Asia to Take the Lead towards a Sustainable Future: Pipedream or a Possible Reality?

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Like many buzzwords, sustainable development can mean a variety of things depending on who is using it and how. A quick Google search (as well as asking experts) would reveal the same: the definitions might not differ that much, but the implications vary vastly, ultimately implying that there really is no one way towards sustainable development. Among the varying opinions that exist out there, some suggest that the developed bloc (such as the U.S. or the European Union) should take charge in the matter. However, there seems to be a growing trend nowadays that looks at Asia to take a more leading role in paving the way for a sustainable future. This subject was at the forefront during one of the panel discussions at the UNEP SWITCH-Asia Conference on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) in November 2012.

The question then is what makes Asia so special when it comes to hoping for a more sustainable future? To begin with, Asia has almost half of the global population. It is blessed with an abundance of natural resources and it ranks as one of the fastest growing economic regions in the world. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the global growth in both consumption and production will be particularly high in that region. A large (and growing) population also means a rising demand for resources; in other words, a bigger stress on the environment and its capacity to support us – the antithesis to sustainability.

But having these characteristics in place also puts Asia in the ‘ideal’ position to leapfrog their way to a more sustainable future. Developing Asian countries have the ability to sidestep outdated, environmentally damaging technology and instead adopt cleaner and more advanced alternatives. An example of this would be the transition to mobile phones in rural areas, which bypasses the process of building telephone poles for landlines. More importantly, however, is that Asia would stand to benefit the most from the leapfrog approach, seeing that it is also home to an estimated 70% of the global poor. Given the rapid growth that the Asia-Pacific region is facing, as well as the dire need to tackle the poverty situation, smarter decisions and legislations are needed. Applying Environmentally Sound Technology (EST) such as solar panels to provide heating and power would be an example of this.

As for the international framework to implement SCP strategies, the discussion during the conference revolved around Asia being poised to engage their partners in a global, regional, and sub-regional cooperation. An example of this that involves regional participation would be Japan’s Low Carbon Society 2050 initiative (LCS) which aims to assist and facilitate other Asian countries in implementing LCS policies through a revision in institutional architecture, resource management, and low carbon transport systems. A study by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) and National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES) in Japan reiterates how LCS requires a leapfrog approach in order to be effective in paving a way for a more sustainable future for the region.

Although the leapfrog method seems ideal and promising, more often than not, it is impeded by a lack of institutional capacity, limited funding as well as lack of skills to properly manage and adopt newer technology. Arguably, one the biggest hurdles is the fact that technology is constantly being improved or introduced into the market so developing countries will find difficulty in keeping up with the changes and eventually end up in a ‘lock-in’ effect, i.e. not being able to move past the (recently labelled) inferior technology.

On the other hand, Asia won’t be able to properly carry out this leadership role without critically and thoroughly assessing the developed nations’ path of development. I had the opportunity to interview Dr Magnus Bengtsson , Director of SCP Research from IGES, on the respective roles of developed and developing countries in sustainable development. He pointed out that the model employed by the developed world is a “huge, historical failure”, not to be emulated by developing nations. Indeed, much of the industrialisation of the developed countries resulted in extensive environmental damage (e.g. pollution & land degradation),  and efforts must be made to discourage any ‘copy-cat’ behaviour. He added that developing countries should not look at where their counterparts are at present but at where they are heading in the future.

Dr Bengtsson went on to say that while developed nations can provide technology transfers, their well-established research and development processes should help to capitalise on existing knowledge by combining high-tech solutions with sustainable traditional practices. Both developing and developed nations are, however, too absorbed in what he described as our own “narrowly-defined self-interests” and so instead of focussing primarily on our individual needs and issues, we should be thinking about what we need to achieve as a collective.

So in the end, is it possible for Asia to take the lead? One answer would be that it’s not impossible. In fact, a European Union report about “The World in 2025” might reinforce this notion, as it predicts that Asia will be home to 61% of the world’s population and poised to become the biggest economic region. With this in mind, it would make sense as to why Asia should take a leading role. However, this is no race between developed and developing countries, so who is in lead shouldn’t really matter, as long as everyone is on the same track. But if we’re keeping scores (and if the rate of sustainable transitions is any indication), the leap won’t be swift.

Featured Image: Futuristic Cities. Source: Christian Miranda, CityLIFE Challenge, Ronenbekerman.

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