People riding bicycles in heavy haze in Xingtai, Hebei, China. Twenty-five out of 30 cities with the highest levels of tiny atmospheric particulate matter are in the Asia Pacific region. REUTERS PIC

SENIOR government officials from across the Asia Pacific region are meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, this week for the first Asia-Pacific Ministerial Summit on the Environment.

It is a unique opportunity for the region’s environment leaders to discuss how they can work together towards a resource efficient and pollution-free Asia Pacific.

Resources such as fossil fuels, biomass, metals and minerals are essential to build economies. However, the region’s resource efficiency has regressed in recent years. Asia is, unfortunately, the least resource-efficient region in the world. In 2015, we used one-third more materials to produce each unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) than in 1990. Developing countries use five times as much resources per dollar of GDP in comparison with the rest of the world and 10 times more than industrialised countries in the region. This inefficiency in resource use results in wastage and pollution, further affecting natural resources and public health which are the basic elements for ensuring sustainable economic growth.

As the speed and scale of economic growth continues to accelerate across the region, pollution has become a critical area for action. While the challenge of pollution is a global one, the impacts are overwhelmingly felt in developing countries. About 95 per cent of adults and children who are impacted by pollution-related illnesses live in low- and middle-income countries. The Asia Pacific region produces more chemicals and waste than any other region in the world and accounts for the bulk of the cities (25 out of 30) with highest levels of PM2.5, the tiny atmospheric particulate matter that can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and cancer. More than 80 per cent of our rivers are heavily polluted, while five of the top land-based sources of ocean plastic pollution are in countries in our region. Estimates put the cost of marine pollution to regional economies at a staggering US$1.3 billion (RM5.6 billion).

If left unattended, these trends threaten to upend hard-won economic gains and hamper human development. But, while these challenges appear intractable, the region has tremendous strengths and opportunities to draw from. Many countries hold solid track records of successful economic transformation. The capacity for promoting environmental sustainability as an integral pillar of sustainable development must now be developed across the region.

There are some profound changes underway in the Asia Pacific. The region is experiencing the largest rural to urban migration in history. Developing new urban areas with resource-efficient buildings, waste water and solid waste management systems can do much to advance this agenda. Advancing the “sharing economy” might mean we have better utilisation of assets such as vehicles, houses or other assets, greatly reducing material inputs and pollution. The widespread move to renewable energy should rein in fossil fuel use. And, advances in recycling, materials technology, 3D printing and manufacturing could also support greater resource circularity.

Moving to green technologies and eco-innovation offer economic and employment opportunities. Renewable energy provided jobs for 9.8 million people worldwide last year. Waste can be converted into economic opportunities, including jobs. In Cebu City, the second-largest city in the Philippines, concerted solid waste management has borne fruit: waste was reduced by 30 per cent in 2012; treatment of organic waste in neighbourhoods has led to lower transport costs and longer use periods for landfills. The poor have benefited from hundreds of jobs that were created.

At the policy level, it is vital that resource efficiency and pollution prevention targets are integrated into national development agendas, Also, targeted legal and regulatory measures to enforce resource efficiency standards should be established. For example, China instituted a national system of legislation, rules and regulations that led to the adoption of a compulsory national cleaner production audit system more than 10 years ago. The direct economic benefits from this system is estimated to be worth more than US$3 billion annually.

Furthermore, there is an urgent need to reform financial instruments. Too little capital is supporting the transition to a green and resource efficient economy. A major portion of current investments is still in high-carbon and resource-intensive, polluting economies. The polluter pay principle and environmental externalities are not yet fully integrated into pricing mechanisms and investment models. The availability of innovative financing mechanisms and integrated evaluation methods are important for upscaling and replicating resource-efficient practices. For example, the large-scale promotion of biogas plants in Vietnam was made possible by harnessing global climate finance funds.

Countries, such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka, are emerging as leaders in the development of comprehensive, systemic approaches that embed sustainable finance at the heart of financial market development. We should draw from the positive lessons of these experiences.

Resource efficiency and pollution prevention must be recognised as an important target for action by science, technological and innovation systems. This is important for the ongoing development of technology, and for scaling up technologies. Research shows that developing countries can cut their annual energy demand by more than half, from 3.4 per cent to 1.4 per cent, over the next 12 years. This will lower energy consumption by 22 per cent — an abatement equivalent to the energy consumption of China today.

We need to move to a more resource-efficient and pollution-free growth path that supports and promotes healthy environments. The cost of inaction in managing resources efficiently and preventing pollution is too high and a threat to economies, livelihoods and health across the region.

Shamshad Akhtar is the executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Erik Solheim is the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme

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