HONG KONG - As coal burns, wetlands disappear and climate becomes unpredictable, Asia is paying the price for years of economic expansion.
by Karl Wilson
Asia’s strong economic growth over the last two decades has lifted millions out of poverty but it has come at an enormous cost to the environment.
Throughout the region, the full impact of global warming is already starting to have an impact. We are seeing prolonged droughts while typhoons are becoming more intense and erratic.
The use of fossil fuels such as coal to power the region’s electricity grids is increasing rather than decreasing, pumping more carbon dioxide — one of the key ingredients of global warming — into the Earth’s atmosphere.
We are already seeing the effects of global warming on the region’s coral reef systems with intensified bleaching.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has warned that wetlands that once covered tens of thousands of kilometers of shorelines are disappearing faster in Asia than anywhere else in the world.
The National University of Singapore’s Centre on Asia and Globalisation said economic growth has brought about “degradation to the environment”.
A research paper titled Environment and Economic Growth said: “An economy cannot grow forever without any consideration to the ecosystem. For sustainable economic growth, there must be a balance between economic growth and ecosystem utilisation.”
Environment: Ecological impact could reverse economic growth and worsen quality of life
In May, the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) published a report, Environmentally Sustainable Growth: A Strategic Review, in which it claimed much of Asia’s economic growth has been achieved at the “expense of massive environmental degradation and climate change”.
Prepared by the ADB’s Independent Evaluation group, the report said the past pattern of growth is now “widely accepted as unsustainable”.
Since 1990, developing Asia and the Pacific has more than tripled its living standard and reduced extreme poverty (people with expenditures below US$1.25 a day) from more than 50 per cent to about 20 per cent, according to Vinod Thomas, director general of independent evaluation at the ADB.
“At the same time, vital environmental indicators have unmistakably deteriorated in much of the region,” he told China Daily Asia Weekly.
Thomas said the region has now become the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases.
“Air pollution in Beijing, New Delhi and at least a dozen other major Asian cities is dangerous and unacceptable.
“The quality of life, despite higher average incomes, has plummeted. Urban pollution and congestion have contributed to global warming and the devastating hazards of nature (floods, storms, droughts, heat waves) to which the region itself — especially its poor — is the most exposed.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the Asia-Pacific region had the largest air-pollution-related burden in 2012, with an estimated 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution and 2.6 million due to outdoor air pollution.
WHO pollution data on 1,600 cities for 2014 found that half of the top 20 cities in the world with the highest levels of particulate matter 2.5 emissions were in India.
Thomas said that in terms of the Millennium Development Goals, a United Nations-led blueprint to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people, the environment is one area where the region has lagged others while it has led in growth and poverty reduction.
“In particular, the loss of forest cover and rise in greenhouse gases or their carbon dioxide equivalent emissions have been dangerously on the rise,” Thomas said. “Unless these gaps are addressed urgently, Asia will not achieve sustained growth going forward.”
China recognises this more than any other country, both because the environmental degradation has been the greatest and because policymakers realise that people’s well-being and plain economic growth depend on reversing these disastrous environmental trends.
Asia produces about 40 per cent of global economic activity and two-thirds of global growth. About 60 per cent of the world’s population live in Asia. Experts predict 3.3 billion people will live in Asian cities by 2050, up from the current number of about 1.9 billion.
“Meeting the challenge of runaway climate change requires a rapid transition to a low-carbon path, but many countries remain ambivalent about this choice because of concerns this will come at the expense of economic growth and shared prosperity,” Thomas said.
The ADB report’s main author, Andrew Brubaker, acknowledges that stepping up to the plate with investments and policies to help achieve environmentally sustainable growth — such as by expanding access to clean electricity where coal is readily available — is a tall order given the global economic outlook.
“The recent lowering of global growth projections by the International Monetary Fund and other institutions is unnerving policymakers,” said Brubaker. “But it would be false economics to delay decisions promoting environmentally sustainable growth and climate action.”
Brubaker also noted that worsening environmental conditions are increasingly affecting social cohesion, as manifested by demonstrations over intensifying air pollution in Beijing and Delhi. Similarly, low water security and the effect of more frequent and intense droughts threaten the livelihoods of the rural poor in South Asia.
The report identifies the most “immediate and serious” environmental threats facing Asia as urban air pollution, lack of proper solid waste management, degradation of fresh water resources, soil erosion, destruction of biodiversity habitats, and the mass extinction of species.
Thomas from the ADB said: “These have the potential to reverse the region’s impressive economic progress, reduce the quality of life, and even cause pandemics — and this, in essence, is the reason why countries must not delay in putting their economies on an environmentally sustainable growth path.”
The ADB report noted that Asia’s demographic and economic growth is predominantly an urban phenomenon, with cities now accounting for about 80 percent of the region’s GDP. As a result, the adverse effects of climate change and related impacts on air, water and soil quality are primarily experienced in urban areas.
By 2050, Asia’s urban population is expected to nearly double from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 3 billion, putting additional strain on infrastructure and natural resources.
“As the benefits and costs of Asia’s economic growth manifest themselves most visibly in cities, addressing urban environmental issues and improving urban resilience is a key challenge,” said the report.
Yet it noted: “The growing acknowledgement of increasing environmental degradation in Asia has not been matched by sufficient action.”
The entry of new lenders for development — the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank of Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) — will provide more and much-needed financing for infrastructure, a core ADB area in which the institution can leverage its expertise in environmental sustainability and climate action.
Bharat Dahiya, an urbanist with the Social Research Institute at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, said Asia’s extraordinary growth has produced “unprecedented challenges” for governments in the region.
“Over the years, Asian governments have focussed more on economic growth while neglecting important issues of environmental management, disasters and climate change,” he told China Daily Asia Weekly.
Dahiya said that cities have played a transformative role to become the engines of Southeast Asia’s economic growth.
“They have capitalised on the opportunities provided by globalisation, export-led growth and their own demographic expansion,” he said. “Having said that, they are also wrestling with unique challenges related to urban infrastructure … the environment and climate change.”
He explained that Asia’s rapid urbanisation has left many areas without safe drinking water and sanitation.
“Water and soil pollution from urban economic activities threaten to bring irreversible damage to natural resources,” he said.
“Rising incomes have led to an explosion in private automobile and motorcycle sales, degrading urban air quality. Energy consumption in some regional cities parallels that in developed countries, while others are unable to meet even basic demand.”
Dahiya explained that there is no historic parallel to these acute issues facing Asia, as industrialised nations had the luxury of dealing with their development challenges over a long period of time.
“Southeast Asian cities are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters given their unique geographies and high population densities. The result is that most cities find themselves perpetually in firefighting mode,” he said.
“Some Asian nations have chosen the development mode of ‘grow first and clean later’, but that will not work for all of Southeast Asia.”