Sustainability: Asia’s best & worst practices, according to top UN economist
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Sustainability: Asia’s best & worst practices, according to top UN economist

HEAVY dependence on coal is the number one obstacle in Asia’s push for sustainable growth while the region’s best practices lie with its pivot towards advanced technology, said leading US economist Jeffrey Sachs.

The special adviser to the United Nations urged for greater public education worldwide on ways to achieve sustainability during The Economist’s Sustainability Summit 2017 held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, yesterday.

The continent’s “heavy dependence” on coal is dubbed as its worst practice for being the source of great pollution and carbon dioxide emissions.

“You look out almost any city in Asia and it’s grey. That’s the coal pollution,” Sachs told Asian Correspondent.

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Saches gave the keynote interview at the summit. Source: Zeno Group

It’s perpetrated by those who are aware of the situation the world is in but do nothing about it, despite global acknowledgement since 25 years ago that the way we have been developing the world’s economies is simply not sustainable.

“So the perpetrators are those pretending we don’t have to change. For instance, Donald Trump. He’s a major perpetrator of lies,” he said.

And that’s because the whole US political system is very corrupt and it’s funded by the oil, gas and coal interests.”

“Or if there’s illegal logging taking place and nobody is doing anything about it, that’s a perpetrator. It’s the failure to enforce the laws or to state high principles but not carry through.”

But he said with Asia’s move towards the use of advanced technology, there can be a “transformative” effect on the region’s sustainability efforts.

Sachs pointed towards examples like the use of information technology and the building of smart cities, as well as China’s leadership role in electric vehicles.

But the Columbia University’s top professor cautioned that Asia is still the source of huge pollution and carbon emissions today.

“So the question is whether governments in this region will understand how dangerous these practices now are and how urgent it is to get them under control,” the head of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network said.

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As for regular folks worldwide, and not just in Asia, more education on what sustainability is all about is still needed.

“(Sustainable growth) are not well enough understood anywhere. We really need a change of direction. Most people still think economic situation is kind of normal and the idea is to get rich and buy more things, not to worry about things like the environment and the climate and so forth. They don’t think it’s important,” Sachs said.

“A lot more public education is needed so that people are aware of how damaging our own behaviour is. And how there are better ways to do things. If we continue the way we are going all over the world, we are going to destroy our well-being.”

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China’s recent efforts to do so are notable. During the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s twice-a-decade national congress last month, significant emphasis was placed upon the environment. This signals the Asian powerhouse’s move away from heavy industrialisation – which has plagued its cities with toxic levels of air, water and soil pollution for years – towards a more sustainable approach.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Source: Reuters/Aly Song

China needs to “meet people’s ever-growing demands for a beautiful environment”, Xi said in his three hours and 23 minutes speech, as quoted by The Guardian. “Chinese people will enjoy greater happiness and well-being.”

Another panellist at the summit, Dany Qian, vice-president of solar panel manufacturer Jinko Solar affirmed China’s commitment to sustainability.

Qian, who was the only solar industry representative at the landmark Paris Climate Agreement meetings, said Chinese businesses are favouring renewable energy instead of traditional forms of energy as it now makes more business sense to do so.

This is in contrast with the attitude in Western economies, whose investment in alternative forms of energy is driven more by a sense of corporate social responsibility.