Hong Kong will face a record budget deficit next year and the financial secretary has called for prudent spending, given the ongoing economic and pandemic uncertainties. Top of the list should be ditching the East Lantau reclamation project “Lantau Tomorrow Vision”, with its eye-watering price tag of HK$624 billion (US$80.5 billion) at 2018 prices.

This vast exercise, to create 1,700 hectares of new land by filling in the sea, did not stem from a strategic environmental assessment designed to find an optimal solution to multiple pressing issues. Rather, it is a rehashing of a 1980s idea and it really shows in its mentioning nothing about climate change, one of the most pressing issues of our time. Any new project of this size should be an integral part of Hong Kong’s climate response.

The result is a one-dimensional “solution” from the past, with obvious issues around any integration with transport networks and the real need for a new business district. Environmental outcomes would include changing ocean currents and creating vast dead zones devoid of marine life, destroying habitats of endangered endemic species and damaging key habitats for Hong Kong’s threatened finless porpoises.

The mining of vast amounts of sand that would have to be dredged from somewhere amid a global sand shortage would destroy another living habitat as well as Lantau’s.

Given the huge global and local uncertainties – and the fact that even if everything goes smoothly the project will not provide new housing until the 2030s – it would be reckless to plough ahead with this project now. Nobody could have predicted the massive slowdown in air travel caused by Covid-19, putting a huge question mark over the financial viability of a third runway, but to initiate another vast infrastructure project while the post-pandemic world is so uncertain would be foolhardy.

This act of sheer folly would squander Hong Kong’s precious financial resources, which are badly needed to build a resilient Hong Kong that all can be excited about. They should not be used to create a potential white elephant so clearly focused on benefiting developers and the construction industry rather than the Hong Kong people.

For now, Hong Kong’s strategic focus on housing should be on upgrading our ageing housing stock with energy-efficient buildings that can generate their own power and aggressively tackling brownfield sites – 1,500 hectares of which already have the necessary infrastructure in place to address the near-term housing shortage problem – while safeguarding the incredible natural heritage that makes Hong Kong so unique.