A chimney of the Datang Yan'an Power Plant is blown off as part of the shutdown of a small capacity unit in Yan'an, Shaanxi province, early this month. The plant has closed 14 such units with a total capacity of 460,000 kw since last year, to increase production efficiency and reduce emissions. Xinhua
Asia is turning a new leaf in the book of development, and that leaf is green. That's why the 1,000-odd business leaders, politicians and scholars to the Boao Forum for Asia have placed the environment on top of their annual agenda. The forum opens on Friday amid deep worries over a global economic recession, volatile food and energy supply, still rising oil prices, and poverty and global warming.
President Hu Jintao is expected to reiterate the country's commitment to sustainable development when he addresses the forum on Saturday. But the commitment seems to have become infectious, with a group of states leaders charting their roads to building a green Asia.
The Boao Forum began in 2001 as a high-level interaction platform for leaders from Asia and other continents. The theme of this year's meeting, if accepted by Asian political and business leaders, will be a timely and practical breakthrough, based on the experiences gathered and lessons learned from Japan's economic boom, the rise of the so-called Asian tigers and the miraculous advances made by China and India.
In a continent that despite an annual average economic growth of 6 percent has about 600 million people living on $1 or less a day, "it's a difficult but plausible mindset change," says US-based Environmental Defense Fund's chief economist Daniel J. Dudek.
Economic development has occupied the top slot on most Asian economies' agenda since the 1970s, with governments promising to share the benefits with the people and enterprises eager to reap in more profit. Such has been the rush for economic growth that very few, a handful actually, have stopped to ask whether the high growth rate can be sustained and whether the price paid by the environment is too high.
But "then people have begun seeing the consequences", Dudek says. Because of the fast pace of urbanization and industrialization, developing countries in Asia today account for 29 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, three times more than their share three decades ago, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). And with the continent needing about $6 trillion in investments in the energy sector by 2030, that share is likely to rise to 42 percent.
The warnings are stark. Asia-Pacific region is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with fluctuations in agricultural productivity, decrease in the availability and quality of water in most arid and semi-arid areas, disruption of or even decline in ecology and biodiversity. The poor will suffer the most because of volatile weather that causes floods as well as droughts. The tropics and sub-tropics will become more susceptible to malaria, dengue and other vector-borne diseases.
Shortage of freshwater could plague about 1.2 billion people in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020, and crop yield in Central and South Asia is estimated to drop by half between now and 2050. The rise in sea level because of a further rise in global temperature could displace tens of millions of people living in low-lying areas and threaten the very existence of small island states.
A UN report says Asia's major coastal cities, including Bangkok, Jakarta, Karachi, Manila, Mumbai and Shanghai, are vulnerable to flooding and damage from unpredictable weather. And people living in Tuvalu, the Maldives and costal Bangladesh could become "environmental refugees" within this century.
"Unless specific policies and actions are taken, the region will quickly become the main driver of climate change," warns ADB Vice-President Ursula Schaefer-Preuss. Which means building a green Asia would require more than just the currently fashionable rhetoric.
So what are the specific solutions? A genuine shift in fundamentals is an absolute must. And the Boao Forum could be an ideal platform for that because business leaders will explore "responsible investment" during a panel discussion there.
The tidal wave of foreign investments sweeping Asia has become used to the existing conditions, so governments have to make a concerted effort to convince domestic and foreign partners that the rules and expectations have changed.
The first step in this area should be rigorous enforcement of existing environmental laws, irrespective of offending companies' stature and reputation. Killing a few chickens to scare the monkeys will go a long way in making the message clear. The next step should be rewarding those who prove their environmental credentials to accelerate the transformation from "brown to green". Governments can use their policies to show multinationals' procurement officials how they expect them to conduct business in their country.
The race for a share of the global market will be determined not by corporate officials chanting a green mantra, but by showcasing real green performance and innovative products. "As in basketball, we need to watch their feet, not their mouths," says Dudek.
China should not be committed only to responsible investment. It should learn from one of major development lessons of past three decades, too. Like most other developing country, the Chinese government's agenda has been dominated by economic development since it began its reforms and opening up three decades ago. Even today, some local governments and officials are launching new business projects to gain favor of their superiors.
The central government, however, ended this environmentally harmful practice last year by deciding to link officials' careers to energy saving and emission control. The newly elevated Ministry of Environmental Protection has been attaching green economic tools to loans, securities and insurance to monitor every step of enterprises.
Another way of looking at "responsible investment" is outward, that is, having a global view. With its economic ties deepening across the world, China has become a stakeholder in many countries and regions. That should serve as a caution call for China and investors in the country who are making money but are encountering big environmental challenges and energy crunch. "As the biggest player at the table, China needs to show the way," Dudek says, and the country has already begun building the foundation.
Economics Nobel laureate and former World Bank chief economist and senior vice-president Joseph Stiglitz says there is also a need to orient China's investments, including investments in innovation, toward saving resources rather than saving labor (the focus of innovation in the West). This is just one part of a broader set of changes, sometimes referred to as "the new economic model". The patterns of consumption and production that have characterized the West are simply not viable. So if they are followed by the emerging countries, the future of our planet will be in jeopardy.
If China takes the lead in transforming its economy, it will have a competitive advantage in new technologies and products that will inevitably dominate (the world market) in the coming decades, Stiglitz says. "In a sense, there is no choice It is the only way that China can have robust, sustainable growth in the coming decades."
(China Daily 04/11/2008 )