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On Earth Day, Protecting Natural Resources Critical to Sustainable Development

April 20, 2011

Over 40 years ago, the effort to raise political and public awareness about mounting environmental issues in America took hold, and in 1970, the first Earth Day was held. Inspired by the anti-Vietnam War movement seizing the United States at that time, millions of Americans from coast-to-coast marched in the streets and organized rallies to raise awareness about deteriorating environmental conditions. The first Earth Day was a landmark event, and 1970 also saw the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the bi-partisan passage of some of the fundamental environmental laws in this country – the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Then Wisconsin Senator and founder of Earth Day Gaylord Nelson said, “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.” By 1990, the Earth Day movement had gained global momentum and spread to more than 140 countries; the first U.N. Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Next year, in 2012, marking the 20th anniversary of that Rio Earth Summit, the United Nations will hold the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, or “Rio +20.”

Bangladesh village along river

Climate change affects the poorest and most vulnerable in the world most severely – and Asia stands to face the brunt of its impact. In countries like Bangladesh, above, people are already facing the consequences of rising sea levels. Photo by Srabani Roy.

Indeed, since the first Earth Day, which focused on the need to protect and conserve our natural resources, the movement has evolved to encompass the goal of “sustainable development” in an increasingly interconnected world threatened by the impact of climate change. Having just returned from Vietnam myself, it is hard to imagine that such a terrible conflict a mere 35 years ago devastated the country. Today, Vietnam has a GDP growth rate of 6 percent per year, and high-end luxury cars are a common sight amid the thousands of motorcycles careening through the streets of Hanoi. The country has transformed itself from a net importer of rice to being the second largest exporter of rice in the world. For the socialist government of Vietnam, economic growth, industrialization, and poverty reduction are major priorities, which often come into conflict with environmental protection. But Vietnam, like many middle-income countries, has come to realize that economic development can no longer come at the price of environmental degradation, and that the need for sustainable growth and development, particularly in light of the threat of climate change to coastal areas, forests, water resources, infrastructure – indeed, the entire economy – is essential. Climate change will have a significant impact on Asia and threatens to place additional pressure on already scarce resources across the region, and to undermine many of the gains in economic development and poverty alleviation that Asian countries like Vietnam have experienced over the last several decades.

We still need to enforce environmental protection of our air, water, and finite natural resources, but with ever increasing global temperatures, it is evident that people all over the world are already feeling the impact of climate change. It is not something that will happen to us in a hundred years – it is happening now. Undoubtedly, climate change affects the poorest and most vulnerable in the world most severely – and Asia stands to face the brunt of its impact. In countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and the Pacific Island states, people are already facing the consequences of higher temperatures – increased intensity and frequency of cyclones, sea level rise, “hundred-year floods” that are happening every five to 10 years, as well as droughts that significantly damage infrastructure and people’s livelihoods. But while emerging Asian economies like Vietnam, China, and India – which are increasingly becoming large emitters of greenhouse gases themselves – now have greater resources for reducing their greenhouse gases through “low-carbon growth,” less developed countries in Asia are not standing idly by.

Developing countries are no longer simply waiting for the wealthy nations to agree on caps to their greenhouse gas emissions, even though it is now commonly recognized that developed countries have an obligation to reduce and pay for their unabated greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution – one of the main causes of global warming that leads to climate change. Instead, they are actively pursuing adaptation and/or mitigation strategies themselves. With the help of international donors, NGOs, national and international scientists, and climate change experts, developing countries’ national, provincial, and local governments, their civil society, their businesses, and their citizens are increasingly aware of and committed to finding innovative ways to adapt to the consequences of climate change. Some are also committed to mitigating their own greenhouse gas emissions, even though their emission levels are far lower and they are not responsible for the climate change we are seeing today. As seen in the posts in this special Earth Day edition of In Asia, even the poorest and most vulnerable populations are attempting to address the impact of climate change: whether by changing the type of crops they grow, and the fish they farm or catch in order to adapt to drought or more saline conditions;  or by increasing capacity of governments and communities to prepare for disasters; or by recognizing that climate change adaption, mitigation, and disaster preparedness require sound technical knowledge combined with planning, leadership, and good governance. As in the early days of Earth Day, there is a slow but growing realization – at the local, national, and global level and across developing and some developed counties – that addressing climate change and protecting the environment and our finite natural resources must be integral to sustainable development and economic growth.

Srabani Roy is director of The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs. She can be reached at sroy@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Srabani Roy

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