THE CHALLENGES OF GOING GREEN
United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) Deputy Executive Secretary Kaveh Zahedi gives a sober assessment of the Asia Pacific Region’s environmental progress
McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, released a report on climate risk and response in Asia. With millions living in coastal areas, Asia is severely affected by climate change. The report indicated that by 2050, some parts of Asia may experience an increase in average temperatures, fatal heat waves, unpredictable precipitations, water supply changes, and other calamities, such as hurricanes and drought. The urgent question now is: What do we do? Is what we’re doing enough? Are we near to fulfilling our goals? LEAGUE finds out the answers to these questions and more.
1. How does the environment affect the socio-economic progress of a country, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, and vice-versa?
Our experience from the Asia-Pacific region has shown that a singular focus on economic growth will not deliver inclusive, resilient, or sustainable development. Environmental contamination and destruction will undermine development, as has been demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and will more often than not disproportionately impact the most vulnerable socio-economic sectors. Take air pollution, for example. If countries tackle the widespread air pollution crisis, some 7% of the GDP from welfare loss will be saved, while preventing the increase in premature deaths from air pollution. In the same thread, without ending poverty, curbing inequality, and addressing social needs, people will remain vulnerable to disasters and shocks. In Asia-Pacific, low levels of social protection mean that 60% of the region’s population has no protection if they become sick, develop a disability, or become unemployed, pregnant, or old. This is a vulnerability that was exposed clearly as a result of COVID-19. With the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the world has moved away from the false separations in development. Sustainability, inclusivity, and resilience are intertwined and are necessary for successful economic progress in the long run.
2. In the Asia-Pacific region, which countries are making significant progress in terms of environment and sustainable development?
What makes them successful? Each year ESCAP assesses the progress of implementation of the 17 SDGs. From that assessment, it is clear that Asia-Pacific as a whole is behind on its environment-related goals and targets. While the region has made strong progress on some SDGs, such as poverty reduction (Goal 1) and achieving quality education (Goal 4), it has regressed in promoting responsible consumption and production (Goal 12) and climate action (Goal 13)—both of which are environment-related goals. We can see that the Pacific countries have shown leadership on stronger action to tackle climate change. The recent announcement from the President of China regarding peak emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060 is also a source of real hope. The Republic of Korea’s Green New Deal also points to the possibility of building back better. The indispensable ingredient for success is political will and leadership.
3. According to the Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report 2020, the region reports poor performance on most of the measurable environmental targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. What are the reasons behind the region’s poor performance?
It is correct to say that the region is not yet on track in terms of environmental stewardship. If we dig deeper into the data, a few patterns emerge. For example, under climate action (Goal 13), the region’s continued dependence on fossil fuels and decreasing share of renewable energy in the energy mix play a major role in the increasing greenhouse gas emissions (GGEs). The overall share of renewables decreased between 1990 and 2017, from 17% to 12%, while the share of fossil fuels in the energy mix increased from 80% to 85%. At the same time, the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters linked to climate change are undermining development and hard-won development gains. Each year, the region incurs an average loss of US$675 billion, 2.4% of total regional GDP, to climate-induced disasters. Our analysis identified the Philippines as one of the 10 countries in the region incurring the largest annual loss to climate-induced disasters, with 75.8% of population living in high multi-hazard-risk areas. Under responsible consumption and production (Goal 12), the region is still investing in the brown economy of the past rather than the green economy. Fossil fuel subsidies still outweigh investments in renewable energy by nearly US$100 billion in a year. In addition, domestic material consumption and carbon emissions grew at a faster pace than GDP expansion between 2000 and 2019. Improving energy and efficiency of material resources of only 1% in Asia Pacific could generate approximately US$275 billion worth of savings in terms of resource costs, an amount equal to 51% of the FDI (Foreign Direct investment) inflows to the region in 2017.
4. What can the Asia-Pacific countries do to improve their performance and meet environmental targets?
Aligning finance and investments with the ambitions of the SDG is a critical step. Our analysis estimates that developing economies in the region will need an annual additional investment of $1.5 trillion, equivalent to 5% of the region’s GDP in 2018, to achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030. Within this investment, $590 billion per year will be needed to invest in clean energy, climate change, and environmental protection. This ambition will be affordable with sound tax policy, efficient public spending, and private sector engagement. Ending fossil fuel subsidies will provide the fiscal space for green investments and increased social protection. Ending all investments in coal will safeguard not just the commitments under the Paris Agreement, but also mitigate countries being left with stranded assets and debt they can ill afford. Addressing air pollution and transforming our cities with clean, energy-efficient, and climate-neutral infrastructure and transport will bring immeasurable health and welfare benefits and create millions of jobs.
5. What can ordinary citizens do to help?
The bulk of the responsibility to achieve the SDGs and to make the investments needed to move economies towards sustainability must come from governments and businesses with the right green policies and investments. So, our first lever for change is to ensure governments
and businesses share our concerns about climate change, air pollution, environmental degradation, and sustainable development. Each of us can also be part of the solution in other practical ways. Our daily choices make a difference. These include using public transport and not cars, buying from local shops and local food to reduce the carbon footprint of our shopping, and driving behavior change in our communities. At ESCAP, for example, we have banned all single-use plastics from our headquarters building in Bangkok two years ago and are now working to reduce our waste. If this was replicated in every office building, school, and shopping centre, can you imagine the impact?