THE ZHUHAI BRIDGE: A TEST OF OUR COMMITMENT TO SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT – AND TO CONTROLLING AIR POLLUTION
[Article by Bill Barron and Paul Zimmerman; appeared in 30 October 2004 edition of the 南華早報, and used with kind permission of the authors.]
To move toward sustainable development in practice, decisions must be evaluated and modified in light of its principles. For the planned Zhuhai bridge, the governments involved should evaluate the environmental sustainability of accelerating development of the western Pearl River Delta (PRD) and only allow the bridge to go ahead when we have identified air pollution offsets elsewhere.
More than a road link between Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau, the bridge is intended to open up the western PRD to industrial expansion and to entice cargo shipments via Hong Kong. While, the growth of Hong Kong’s economic hinterland is appealing, we need to ask ‘how can the added development be made environmentally sustainable’.
The PRD’s air quality is bad and getting worse. Even by our own arguably rather lax, air quality objectives, we now breathe pervasively unhealthy air. For more and more of the year the air shed we share with the rest of the PRD is well beyond its capacity to absorb current pollutant loads.
As bridge proponents have argued, there is an approximate 3 hour limit for the driving time from Hong Kong that local entrepreneurs use for locating the factories they finance or manage. In the eastern Delta, Dongguan is about at this limit. A bridge to Zhuhai would open up similar opportunities for development to Zhongshan, and with new highways to Shunde or beyond.
Satellite photographs of the PRD show that the western side is relatively green today, whereas the eastern side is built up and is seen to generate much of the PRD’s air pollution. The bridge would roughly double the size of Hong Kong’s industrial hinterland. Today, there are between about 40 and 50 million people living and working in the delta. With the opening up of the west, this could easily increase by 20%. Even if all of the additional 10 -15 million people are engaged in relatively clean manufacturing, their sheer numbers increase demand for electricity, road transport and other energy intensive (and potentially polluting) activities. We are already choking at current levels of population and economic activity.
How are we to accommodate these new emissions?
First we call on the Hong Kong and Guangdong governments to develop an up-to-date emissions inventory, including a detailed assessment of the quantity and quality of the fuel being used for back-up power generation by individual factories. Once we know what emissions are, we should then cap them (for now) and allow the financing and construction of the bridge to go ahead only when we have identified, agreed and implemented air pollution offsets elsewhere in the delta.
The emissions inventory will help to prioritize actions. A prime area for action would appear to be the inadequate power generation capacity in Guangdong. As a result, tens of thousands of factories upwind from Hong Kong employ their own, inefficient, power generators. This is made worse by the use of low quality fuel. The growing transportation of freight and people is similarly made worse by low quality fuel. In fighting air pollutants, improvements in fuel quality are typically a highly cost-effective early step.
An improvement closer to home would be a greater reliance on natural gas for Hong Kong power generation, cooking and transport. Indeed, an important part of the long term solution is a more natural gas-intensive energy economy for the PRD supported with more and larger liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals.
Clearly, we need to work with Guangdong authorities to reduce (not just cap) the pollutant emissions throughout the PRD, so that Hong Kong and the PRD once again become attractive and healthy places to live and work. Sustainable solutions will not come overnight, but if we fail to make the financing and construction of the bridge conditional, then it seems highly unlikely that we will again enjoy relatively clean air in our lifetimes or even those of our children.
Bill Barron, Associate Professor, Centre of Urban Planning and Environmental Management, University of Hong Kong
Paul Zimmerman, Principal, The Experience Group, a policy and strategy consultancy, and convenor of Designing Hong Kong Harbour District