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Rio+20: Greening the Asian Tiger

June 20, 2012

Tens of thousands are gathering in Brazil this week for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), which is expected to be the largest event in the history of the United Nations. World leaders will discuss the advances that have been made over the past two decades on applying the commitments set forth in Agenda 21 of the Rio Declaration at the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. They also seem determined to negotiate a set of new commitments for the coming decades, known as The Future We Want outcome document, which will aim to close some of the major gaps for achieving sustainable development under Agenda 21.

Indonesia street

The general policy focus for Asian economies-in-transition is still on meeting short-term welfare benefits as opposed to medium- to long-term sustainable development goals. Developing states argue that they, too, have a right to attain industrialized standards of living. Photo by Ted Alcorn.

The general debate is that policies and practices in support of attaining sustainable development have not kept pace with mounting pressures from unabated economic growth worldwide or with increasing demands for finite natural resources in order to pursue such growth. This realization is despite the fact that current development paths have resulted in continual challenges for natural resource management, ecological disasters, and a rapidly changing climate.

The most contentious issues that threaten to derail consensus on the text include defining the principles of adhering to environmental governance, promoting a green economy, and overcoming equity concerns in the pursuit of cleaner development goals. The draft document has received widespread criticism from politicians and practitioners alike that its proposed program of action for “green growth” will not deviate dramatically from our current economic system, one that assumes the privatization and commodification of natural capital and ecosystem functions should remain at the core of sustainable solutions.

The majority of NGOs and civil society organizations from the region are advocating in their Asia-Pacific Rio+20 Declaration for “green” investments, innovations and technologies, systems and policies, and mechanisms (such as the trading of carbon, forests and biodiversity, and water) that are truly green. That is, they will not result in the “concentration of control over nature, land-grabs, bio-piracy, displacement and marginalization of communities most dependent on access to these resources, as well as the loss of cultural identities, languages, and traditional systems, values, and principles.”

In order to overcome these challenges, the Rio+20 summit offers Asian leaders an opportunity to reaffirm the need for:

  • Effective and transparent institutions and cooperation among businesses, government, and society, specifically addressing corporate oversight in extractive industries and land-use;
  • More inclusive and accountable management of environmental capital and fragile ecosystems (such as the Himalayan glaciers, rainforests in Borneo and Papua New Guinea, coral reefs throughout the Pacific, and peat lands in Indonesia), especially in terms of pollution monitoring and greater access to information;
  • Promotion of women’s rights in the economy and wider participation of civil society in environmental movements; and
  • Recognition of serious climate change challenges faced by South and Southeast Asia, high-mountain, land-locked, and Small Island Developing States in the region.

It also allows them to discuss the huge elephant in the room going forward: the concern over inadequate financial resources facing the region for attaining ambitious “green growth” targets. The general policy focus for Asian economies-in-transition is still on meeting short-term welfare benefits as opposed to medium- to long-term sustainable development goals. Developing states argue that they, too, have a right to attain industrialized standards of living – and that while binding, low-carbon and resource-efficient approaches are developed, that they should not be required to forfeit their less sustainable poverty alleviation plans and objectives. As such, economic growth continues to be driven by the consumption of environmental capital as an infinite public good.

Regardless of these affirmations, Japan, China, Korea, and Malaysia (among the Asian nations that have passed aggressive low-carbon, renewable energy development plans) seem to agree that “going green” does not mean simply choosing between clean environments or accepting a less affluent standard of life. Regulation can solve problems that markets ignore, and investing in things such as clean air and water have benefits that often outweigh the costs in terms of healthcare and lost worker productivity. They are beginning to take the first steps toward enabling a “green economy” future and seeking partnerships between the public and private sectors that have broad advantages for society, the environment, and the competitiveness of their economies. As Christine Lagarde, the first head of the IMF to attend a UN conference on environmental issues, stated in Rio earlier this week: “Environmentally-sensitive fiscal policy has two distinct advantages.  First, it is the best and most comprehensive route to reducing environmental damage. … Second, in these difficult budgetary times, countries need revenue and these kinds of tax or tax-like instruments can deliver.”

Regional policies are also working to “green the Asian tiger,” even if Rio+20 is not able to produce a final outcome document that will hold individual governments accountable to binding standards. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Honolulu last November committed to: promote liberalization of trade and investment in environmental goods and services; streamline import procedures for energy-efficient vehicles; facilitate trade in re-manufactured products; phase out fossil fuel subsidies; reduce energy intensity; develop low-emissions strategies; promote participation of SMEs in green-growth sectors; and advance the sustainable development of oceans, focusing on the role of oceans and fisheries in climate change and food security.

A common sentiment in Rio this week is that all this sounds great on paper, but if governments do not go home from these large conferences and generate national policies that support bottom-up approaches and local solutions, then any international agreement formed this week will most likely not make a substantial global impact. “Sustainable development”  insists that development is not just about how poor countries can ameliorate their situation and rich countries can reduce their environmental impact, but what the entire world, including industrialized and rural populations alike, can do to ameliorate our collective situation.

Essentially, harmonizing global prosperity and ecological balance has become one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. As the late Elinor Ostrom, Nobel laureate in economics, said in her final article, setting international targets “can overcome inertia but everyone must have a stake in establishing them: countries, states, cities, organizations, companies, and people everywhere. Success will hinge on developing many overlapping policies to achieve the goals.”

Kourtnii S. Brown is a program associate for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at kbrown@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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