Compelling case for green economy in Asia-Pacific

Posted: 20 September 2011

A new 'green industrial revolution' that massively improves resource efficiency is needed in the Asia Pacific region, says an authoritative new report.

It says the region already uses more than half of all the world’s resources, but its efficient use of materials has actually declined in the last two decades, despite progress elsewhere.

The report, launched this week by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and partners, estimates that per capita resource consumption of ‘materials’ in the region, such as construction, minerals and fuels, needs to be around 80 per cent less than today if sustainable development is to be achieved.

While Asia Pacific’s dynamic growth of the past few decades has reduced poverty and increased wealth and per capita incomes’ this has come at a price that is “exacting a high – current and future -- environmental cost” the report says.. Problems include pollution including greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, deteriorating ecosystems and rapid resource depletion”.

Total materials consumed in 2005 alone - including biomass, fossil fuels, metals and industrial and construction materials – amounted to around 32 billion tonnes according to the report: Resource Efficiency - Economics and Outlook for Asia and the Pacific.

Without a decoupling of GDP growth from resource use, Asia Pacific is likely to be using 80 billion tonnes of materials by 2050.

Without world-wide action, global resource consumption could triple by mid-century to 140 billion tonnes according to a previous report by UNEP’s International Resource Panel launched earlier this year.

Asia Pacific currently accounts for more than half of the world’s total resource use - in large part because it also accounts for over half the world’s population and nearly 30 per cent of the world’s GDP.

The report underlines that Asia Pacific has however enormous opportunities to dramatically boost resource efficiency and in doing so boost economic growth, generate new kinds of clean tech industries and reduce if not overturn losses linked with environmental degradation.

Material intensity in Asia-Pacific
Material intensity in Asia-Pacific, the World and Rest of the World, 1970 – 2005, kg per US$

The global economy outside Asia Pacific has been registering efficiency gains in respect to the use of materials. “In 1970-2005, material efficiency has improved from about 2.2 to 1.1 kilogram per US dollar of GDP for the rest of the world,” says the Asia-Pacific resource efficiency report.

In Asia Pacific however efficiency improvements have been stagnant to 1990 and ‘since then the region has lost efficiency, requiring 3.1 kg of materials per US dollar of GDP by 2005,” says the study.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “These new findings come some nine months before the Rio+20 conference where the world needs to get back into the business of actioning a truly transformational sustainability agenda”.

“The remarkable changes that occurred in the intervening years are perhaps nowhere more visibly illustrated than in Asia and the Pacific where breathtaking economic growth has lifted more than half a billion people out of poverty - but with profound social and environmental consequences,” he added.

“This new report spotlights the challenges but also the opportunities for a transition to a low carbon, far more resource-efficient Green Economy not as an alternative to sustainable development but as a means of implementing it,” said Mr Steiner.

In the coming decades, the region could be the most important driver of global resource use and related environmental impacts, including resource scarcity, pollution and climate change, unless the patterns of natural resources use are reversed.

Solar PV array in China
Solar PV arrays in China now attract generous subsidies. Photo: Steve Willcox

The speed and magnitude of new infrastructure development and productive capacity in the region represents both a huge challenge and a great opportunity for innovation and technological ‘leap-frogging’.

Further Highlights from Asia Pacific and Key Findings
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Asia-Pacific region has overtaken the rest of the world to become the single largest user of natural resources.

Materials: The region’s share of world domestic material consumption grew from just under 25 percent in 1975 to over 53 per cent by 2005, accounting for nearly 85 percent of global total growth over a three decade period. Material efficiency in Asia Pacific stood at around 2.4 kg per USD of GDP in 1990 - by 2005 it was requiring 3.1 kg of materials per USD of GDP.

  • By 2005, 60 percent of all materials consumed in the Asia-Pacific region were used in China and 20 percent in India
  • This is due to shifts in economic activity from very material efficiency producers such as Japan to less efficient ones such as China, India and countries in South East Asia.

Energy: Use in Asia Pacific has grown since 1970 at a compounding annual growth rate of 3.9 per cent - in the rest of the world the growth rate was 1.4 per cent.

  • The region’s share of total primary energy supply grew from 19 per cent of the world total to over 35 per cent and will reach 50 per cent by 2028 on current trends
  • Consumption of coal by Asia-Pacific countries has more than tripled from 1970 to 2005
  • Energy intensity - energy consumption relative to GDP - has decreased from 18 to 12 megajoules for the rest of the world between 1970 and 2005: Asia-Pacific has remained at around 18 megajoules.

Water: Many countries in the region are extracting water at unsustainable rates with the situation deemed serious in Central Asia and in particular in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

The report flags concern over the rate of water withdrawals in China, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka too.

  • Over the period 1985 to 2000 total water withdrawals increased by around 25 per cent in the region
  • Scenarios suggest that rising water extraction will put many river basins under severe stress by 2025 and that groundwater levels will continue to fall.

Land: Use of land is spotlighted as one area where efficiency is improving although the report does note that urbanization trends in the region are in their infancy.

  • Urban land area in Asia-Pacific is estimated to be 2 to 3 per cent but there is urgent need for better data
  • Agricultural land has been expanding faster in this region than the rest of the world increasing by some 6 per cent from 1970 to 2007 versus a one per cent growth elsewhere
  • Afforestation efforts in China have offset larger deforestation rates in other areas of the region

Emissions and Waste: Greenhouse gas emissions in the region increased from 10 billion tonnes to 16 billion tonnes between 1990 and 2005 - a compound growth rate of 3.2 per cent. The report points out that the emissions growth of the region can be linked in part to a shifting of industrial production from other parts of the world to the Asia Pacific region.

  • Nevertheless carbon dioxide intensity - a measure of how much greenhouse gas emissions are produced relative to GDP - deteriorated in the region over the period 1970 to 2005 by around 0.65 per cent
  • In the rest of the world there was a compound annual increase in efficiency in terms of carbon dioxide intensity of around 1.2 per cent.

Way forward
The report spotlights that some decoupling is occurring in the more resource-constrained economies in the regions such as Japan and the Republic of Korea. It calls for a region-wide effort on improved efficiency backed up by smart public policy measures including fiscal policies such as ecological taxes and budget reforms.

"What is required is a new industrial revolution that provides food, housing, mobility, energy and water with only about 20 per cent of the per-capita resource use and emissions found in current systems,” concludes the study.

Download the Report here.