Andrew Sheng, Distinguished Fellow of Asia Global Institute, says Asia plays a critical role in the fight to reverse climate change.
There is a saying that China will grow old before it grows rich. The reality is that China may go grey before it goes green. Anyone living in Beijing today would feel the immensity of the air pollution, which is why China has been putting so much effort into the negotiations on climate change in Paris this month.
Global negotiations always start with the highest noble aspirations, ending up with the lowest common agreed position. But an agreement even on key principles would be a major achievement - an important signal to the end of a confusing year and some hope that the war on pollution could be just as important as the "war on terror."
How is Asia going to be able to achieve its ambition of greening? Two excellent new books come with different perspectives of how this can be achieved. In The Greening of Asia, Mark Clifford, executive director of the Asia Business Council and former (South China Morning)Post editor-in-chief, eloquently points out that the Asian miracle was achieved on the back of cheap labor and at the expense of the environment. China is already the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, with Indonesian haze also a major problem. Because of their population size, five countries - China, India, Indonesia, the US and Russia - account for half of the global annual greenhouse gas emissions, which will only increase as Indian and Indonesian growth accelerate in the coming years.
There are three parties to blame for the current climate warming. The first is consumer lifestyle; the second, business production; and last, but not least, bad government policies and taxes/subsidies that encourage resource wastage and carbon emissions.
Urbanization and higher income account for the bulk of the increase in carbon emissions. Going forward, most mega cities will be in Asia, so the solution to climate change will rest largely with Asian solutions. For example, China's pollution problems will not be solved if every family has a car. Lifestyles can change, but as Clifford rightly points out, businesses can point the way, helping to educate the public on what is green and good. The Dutch discovered that if you put the electric meter near the front door, you will save 30 per cent more on your electricity bill than if you tuck it in a cupboard. Business in Asia is beginning to realise that green is not just a cost centre, but good for business opportunities.
Macquarie University professor John Mathews tells another story of the Greening of Capitalism: How Asia is Driving the Next Great Transformation. His narrative is more technical, going back to the basics of unsustainable economics of fossil fuel-driven industrialisation towards a new transformation to a circular economy (where resources and energy are recycled).
As an observer of how China is transforming its industrial model from fossil fuel to alternative energy, Mathews addresses the next great transformation. India, China and ASEAN's move into the industrial age is happening at ten times the speed, with a hundred times the people and a thousand times the energy intensity of the Western industrial revolution. The scale and intensity of that journey is mind-boggling.
Governments can do a lot to help lessen the damage to the environment from this transformation. Making emission standards and the measurement of energy efficiency and pollution more transparent is the first step. Enforcing even current legislation would also help. Just cutting petrol subsidies in Indonesia and Malaysia not only helped cut consumption, but also reduced fiscal deficits. Letting civil society take the lead in education about the need to combat pollution and change lifestyles will generate a winning partnership between the consumer, business and the state.
There is considerable hope about the greening of Asia, because the more advanced economies of Japan, Korea and Singapore have already proved that with the right political will, it is possible to deal with pollution and energy efficiency questions. Sharing that technology and know-how will accelerate the journey towards greening.
That is why Paris is an important signal, particularly to Asia. If Asia cannot solve its journey to a green, open and inclusive society, the world will go up in flames. The war on pollution is only just beginning.
This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post on December 11, 2015 as How Asia can blaze a trail to a greener, healthier future for the whole world.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Asia Global Institute's editorial policy.