissions and, ergo, climate change. This prompts us to consider possible new sources of power.

Enormous advances have recently been made in battery technology. We are now at a point where we can envision electric vehicles completely replacing petrol-powered ones within a couple of decades, if not sooner. These vehicles, in principle, are much better for the environment, because if the source of their electric power is renewable — say solar or wind –,they create no carbon emissions when they are driven. And although most of Hong Kong’s electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, and the city has a long way to go on this front, the potential is clear?

A traveller in the Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: GovHK.

Air travel powered by batteries, however, is another story. Even cutting-edge battery technology has no early hope of powering conventional passenger jets. Presently, the most advanced electrically powered aircraft are single seaters flying at less than half the speed of passenger aircrafts. There is simply no getting around the fact that carbon-powered flight will be with us for another generation or two. Herein lies a problem.

Large airplanes made by Boeing and Airbus require prodigious amounts of kerosene to get off the ground and be propelled through the atmosphere. And unlike electric cars and buses, they will continue to be powered this way for the foreseeable future, spewing huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Which brings us back to that third runway. 

All the projections about future growth in air traffic that were made during the runway’s planning stage are now up for question. These projections assumed unbridled economic growth as if it were the only model for humankind. Under that assumption, in another couple of decades a fourth runway would be built, and in another generation or two, a fifth.

Chief Executive and top officials at a press conference on July 13, 2020. Photo: GovHK.

In one sense, Covid-19 may be a blessing in disguise because the collapse of air traffic it caused helps us realise that the economic-growth model, with its carbon-fuelled way of life, is unsustainable. 

The folly of the third runway has mostly fallen under the local radar while Covid-19 and the new security law have taken centre stage. But those 650 hectares reclaimed from the sea, possibly destined for white-elephant status, should be a reminder that our present trajectory is seriously flawed.

There is still time to reconsider. One suggestion is to let all those hectares lie fallow and allow nature take over. Within a generation it could become a green reserve for all of Hong Kong to enjoy.

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Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.