A green agenda will nurture Asia's growth

Environmental goals hardly attracted attention in national economic agendas during Asia's heady charge for growth 20 years ago. But, as the costs of environmental destruction and climate change mount, the economic plans of [the People's Republic of] China (PRC), India, Malaysia and the Philippines, among others, all stress the urgency for green growth.

The crucial question, however, is whether timely action will follow. For that, a major hurdle needs to be overcome: the still widespread but mistaken perception of a costly and inevitable trade-off between environmental care and economic growth. That worry holds back environmental and climate action on the part of low-income countries trying to engineer economic take-off and middle-income ones concerned with losing growth momentum.

But such a dichotomy is false because the economic cost of inaction is far greater than that of action on climate change and the health damage triggered by emissions and toxic fumes. Developing Asia already accounts for one-third of the world's energy-related carbon emissions, and this is projected to rise to nearly a half by 2035.

Unless the current trend in emissions is reversed, the prospects for sustaining economic growth will probably be diminished.

Furthermore, nearly all of Asia's cities have airborne concentrations of particulate matter that exceed the World Health Organisation's maximum guidelines. Worsening air pollution is already testing the political tolerance of the region's rapidly expanding middle classes.

The experiences of Japan and the US suggest that acute discontent over pollution and environmental degradation can influence policies, as it now seems to be doing in developing Asia. Many cities have intensified air pollution monitoring and several have committed to making major improvements. The PRC reportedly plans to spend 1.7 trillion yuan (HK$2.14 trillion) over the next five years to tackle air pollution in Beijing and surrounding areas.

Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets envisaged that countries would start to reduce the harmful impact on the environment and income equality once a certain level of average income is attained. Incomes in many Asian countries have risen spectacularly since the 1990s, and are expected to continue to grow over the next 20 years.

So could the Kuznets hypothesis justify Asian countries postponing action on the environment? The answer is no, since a delayed response would be too slow to have an impact, especially given the scale of environmental threats.

The challenges of implementing environmental measures are vast. Vested interests that gain from high-carbon energy use will undoubtedly resist change.

So it would be appealing to make the most of already available win-win interventions that promise environmental and economic benefits. Foremost among these are measures for achieving greater energy efficiency and abating sizeable energy losses.

In addition, there need to be measures for green growth that incur costs but, on balance, benefit the economy. High on this list would be investments in technologies for a low-carbon path such as renewables, as well as forest protection and adopting carbon sequestration to capture and store emissions.

Sustaining Asia's enormous economic success now calls for some hard choices.

Continuing on the high-carbon growth path is unsustainable environmentally, economically and socially.