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.
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."
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."
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
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
"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
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.
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