Stop­ping Asia-Pacific be­ing the world’s worst pol­luter

Bangkok Post - - WORLD - SHAMSHAD AKHTAR ERIK SOLHEIM Shamshad Akhtar is ex­ec­u­tive sec­re­tary of the United Na­tions Eco­nomic and So­cial Com­mis­sion for Asia and the Pacific. Erik Solheim is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme.

How can we use our re­sources more ef­fi­ciently to con­tinue to grow our economies in a man­ner that does not tax our nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment or gen­er­ate pol­lu­tion af­fect­ing pub­lic health and ecosys­tem health? There is cer­tainly much room for im­prove­ment to make in this area.

Re­sources such as fos­sil fu­els, biomass, met­als and min­er­als are es­sen­tial to build economies. How­ever, the re­gion’s re­source ef­fi­ciency has re­gressed in re­cent years. Asia is un­for­tu­nately the least re­source­ef­fi­cient re­gion in the world. In 2015, we used one third more ma­te­ri­als to pro­duce each unit of GDP than in 1990. De­vel­op­ing coun­tries use five times as many re­sources per dol­lar of GDP in com­par­i­son to the rest of the world and 10 times more than in­dus­tri­alised coun­tries in the re­gion. This in­ef­fi­ciency of re­source use re­sults in wastage and pol­lu­tion fur­ther af­fect­ing the nat­u­ral re­sources and pub­lic health which are the ba­sic el­e­ments for en­sur­ing sus­tain­able eco­nomic growth.

As the speed and scale of eco­nomic growth con­tin­ues to ac­cel­er­ate across the re­gion, pol­lu­tion has be­come a crit­i­cal area for ac­tion. While the chal­lenge of pol­lu­tion is a global one, the im­pacts are over­whelm­ingly felt in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. About 95% of adults and chil­dren who are im­pacted by pol­lu­tion-re­lated ill­nesses live in low and mid­dle-in­come coun­tries. Asia and the Pacific pro­duces more chem­i­cals and waste than any other re­gion in the world and ac­counts for the bulk — 25 out of 30 — of cities with high­est lev­els of PM2.5, the tiny at­mo­spheric par­tic­u­late mat­ter that can cause res­pi­ra­tory and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­eases and can­cer. More than 80% of our rivers are heav­ily pol­luted while five of the top land-based ocean plas­tic sources are from coun­tries in our re­gion. Es­ti­mates put the cost of marine pol­lu­tion to re­gional economies at a stag­ger­ing US$1.3 bil­lion.

If left unat­tended, these trends threaten hard-won eco­nomic gains and ham­per hu­man de­vel­op­ment. But while these chal­lenges ap­pear in­tractable, the re­gion has tremen­dous strengths and op­por­tu­ni­ties to draw from. Many coun­tries hold solid track records of suc­cess­ful eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion. The ca­pac­ity for pro­mot­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity as an in­te­gral pil­lar of sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment must now be de­vel­oped across all coun­tries in the re­gion

There are some pro­found changes un­der way. The re­gion is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the largest ru­ral to ur­ban mi­gra­tion in his­tory. De­vel­op­ing these new ur­ban ar­eas with re­source­ef­fi­cient build­ings, waste wa­ter and solid waste man­age­ment sys­tems can do much to ad­vance this agenda. Ad­vanc­ing the “shar­ing econ­omy” might mean we have bet­ter util­i­sa­tion of as­sets such as ve­hi­cles, houses or other as­sets, greatly re­duc­ing ma­te­rial in­puts and pol­lu­tion. The wide­spread move to re­new­able en­ergy should rein in fos­sil fuel use. And ad­vances in re­cy­cling, ma­te­ri­als tech­nol­ogy, 3D print­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing could also sup­port greater re­source cir­cu­lar­ity.

Mov­ing to green tech­nolo­gies and ecoin­no­va­tion of­fer eco­nomic and em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. Re­new­able en­ergy pro­vided jobs for 9.8 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide in 2016. Waste can be con­verted into eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing jobs. In Cebu City, the Philip­pines, con­certed Solid Waste Man­age­ment has borne fruit: Waste has been re­duced by 30% in 2012; treat­ment of or­ganic waste in neigh­bour­hoods has led to lower trans­porta­tion costs and longer use pe­riod in land­fills. The poor have largely ben­e­fited from hun­dreds of jobs that have been cre­ated.

At the pol­icy level, it is vi­tal that re­source ef­fi­ciency and pol­lu­tion pre­ven­tion tar­gets are in­te­grated into na­tional de­vel­op­ment agen­das, and tar­geted le­gal and reg­u­la­tory mea­sures to en­force re­source ef­fi­ciency stan­dards should be es­tab­lished. For ex­am­ple, China has in­sti­tuted a na­tional sys­tem of leg­is­la­tion, rules and reg­u­la­tions that led to the adop­tion of a com­pul­sory na­tional cleaner pro­duc­tion au­dit sys­tem that has been in place for more than 10 years. The direct eco­nomic ben­e­fits from this sys­tem are es­ti­mated to be more than $3 bil­lion an­nu­ally.

Fur­ther, we need an ur­gent re­form of fi­nan­cial in­stru­ments. Too lit­tle cap­i­tal is sup­port­ing the tran­si­tion to green and re­source-ef­fi­cient econ­omy — a ma­jor por­tion of cur­rent in­vest­ments is still in high-car­bon and re­source-in­ten­sive, pol­lut­ing economies. The pol­luter-pays prin­ci­ple and en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­ter­nal­i­ties are not yet fully in­te­grated into pric­ing mech­a­nisms and in­vest­ment mod­els. The avail­abil­ity of in­no­va­tive fi­nanc­ing mech­a­nisms and in­te­grated eval­u­a­tion meth­ods are im­por­tant for up­scal­ing and repli­cat­ing re­source-ef­fi­cient prac­tices. For ex­am­ple, the large-scale pro­mo­tion of bio­gas plants in Viet­nam was made pos­si­ble by har­ness­ing global cli­mate fi­nance funds. Sev­eral coun­tries in the re­gion, such as In­done­sia and Sri Lanka, have de­vel­oped com­pre­hen­sive, sys­temic ap­proaches that em­bed sus­tain­able fi­nance at the heart of fi­nan­cial mar­ket de­vel­op­ment. We should draw from the lessons learned from these ex­pe­ri­ences.

Re­source ef­fi­ciency and pol­lu­tion pre­ven­tion must be recog­nised as an im­por­tant tar­get for ac­tion by sci­ence, tech­no­log­i­cal and in­no­va­tion sys­tems. This is vi­tal for the on­go­ing de­vel­op­ment of tech­nol­ogy, and for scal­ing up tech­nolo­gies. Re­search shows de­vel­op­ing coun­tries could cut their an­nual en­ergy de­mand by over half, from 3.4% to 1.4% over the next 12 years. This would leave en­ergy con­sump­tion some 22% lower than it would oth­er­wise have been — an abate­ment equiv­a­lent to the en­tire en­ergy con­sump­tion in China to­day.

We need to move to a more re­source­ef­fi­cient and pol­lu­tion-free growth path that sup­ports and pro­motes healthy en­vi­ron­ments. The cost of in­ac­tion for man­ag­ing re­sources ef­fi­ciently and pre­vent­ing pol­lu­tion is too high and a threat to economies, liveli­hoods and health across the re­gion.

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