Asia-Pacific’s polices of sustainable consumption: A model for the rest of the world?

UNITED NATIONS—Did you know five of the world’s 10 most populous countries are in Asia and account for 44 percent of all humanity on Earth? Those countries are China (most populous), India (2nd), Indonesia (4th), Pakistan (5th) and Bangladesh (8th). There are 3.338 billion people living in these five countries, and we’re not even factoring Iran, Japan, the Koreas, The Philippines and Vietnam. Rapid urbanization and industrialization in these countries have translated to trillions of (U.S.) dollars of consumption and a whirlwind of opportunities in agribusiness, automobiles, energy, food retailing and housing. The concentration of population centers in the Asiatic world, which stretches from Turkey in the west to Japan in the east, also means a majority of humans (nearly 60 percent) lives on one continent and heavily relies on the world’s natural resources. A recent United Nations report stated the Asia Pacific region “accounts for 63 percent of the world’s material use, surpassing the rest of the world.”

            Pollution, resource scarcity and overall environmental degradation are cited as direct consequences of population and density growth in Asia. It’s not uncommon to see waterways throughout India, for example, visibly polluted with large amounts of marine debris, plastics and trash. Unhealthy air or smoggy days occur almost daily in Beijing, Delhi and other major cities in South and East Asia.

            The question is whether Asia’s highly-population countries will take the lead in establishing sustainable policies to balance the continent’s heavy reliance on resources and growing environmental challenges. Countries such as China, India, Malaysia, Mongolia, The Philippines and Vietnam have already enacted policies to promote sustainable consumption and production - but what results will these initiatives yield and can leaders in Africa, the Americas, Europe and Oceania learn valuable lessons to take back to their home governments?

            A study published by the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industries, or FICCI, explained the incorporation of sustainable consumption and production into the global circular economy could generate or save as much as US$4.5 trillion. Savings/revenue generation would be achieved through four categories: substitute wasted resources (renewable energy, biofuels); monetized waste capacity (sharing economy, co-ownership models); recovery of waited embedded values (recycling, component reuse, energy recovery); and, lengthened wasted lifecycles (resale or remanufacture of used services or goods).

            Translating these goals into policy and action was the subject of a paper submitted to the United Nations ahead of its three-day Asian environment program in Singapore. The paper, presented in front of the United Nations Environment Programme on Jan. 24 and entitled “Transforming Asia-Pacific: Innovative Solutions for Sustainable Consumption and Production,” outlined initiatives pursued by multiple Asiatic countries to address opportunities in sustainable consumption and production.

            “‘Policy Integration’ is important to create harmonized policies for sustainable consumption and production across the sectors (such as water, energy, transport, consumer goods, etc.) and across the different ministries of government and various levels of government including local and provincial levels,” the United Nations-submitted paper stated. “Integrating sustainable consumption and production policies into broad national economic plans are to be done through; (1) Strategic Plans, (2) national macroeconomic development plans documents such as Five-Year Plans, (3) sustainable development ‘Vision/Strategy’ documents, (4) nationally determined contributions, (5) green growth policies, and other similar policies mechanisms being practiced in different countries in the region.”

            China, for example, is pursuing an “Ecological Civilization” initiative through its 13th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development. The plan aims to create eco-friendly and low-carbon modes of production.

            Mongolia, meanwhile, adopted a “Green Development Policy Action Plan” to implement a more “environmentally friendly lifestyle” into daily life in the landlocked country between China and Russia.

            Singapore’s Sustainable Blueprint encourages a low-carbon lifestyle and directed the island nation to launch its Zero Waste Master Plan this year.

            Countries such as India, Malaysia, South Korea and Vietnam, meanwhile, all have policies or initiatives promoting green lifestyles or philosophies.

            “India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution mentions [pursuit if a] ‘sustainable way of living based on traditions and values of conservation and moderation,’” the Transforming Asia-Pacific paper stated. “The Republic of Korea’s Green growth policy features green lifestyles. The Eleventh Malaysia Plan, 2016-2020, mentions green lifestyles, and sustainable consumption and production under its chapter on re-engineering economic growth for greater prosperity. The Philippines National Development Plan 2017-2022 mentions the intention to ‘develop and implement SCP policies and initiatives.’”

            Assessing an environmental tax was one solution proposed by the Transforming Asia-Pacific paper - a proposition apparently embraced by the Vietnamese government.

            “[Vietnam] recently introduced taxes on fossil fuels, plastic bags, ozone-depleting and climate damaging refrigerant, agrochemicals and some other chemicals,” the in-depth paper stated. “Initially, the taxes are set at a relatively low level and the expected impact on consumption is limited. However, it is an important step that the country has managed to build political and social acceptance for the principle of environmental taxation.”

            Other economic tools suggested to either foster or fund progress of sustainable environmental policies, according to the U.N,-submitted paper, are full cost recover, user charges, micro-finance of innovative initiatives and the elimination of environmentally-harmful subsidies.

            Rewarding consumers via eco-labeling is also a viable solution, according to authors of the Transforming Asia-Pacific paper.

            “Eco-labels exist to reward and promote environmentally superior goods and services and offer information on quality and performance with respect to issues such as health and energy consumption,” authors of the Transforming Asia-Pacific paper stated, citing programs such as Green Choice Philippines, Green Label Thailand, India’s Eco-mark and Green Food China.

            “Governments can encourage low carbon consumption by conducting nationwide campaigns that facilitate behavioral shifts on a wide scale,” authors of the U.N.-submitted paper continued, citing South Korea’s Green Credit Card initiative, which launched in 2011. “When users of the green credit card act sustainably and buy eco-friendly products, use public transport or make paper-less transactions, they are rewarded with points that can be converted into cash or donations to environmental initiatives. Almost 2000 eco-friendly products and 224 companies are included in the green credit card rewards scheme.”

            The paper also outlined ways to finance innovative business ideas and foster wide-scale behavioral changes in everyday consumption.

            “There is a wider consensus that the current consumption and production patterns are not in line for happier and healthier people and planet,” authors of the Transforming Asia-Pacific paper concluded. “Asia Pacific, with highest global population size as well as consumption and production patterns, is the region that will shape the future of this planet. Hence it is time for governments to scale-up the efforts, in partnership with private sector and other civil society groups and in support from international and regional partners, for sustainable consumption and production.”