Clouds over Asia's Future

The bad news, however, is that such rapid growth does not come without a cost. Economic growth is essential to overcome poverty. This should, however, not happen at the expense of the environment and the chances of future generations to utilise Asia's natural resources.

Currently, some 44 million people are being added to Asia's urban population every year, equivalent to 120,000 people a day. This trend is expected to continue. The United Nations forecasts Asia's urban population to reach almost 2 billion people by 2015, or nearly half the regional population.

This rapid urbanisation has brought tremendous opportunities and benefits to Asians, particularly in the areas of education, health care and other social services. But the fast growth of cities has also brought significant strains on health, housing and environment. Agglomerations are struggling to absorb their mushrooming populations.

One crucial urban challenge is how to deal with increased mobility and number of vehicles on the road, and cut back on the harmful vehicle emissions they produce. Even under the most optimistic current scenarios for managing the expansion of road traffic, emissions of carbon dioxide - a significant greenhouse gas - from the transport sector will treble in Asia over the next 25 years. At the same time, local air pollution threatens human health in various ways. This danger is exacerbated on increasingly congested roads, a phenomenon that, in its own right, is already hampering the ability to move people and goods as desired and is thus becoming an obstacle to future economic growth.

With the dramatic increase in vehicle use in the region, transport is not simply the largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions. It is also the fastest growing. With vehicle fleets doubling every five to seven years, there is an urgent need to come up with cost-effective emission reduction measures for transport.

Stabilising and reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are essential to global sustainability. Even before the release of a recent report on the issue from the United Nations, there was compelling evidence that the world is getting warmer, with the international scientific community now accepting that there has been an increase in global average surface temperature of about 0.6°C over the 20th century. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased by 31 % since 1750 to levels that have not been exceeded during at least the past 420,000 years.

These atmospheric changes have severe implications for the global climate. A major effort is needed from all stakeholders, including the international development community, to promote energy efficiency. This is particularly the case in the transport sector. These challenges must be tackled urgently at the global, national and local levels. Emerging Asia (including China and India) is expected to account for 45 % of the total world increase in oil consumption through to 2025, as the gap between these economies and the mature-market economies substantially narrows. China's energy use for transportation is projected to grow by six to nine percent per year; in India, energy demand in the transport sector is projected to grow at annual rates of five to eight percent.

More cars

At present, Asia's emerging economies have low levels of personal motorisation. Moreover, most vehicle fleets comprise a large share of two-wheelers with relatively low fuel consumption per mile travelled. In China, for instance, the total number of personal vehicles for every 1,000 people remains modest with about 45 vehicles per 1,000 persons (of which fewer than ten are four-wheelers) compared with 530 per 1,000 persons in Japan (of which 430 are four-wheelers). But the sheer size of the economically emerging giants China and India may mean that, on their roads in a relatively short time, there will be vehicle fleets comparable in absolute numbers to that of the United States.

The combination of accelerating incomes, fast urban growth and expanding vehicle ownership should not be allowed to continue unchecked. Otherwise, there would be a massive risk of Asian cities' and economies' future economic advancement becoming severely restricted by environmental problems. Today, the rapid growth in motorisation in most Asian cities is causing the relative share of public transport to decline. Although there are some prominent exceptions, most cities in emerging Asia only offer a rather low quality of service in their public-transport sectors. Bus and train fares are normally cheap, and transport relatively fast. However, buses and carriages are often overcrowded and dirty. Moreover, there are important personal security and safety issues - not to mention the high levels of polluting emissions. On top of all this, accessibility issues are often evident. High entrance deck heights on buses, for example, effectively bar entry to women with small children and the elderly.

The growth in vehicle numbers is likely to increase drastically as economic growth continues and an increasingly prosperous urban population is readily able to afford cars and fuel-guzzling sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), for which demand in Asian cities is expected to grow faster than gross domestic product. Emerging Asian countries are expected to integrate an additional 35 million vehicles (excluding two- and three-wheelers) into their fleets between 2006 and 2009, with China alone accounting for around 80 % of that increase.

If current trends continue, the total number of cars and SUVs in use in China is forecast to grow 15 fold in 30 years (from 12.9 million in 2005 to around 193 million in 2035). In India, the expected numbers are smaller - but they only pale in comparison with China, not in absolute terms. According to recent estimates, the number of cars and SUVs on Indian roads will rise 13 times from 6.2 million in 2005 to around 80 million in 2035. At current rates, total fuel consumption of road vehicles in China will grow three-and-a-half times over the next 30 years, while India's fuel consumption in 2035 will be over six times higher than it was in 2005. At the same time, urbanisation and growth of motor traffic are also occurring in many other Asian countries.

Even if investment and land were available, it is not feasible to build roads and associated infrastructure at rates that match the forecast growth of urban vehicle numbers. Moreover, the practice of constructing multilayered expressways is increasingly understood to negatively affect the quality of life of any given city - and thus also its attractiveness in business terms.

The figures make it abundantly clear that Asia must put its economic growth - and particularly its energy consumption - on a path that is not only more equitable but also better sustainable. Our work at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) demonstrates that to achieve real reductions in the rate of growth in greenhouse gases from the transport sector, the problems must be addressed holistically. This means changing existing patterns of travel behaviour and modifying urban development patterns to minimise the type, length, and frequency of trips that people need to take.

What is required is accelerated urban reform, together with innovative traffic technologies and new management methods that respect the differences between countries, cultures and cities, designing specific visions and action plans for each single case. Faster implementation of innovations - whether regionally developed or adopted from elsewhere - is necessary.

Of course, the professionals in charge should share knowledge and experience systematically on a regular basis. Progress towards reducing the growth of greenhouse gases from the transport sector will require partnerships and involvement of a wide range of stakeholders. As the region's development bank, ADB has undertaken several comprehensive initiatives in energy efficiency and climate-change mitigation. We support the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities, a regional network of cities, government agencies, business, civil society, development agencies and academia.

Future efforts in urban planning, combined with structural changes to the transportation system and improvements in the fuel economy of vehicles, could slow down the growth rate of greenhouse emissions in Asia. To help tackle this problem and to address related issues, ADB is funding a regional technical assistance project aimed at developing innovative ways of managing and financing rapidly growing cities.

Any vision for economic development, urbanisation and motorisation up to 2025 involves a “post-Kyoto” view, in the sense of countries in emerging Asia recognising the facts of climate change. Within this time frame, the largest countries will be solidly established among the largest worldwide emitters of greenhouse gases and will have to bring about a paradigm shift to offset the damage that could be done.

Delaying action will only cause greater cultural and economic shocks. Neglect of the pressing problems will have severe long-term implications for the social and economic development of emerging Asia. A sea change is needed, with a new Asian consensus emerging to guide policy-making and investment decisions. Planners should think in terms of moving people as opposed to provisions for maximising the use of private vehicles. Action must be taken immediately.