By CSR Asia Centre
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A new United Nations report about the growth of Asia has given Asian countries a warning they can no longer develop first and rein in carbon emissions later. The report is part of an attempt to persuade countries such as China and India to make deeper cuts to fast-growing carbon emissions. But the report also acknowledges that without fast economic growth, 900 million people in the region will remain in poverty, unable to afford decent lives. The challenge, according to the UN, is to make sure these countries can continue to grow and at the same time live within the limitations of our environment.
The report emphasises that growing first and cleaning up later is no longer an option for developing nations. It rebuts an argument mounted by emerging industrial giants China and India that developing nations are entitled to leeway on carbon emissions while lifting their people out of poverty.
The UN says that the goal is clear; reduce poverty, increase prosperity but leave a smaller carbon footprint. Achieving balance is paramount because Asia-Pacific's most economically vulnerable people face the most serious consequences of climate change. More than 700 million people in the region live in poverty while also exposed to high risk of climate change effects.
The UNDP report describes as a "startling contrast", that though per capita greenhouse emissions from the region are among the world's lowest, their share of the global total is almost one third. Asia-Pacific countries burn more than 80 per cent of the world's coal used directly for industrial production and 85 per cent of the region's primary energy is generated from coal, oil and natural gas. Asian countries generate 37 per cent of global emissions from agriculture, including deforestation.
Thus the dilemma facing us is related to the fact that Asian growth is reducing global inequality, but does so in a way that is mortgaging the future and is likely to negatively impact future generations. We should be interested in giving people choices which allow them to live a healthy, long life. But we must do this in a way that does not mirror the unsustainable the consumption patterns of the Western world.
Despite consumption growth rates of 5 per cent or more, one in 10 people in the Asia-Pacific region suffer from ''chronic under-consumption'' with minimum dietary intake, a quarter have no electricity.
The UN report says that the battleground between growing consumption and climate change will be fought in the world's mega-cities, half of which are in the Asia-Pacific region. By 2026, more than half of the region's population will live in a city. While cities occupy just two per cent of the land in Asia, they contribute more than two-thirds of greenhouse gases, particularly from transport and electricity.
But such mega-cities are also going to be at huge risk as our climate changes. Low-lying mega-cities, for example, are not only the engines of future climate change, but also its most likely victims, with poor people in cities having a limited ability to adapt to a changing climate.
As is so common with UN reports, it inadequately addresses the role of the private sector in moving towards economic growth, which is more consistent with sustainable development. Large businesses in the region really need to take a lead on these issues, demonstrating that growth can be achieved without significant impacts and the environment and that simply doing business with poor people in mind can alleviate poverty.
Indeed, many companies in the region are certainly more advanced in their approaches to environmental challenges that the governments in the countries where they operate. If the UN were to put a greater emphasis on the role of the private sector in finding solutions to unsustainable growth, rather than talking only to governments, we might just move forward much faster.