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May 10, 2012
UNDP Reports on Outlook for Sustainable Development in Asia-Pacific
    by Robert Kropp

Exploring both widespread poverty and the impacts of climate change on the region, the report warns that the private sector and other stakeholders must act in order to galvanize government action.

Since the Industrial Revolution, developed nations have enjoyed historically unparalleled growth and prosperity. To a large extent, they have managed growth by externalizing the costs of environmental degradation and social inequality. In a word, the growth is and has been unsustainable, both in terms of the depletion of finite natural resources and persistent widespread poverty in many developing nations.

As a new report entitled One Planet to Share: Sustaining Human Progress in a Changing Climate states, "In a globalised environment, nation-states have less individual control over their own destinies." To date, globalization has meant for the most part the relocation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the poorer countries, "as a result of globally dispersed and interlinked production and consumption chains."

According to the 269-page report, published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), economic growth in the developing nations of the Asia-Pacific region is essential. More than half of the world's population and 900 million of its poor— including two-thirds of the extreme poor, living on less than $1.25 a day—live in the region. Increasingly, the privilege enjoyed by already developed nations, of turning a blind eye to the environmental and social degradations for which they share responsibility, is unsustainable.

So economic growth in Asia-Pacific, where the vast inequality between developed and developing nations is being played out on a microcosmic scale, is an imperative. For example, "there are more than 2.5 billion mobile phone subscriptions, yet half its population, or almost 1.9 billion people, lacks basic services such as access to flush toilets," UNDP points out. But only the most entrenched climate deniers could attempt to argue that growth can occur without accounting for climate change.

The impacts of climate change in the region are already being felt, more acutely perhaps than anywhere else in the world, in the forms of extreme weather events and rising sea levels. Furthermore, as the report states, "While the most vulnerable people have contributed little to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, they will face some of the most serious consequences."

"Meeting the challenges of climate change will be the only way to sustain existing human development gains and achieve new ones," the report continues. "A moral imperative exists as well, in ensuring equitable access to resources, both among people living now and for the generations to follow."

At present, 85% of energy production in Asia-Pacific comes from fossil fuels. Obviously, the scale of economic growth necessary to the region cannot occur unless reliance on high-emitting energy sources is curtailed. The report details a number of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects underway in the region, and observes that the pace of a transition to clean energy can be accomplished more quickly with international cooperation. The involvement of investors in such a transition will be crucial; after all, as UNDP points out, "more than 90 per cent of climate change finance is sourced from private markets."

"Private-sector investments are required to scale up and trigger innovation, while they need to recognize that new markets and efficiencies can be tapped," the report states. "Meanwhile, enlightened citizen-investors represented by investment institutions can hold companies to account, and better-informed citizens and the media can serve a watchdog role."

The entrenched challenges to sustainable growth in Asia-Pacific as well as other developing regions are considerable, and few would argue that the challenges are being met anywhere close to the degree that is needed. People are reluctant to exchange business as usual for sustainable coexistence, and are often encouraged to persist in old consumerist ways by corporations whose greenwashing campaigns often obscure ongoing environmental degradation. And climate change policies are still being set domestically, while domestic emissions know no such boundaries.

"Governments will need to assess the suitability of existing institutions," the report warns. The decision-making of a sustainable future must take into account the voices of a vastly increased number of stakeholders; "more inclusive participation can expand political voice and reveal who is bearing the costs of climate change," the report states. Although the report does not state it explicitly, the implication seems clear: those in power must cede much of that power to the traditionally disenfranchised, in order to address inequality and arrive at a meaningful consensus on climate change.

Absent a global consensus and a reformation of institutions, "the private sector, municipalities, civil society and individuals can already take an array of steps that accelerate change," according to the report. The steps outlines include encouraging a transition to green technologies; expanding the sources of available financing, to maximize the "effective use of domestic public finance to the fullest extent possible;" strengthening common knowledge of climate change and its impacts; and encouraging concerted international cooperation.

Quoting the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the report states, "The important principle of common but differentiated responsibility'…recognizes the historical differences in the contributions of developed and developing countries to the earth's environmental problems, as well as the differences in their capacities to respond effectively." In other words, the sacrifices endured by the vulnerable people of developing regions must be shared; it is the aforementioned unparalleled growth and prosperity enjoyed by developed nations that is to a great extent responsible for that vulnerability.

In 2010, the Tellus Institute issued a report which explored possible scenarios to the challenge of sustainable development. According to the report, ongoing inequalities between rich and poor countries could lead to a basic restructuring of the world order in the form of a Fortress World. In the Fortress World scenario, income inequality reaches extreme levels, and "powerful world forces, faced with dire systemic crises, impose an authoritarian order in which elites retreat to protected enclaves leaving impoverished masses outside."

Against such a dire scenario, Tellus proposed a Policy Reform scenario, which would include a redistribution of wealth to developing countries. This targeted redistribution would allow developing nations to accelerate investment in sustainable energy as they approach the standards of living enjoyed elsewhere.

Tellus was understandably pessimistic about the likelihood of the Policy Reform scenario, stating in its report that it "would require an unprecedented mobilization of political will to make the regulatory, economic, social, technological, and legal decisions that would align development with sustainability goals." The political will to do so, according to Tellus, "is nowhere in sight."

In its report, UNDP sounds a note of cautious optimism, observing that action by the private sector and other stakeholders could "galvanize government commitment to cooperate better for the good of humanity." Thus far, however, it is difficult to disagree with the pessimism sounded by Tellus. Next month's Rio+20 Conference will help reveal whether the commitments of governments to poverty reduction and meaningful action on climate change has been galvanized.


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