Asia Pacific's economic and social progress over the past few decades has achieved remarkable results, including lifting millions of people out of poverty. And despite the global economic crisis there is every reason to believe the Asia-Pacific region will remain dynamic and continue to contribute to global economic recovery and growth, and help alleviate poverty. While world leaders race to tackle the economic crisis, it is important to review the lessons we have learned in order to find how long-term recovery can be achieved.
Volatile oil prices last year were a sobering reminder of Asia's high dependency on energy, particularly fossil fuels, for development. In fact 80 percent of Asia Pacific's energy comes from fossil fuels. The peaking of oil prices at US$147 a barrel last year, and soaring of food and commodity prices sent alarm bells ringing across many developing countries in the region.
In fact, energy poses a number of challenges in Asia Pacific, which is characterized by significant disparities in energy consumption. About 1.7 billion people in the region still rely on traditional biomass for cooking and heating, and 1 billion do not have access to electricity. As a result, children cannot study at night and adults cannot power their small businesses or run much needed medical services in these areas.
Since energy drives development, the neglected sections of our population need reliable sources of energy if they are to help the economy proper.
We know energy is needed to maintain economic growth, reduce poverty and achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals. But we also know climate change is intrinsically linked to energy production and consumption, and the more fossil fuels we use, the more damage we cause to our planet.
Asia Pacific accounts for 34 percent of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with most of it coming from the consumption of fossil fuels. The region's share of energy-related GHG emissions is expected to increase to 47 percent by 2030 if the present development trend continues. The resulting impact on agriculture, rising sea levels and growing severe weather patterns could hurt the region's economic development severely.
Thus, Asia Pacific, and indeed the rest of the world, faces a dilemma. How do we ensure all people, including the poor, have access to safe, reliable supplies of energy without undermining environmental resources essential for our survival?
Climate change is not only the most daunting challenge of our times, but also offers a historic opportunity to restructure our approach to development and make it more economically, socially and ecologically balanced.
The UN Economic and Social Council for Asia and the Pacific, the regional arm of the UN, has been promoting low-carbon, green growth investments in new and renewable sources of energy, energy-efficiency projects and clean technologies. Though people's understanding of a low-carbon approach is still evolving, there are a number of areas where the concept can be clearly applied.
The Asia-Pacific region is home to a number of important energy exporters and importers, but it does not have an integrated energy market. This necessitates the setting up of a trans-Asian energy network to facilitate cross-border flow of energy, technologies and services, and leverage existing fossil fuel and electricity markets to tap into unrealized efficiency areas.
Such a network will require trust and cooperation among neighboring countries, which have to come up with favorable policies, technical help and interconnected infrastructure.
Environmentally sound technologies are essential to the fight against climate change and environmental degradation. Countries like Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), India and China have become big global players. Their governments have been supporting clean technologies by enforcing effective policies and regulatory arrangements, and promoting investments and R&D both in public and private sectors.
Forging public-private partnerships will play a key role in the commercialization of these new technologies, while intra-regional trade will increase the level of their adoption.
The way energy is used has to be changed fundamentally if we want to shift toward low-carbon development. The region's energy demand is expected to reach 9 trillion dollars according to current prices by 2030, which energy-related industries, including those generating renewable energy, could cash in on. For example, the development of smart electrical grids will make energy use more efficient and create an environment for growth of renewable energy.
City planning, infrastructure building and service provision, too, have to undergo fundamental change. Cities should have high-density areas that promote public transport, and bicycle and green corridors. New buildings have to be energy-efficient, and should have better provisions of water and energy, and an efficient system to collect and recycle wastes. Last but not least, cities should offer economy housing to the poor.
Making energy accessible to all will help alleviate poverty and promote inclusive and sustainable development. This will require putting in place social safely nets to cope with disruptions in energy supply. It will also require partnerships among governments, businesses and NGOs to raise resources and ensure equitable distribution of energy among the poor and low-income families.
A number of countries in the Asia-Pacific region such as China, the ROK, Japan and Australia have adopted the concept of low-carbon development. And negotiators are racing against time to reach a new global deal on climate change in Copenhagen in December.
It's in such a backdrop that the June 17-20 Asia Pacific Forum on Low-Carbon Economy brought together government officials, technical experts and businesses in Beijing to discuss how to achieve low-carbon development in China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. Organized by ESCAP in partnership with the National Development and Reform Commission of China and WWF, the forum created a platform for decision-makers to share their experiences and develop new strategies.
The region needs to develop a vision that is inclusive and sustainable to join the rest of the world in tackling the economic crisis. Huge stimulus packages and policy reforms being put together by governments in the region provide an unprecedented opportunity to turn these ideas into action.
The author is UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary,UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
(China Daily June 30, 2009)