Live Research Bulletin: How Asian Countries Are Protecting Their Environments and Economies

Development RoastBy Carolynn Look and Garance Marcotte

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” -Chinese Proverb

Some of the greatest ancient civilizations used to roam the lands that are now India, China, and Thailand. They were known for practices that showed a deep-rooted respect for the world around them, both in their daily lives and in their spirituality. Still today, the harmony between man and nature is seen in many parts of Asia, from Mongolian nomads living in yurts, to Tibetan monks leading minimalistic lives and seeking spiritual balance with everything around them. However, in many other places, this relationship has changed. Rapid urbanization is changing the continent’s landscape as rural-urban income disparities increase, water bodies are becoming severely damaged and pollution is at some of the world’s worst levels.

Along with the miraculous economic growth that has occurred in the last decades, many parts of Asia face enormous environmental dilemmas. However, like we have seen in our environmental-economic accounting (EEA) research for Europe, North America and Latin America, governments are starting to consider environmental costs as important factors within their Gross Domestic Product (GDP), realizing that economic growth cannot sustain itself without considering long-term environmental effects. And Asia is no different.

Leading the way in green accounting are countries like Korea, that regularly produce accounts describing, for example, environmental expenditure and natural resource supply, and have undertaken great efforts to fund green investments and maintain the land’s 60 percent coverage by forests. Read more about this in our previous article South Korea and the Environmental Kuznets Curve. Japan, too, has adopted an accounting system based on the United Nations System of Environmental Economic Accounting model, in which they produce data about waste, wastewater management and pollution reduction, which can later help devise more economically and environmentally sustainable policies. China, the superpower of the continent, is still in the process of devising an environmental accounting system, but is already implementing Five-Year National Economic and Social Development Plans (FYPs) and Five-Year Environmental Plans (FYEPs), which provide a high-quality framework for pursuing environmental goals.

However, SEEA experiences vary across the continent as much as they do across the earth. Although many countries have implemented initiatives to create national systems of environmental accounting in order to integrate principles of sustainable development, globalization and the rules of the World Trade Organization seem to diminish the power of some states. Thus, the interest in such a system varies considerably whether you are in Europe, the Americas, or in South, East, or Southeast Asia.

This is demonstrated particularly in the experiences of Thailand and Indonesia. Following rapid economic development, Thailand has depleted much of the abundant natural resources which it was once endowed with, particularly its forests, which used to cover 75 percent of the country and played host to a variety of species that made its biodiversity one of the richest on earth. Due to over-industrialization, national welfare has grown, but deforestation has been aggressive, and no policy has been put in place to regenerate this input, threatening other activities in the agricultural sector and urban development. In Thailand, as in many other Asian countries, the forest and its products are a vital economic input but they still don’t have a market value. Unfortunately, including environmental costs in national accounting is still an ongoing task in this country and not a top priority for its government.

Indonesia, on the other hand, has had more success addressing environmental-economic accounting. In 1990, the imputed environmental costs where equivalent to 4.9 percent of Indonesia’s Net Domestic Product (NDP). For Indonesia, the main costs of improving the environment were associated with land use changes and oil exploitation. Indonesia had to deal with many catastrophes and thus has taken the path towards a low carbon economy as a means to improve life quality. According to President Yudhoyono at the 2009 G20 summit:

“We are devising an energy mix policy … that will reduce our emissions by 26 percent by 2020. With international support, we are confident we can reduce emissions by as much as 41 percent.”

Many political initiatives have been taken in the last years to reform economic policy to meet the green economy objective. Some of them include laws on Environmental Protection and Management (2009) and Energy (2007), and the consideration of import taxes on tools and materials in national accounting, all of which has demonstrated Indonesia’s will to turn to renewable energy development.


Asian SEEA Potential – Are they doing all they can?

Establishing environmental-economic accounts across Asia is not as easy as, say, within the European Union. This is due to the rather large economic growth gaps between nations, the lack of a legally-binding union, and could perhaps even be related to diplomatic disharmony, for instance between China and Japanover the recent Diaoyu Island conflict. The fact remains that environmental issues cannot be tackled alone, and require the cooperation of regions. A case that especially demonstrates this fact is China’s impressive forest regrowth. Although China has significantly cut down on deforestation on its home turf, imports of wood from Vietnam or countries as far away as Bolivia have increased greatly, adding to transport emissions and shifting the problem to other, more impoverished nations.

However, the possibility for cooperation exists. The delegations of China, Japan and South Korea on Monday called for strengthening cooperation in emergency response to natural disasters and environmental protection among the three countries, especially to ensure nuclear safety. Also, during the past years there has been a remarkable effort in working together among the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), who have met regularly to discuss environmental issues and have reached out to other superpowers such as China and Korea for cooperation. Nonetheless there are issues such as pollution control and cooperation in protecting biodiversity, climate change, education, and management of water resources, which ASEAN has had little influence on, and increasing green production methods is still pending an official agreement. Most importantly, an issue that must be strengthened is the legal framework that punishes countries that do not respect the compromises they agree on.

More environmental efforts in this part of the world still need to be made. Most countries in East and South East Asia have not been affected by the economic crisis as much as in other parts of the world. Due to their increase in population and national production it is very important for the future that they realize their impact on next generation and therefore synchronize their policies.

Carolynn Look and Garance Marcotte are research and communications interns with INESAD.

Do you know of any Asian environmental success stories? Share in the comments below.



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