Megaprojects are large scale investment projects, many of which are internationally famous, such as Australia’s Sydney Opera House, SpaceX’s program to colonize Mars, and the Panama Canal. Megaprojects garner a high level of excitement — and justly so, as they hold cultural, economic, and social significance. However, the questionable ethics of megaprojects needs to be examined as they increasingly become the dominant mode of infrastructure construction.
As technology continues to advance, engineers are pushing the boundaries of what is feasible in construction. Megaprojects are entirely different from the typical construction project. The ambition of a megaproject is to change society, while a normal construction project simply fulfills a need. A construction project is considered a megaproject if it costs 1 billion USD or more, takes many years to complete, involves public and private stakeholders, and impacts millions of people . This era has ushered in a boom of megaprojects that are increasingly massive and expensive. In fact, global infrastructure spending is projected to be worth 3.4 trillion USD per year between 2013 and 2030, most of which will be channeled into megaprojects .
There is no doubt that megaprojects are necessary and can benefit the public, but there are aspects of megaproject construction that need to be improved. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HZMB), a Chinese megaproject, is a prime example for the examination of construction concerns. Megaprojects can be justified by utilitarian ethics because they have a positive influence on the economy and benefit millions of people, but megaprojects simultaneously lower the intrinsic value of the local environment by harming wildlife and creating pollution. According to environmental ethics, megaprojects are not moral. Although utilitarian and environmental ethics have conflicting moral codes, a method to appeal to both is by considering ecosystem intrinsic value (EIV).
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HZMB)
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HZMB) is one of many ambitious Chinese megaprojects. Completed after upwards of a decade of planning and construction, the cost of the bridge totals about 20 billion USD. It currently holds the record for the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge, stretching approximately 34 miles (55 km) . Furthermore, the tunnel is the world’s longest immersed tunnel, with nearly 4 miles of tunnel buried up to 40 meters below the seabed . This bridge crosses the Pearl River Delta and connects mainland China and Macau on the bridge’s western end to Hong Kong on the eastern end.
There are already well-established methods of transportation between Hong Kong, Zhuhai, and Macau, including railways, ferries, roads, and plane routes. However, the HZMB has been widely publicized for its ability to cut a 3-hour trip down to 30 minutes . Its visibility across the delta serves as a hallmark of China’s engineering prowess. The HZMB also serves as a cultural symbol of connection by tying mainland China to Hong Kong and Macau, two special administrative regions previously held by foreign countries.
The HZMB can be viewed as 3 sections. To the west, there is the Main Bridge which began construction in 2009. To the east is the Hong Kong bridge which began construction in 2011. There are also roads, a boundary facility, and another bridge connected to the Hong Kong bridge. Between the two ends of the bridges is an underwater tunnel, which has 33 elements that were built on land and fitted underwater. Each side of the tunnel connects to its above-ground bridge via an artificial island. The entire bridge was completed and opened in 2018, after about 8 years of construction .
Prescribers of utilitarian ethics agree that actions are considered moral if they increase “good” for as many people as possible, as much as possible. What is considered moral is based on the consequences of an action. Following G.E. Moore’s principle of ideal utilitarianism, good encompasses a very wide range of ideas, including pleasure and beauty . Through a utilitarian lens, the construction of megaprojects such as the HZMB is ethical due to the great number of people that reap benefits from the projects.
The Greater Bay Area (GBA) is a recent concept outlined in the Chinese Government’s 13th Five-Year-Plan . It comprises the regions of Hong Kong and Macau, the city of Zhuhai, and 8 other cities surrounding the Pearl River Delta (shown in Figure 4). A focus of this 2016 initiative was to improve the GBA economy. The regions and cities in the GBA are historically important contributors to the Chinese economy. In 2018, the GBA accounted for 13% of China’s GDP despite containing only 5% of the Chinese population. The Chinese government saw a possibility to create a bay area that would surpass the productivity of major competing bay areas of San Francisco and Tokyo . With the creation of the GBA, competition between cities would be eliminated. Instead, each region would specialize in its areas of strength. Hong Kong would be a center for international trading and finance, Macau would be a center for tourism and hospitality, and Zhuhai would be a center of manufacturing and shipping . Due to the size of the GBA, the success of this plan was dependent on infrastructure. All the regions needed to be connected to expedite business activities and allow for the migration of workers and students. As a route that directly connects opposite ends of the bay, the HZMB is an integral part of China’s 13th Five-Year-Plan.
However, a major downside of megaprojects is that they are notorious for going over budget. According to a study of global megaprojects, almost 9 out of 10 megaprojects go over the predicted budget, and costs are on average 28% higher than predicted . Considering that the original investment starts in the territory of billions of USD, the extra costs incurred are significantly large. The HZMB megaproject was estimated to require 10 billion USD , but it ended up costing about 20 billion USD. Hong Kong, Macau, and Zhuhai funded 42% of the costs using taxpayer dollars and 58% of the costs with bank loans . Concerningly, a professor from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou has estimated that the bridge will break after 72 years, which is just 60% of the bridge’s estimated life expectancy of 120 years. The substantial amount of money put into the HZMB raises the question of whether taxpayer dollars were allocated well. This is especially true for Hong Kong citizens. In a survey of 703 Hong Kong residents, 46.2% of participants expected the economic benefits of the HZMB for Hong Kong to be “very little” or “not at all” . It is likely that the local citizens of Hong Kong, and possibly Zhuhai and Macau, would have been happier if their taxpayer dollars had gone towards alternative projects, such as funding of local schools, public parks, social assistance, smaller infrastructure projects, and other essential services.
Though the taxpayers of Hong Kong, Zhuhai, and Macau should have a say in where tax revenue is directed, utilitarian ethics say otherwise. The entire GBA stands to benefit from the HZMB. Beyond the GBA, infrastructure such as the HZMB can help propel China to a more competitive economic position. To increase the good of as many people as possible, the construction of the HZMB was the better course of action. Additionally, the megaproject was planned to be aesthetically pleasing, which may bring happiness in the form of infrastructural beauty.
Using only utilitarianism to examine megaprojects such as the HZMB leaves many unaddressed questions. Since megaprojects have lasting environmental consequences, environmental ethics should also be applied. Instead of fulfilling the happiness of humans, environmental ethics considers the rights of the natural environment. Philosopher Aldo Leopold defined the land ethics approach to environmental ethics. In his book, A Sand County Almanac, he declared that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” . Philosopher Richard Sylvan added to land ethics by stating that non-human life on Earth has inherent worth separate from that of usefulness to humans . He supported this with a hypothetical situation where only one person is left on Earth. This person could go about eliminating all living things, but it would not be considered wrong according to anthropocentric-based ethical values (such as utilitarianism) because this person did nothing to affect the well-being of humans. However, there is the intuition that this is a wrong action. Therefore, all living things have inherent worth .
Due to the lengthy timelines of megaprojects, their environmental impact is considerable. The HZMB was under construction for 8 years, and during construction, thousands of piles had to be driven into the seafloor, from one end of the delta to the other. This was carried out using the world’s largest vibration hammer . Four miles of tunnel were placed and buried on the seafloor. The megaproject loosened marine sediment from dredging, impacted water quality, and removed some natural shoreline. As with any construction project, the local air quality worsened, noise pollution increased, and local wildlife was impacted. However, these environmental effects were anticipated and mitigated. To reduce dust pollution, work areas were watered to keep dust from blowing away. Temporary noise barriers were put up to comply with required noise levels. A seawall was erected to preserve the water quality, and studies were done to confirm that the bridge had minimal impact on the delta’s water flow patterns. A protection zone was also provided for the local dolphins . However, it seems that these strategies were not enough.
One instance of the bridge’s negative impacts on wildlife despite environmental measures can be seen in the Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin population. Often called the Chinese white dolphin, this species is distributed in coastal waters of Southern China and South Africa. One of the densest populations of Chinese white dolphins is found in the Pearl River Delta . Currently, the Chinese white dolphin is classified as vulnerable. For almost two decades, the World Wildlife Fund has been surveying areas of the Pearl River Estuary near Hong Kong. The information recorded shows a trend of decreasing density of dolphins in the estuary that has progressed for almost two decades. When Hong Kong began construction of the Eastern side of the HZMB, dolphin usage of the habitat near bridge construction decreased, and dolphin habitat usage within the Pearl River Estuary became less distributed. Although most of the marine construction involved with HZMB was completed in 2016, there has been no recovery in dolphin habitat use .
A fairly new approach to quantifying environmental damage from human activity, such as construction, is by measuring ecosystem intrinsic value (EIV). A 2019 study used this EIV approach and estimated that the environmental cost of the HZMB was 19.6 billion USD (2008 dollars) while the economic benefit of the bridge was predicted to be 21.1 billion USD (2008 dollars). This study measured matter, energy, and information in the Pearl River Delta by considering solar radiation, waves, sediment, nutrients, zooplankton, bacteria, species diversity, and other aspects of the ecosystem. This measurement was then converted to a monetary value. EIV is based on environmental ethics, so the value of an ecosystem is independent of the human socio-economic system. The monetary value allows humans to conceptualize the impact of their actions; it is not an evaluation of loss of value to humans .
According to the approach of land ethics, the construction of megaprojects such as the HZMB is immoral. The HZBM had negative and lasting impacts on the ecosystem of the Pearl River Estuary. Under the land ethics approach, the most moral action would be to not build the HZMB or any megaprojects at all. Using environmental ethics, human activity will almost always be at odds with what is most moral. Instead of completely abiding by environmental ethics, humans treat the safety of all forms of life on Earth as negotiable. This brings up a question that is not easy to answer: if humans consider what is environmentally ethical in terms of a sliding scale, how much environmental damage should be tolerated before it is considered too much?
Although the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HZMB) megaproject was the focus of this text, the megaproject ethical dilemma is not limited to China; megaprojects’ effects on our world is an international issue. As megaprojects continue to grow, society needs to find a way to regulate them so that they are designed, built, and maintained as ethically as possible. There needs to be a middle ground between building megaprojects and sustainability.
The application of ecosystem intrinsic value (EIV) methods to assess environmental cost can be a starting point for this middle ground. By assessing both economic benefits and EIV costs, megaproject planners can gauge the human benefit as well as the loss in an ecosystem’s intrinsic value that a project will cause. If the ratio of EIV cost to economic benefit is too high, regardless of the economic benefits, megaproject operations should not be allowed to continue until protections are added to significantly reduce the EIV costs. Unfortunately, EIV is not the current accepted method of evaluating projects. Ecosystem services value (ESV), a measure of the utility of an ecosystem to humans, is popularly used instead . The mindset that we as human beings have when creating megaprojects needs to change if we are to make positive lasting impacts on our environment.
By Helen Situ, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
About the Author
At the time of writing this paper, Helen Situ was an undergraduate studying mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California. She would like to see the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge someday.
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Links for Further Reading
Megaproject management expert discusses intentional under-estimating of megaproject budgets: https://www.econtalk.org/bent-flyvbjerg-on-megaprojects/
Megaprojects is a Youtube channel that examines various megaprojects, including their costs and impacts: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0woBco6Dgcxt0h8SwyyOmw
The HZMB’s history, structure, and facts: https://multimedia.scmp.com/native/infographics/article/2178737/everything-you-need-know-about-hong/