Is Asia up to the global warming challenge?

Asian environmental perspectives and capacities

A number of elementary factors mitigate against the Asia Pacific providing transformative leadership on global environmental issues. Public opinion is not a strong driver of action on climate change. A worldwide Gallup survey in 2007 found that in Asia disinterest in climate change was strongest with two in three adults, irrespective of educational background, thinking it was not an issue of serious concern (Pugliese and Ray, 2009). And beyond the almost universal ignorance of the climate change issue, there is also a widespread scepticism throughout the region about the on ground effectiveness of multilateral strategies. Poor national and local follow-up on the UN poverty and environmental agenda particularly has seen such initiatives discredited among the regional populace of the Asia Pacific (Nomura, Harashima and Kamal, 2004).

Further diminishing the prospects of rapid resolution of the environmental versus economic conflict in the Asia Pacific is a lack of governance and institutional capacity across region at the provincial and municipal levels of government. A survey of Asian environmental professionals from 15 countries pointed to “the gap between international discourse and local needs”, “considerable differences between actors and sub-regions”, institutional incapacity at the vital level of local government and NGOs, and perhaps most importantly “the ‘lack of a mutual trust relationship’ and ‘undemocratic government’ as being “recognised by Asian actors as major obstacles to promoting partnership” and sustainable outcomes (Nomura et al 2004).

Many of these factors have not changed. The Asian preference for engineering infrastructure and technology competitiveness strategies should not be confused with progressive governance on sustainability issues. Any number of vital indicators on human health, air and water quality, biodiversity protection, resource depletion and civil stability point to the environment and population as potentially debilitating of the regional vision of economic growth. And a critical missing ingredient is broad community understanding of the systems relationships and consequences of rapid unsustainable economic development and poor environmental impacts. There is a need for what the IEA in its 2009 report termed “proper policy frameworks” for the benefits of innovation to be realized.

These structural weaknesses in environmental governance draw very much from the “limited emergence of informational governance arrangements in environmental protection” in Asia Pacific countries (Mol 2009 p 116). While state of the environment monitoring and reporting is slowly becoming a government competency across Asia, on most measures of environmental governance there is still great scope for improvement. This is particularly the case in systems verification, performance accreditation, labelling, corporate disclosure of compliance standards and public communication of environmental information by business and government. Without environmental information being freely available and understood it will be difficult to build the public consciousness and capacity that will both inform and deliver strategies for sustainable development. The upshot is that environmental governance in the Asia Pacific remains very much a ‘top down’ state instrument and this was closely reflected last December in the contributions of leading regional players at the Copenhagen Climate Summit.

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