Growth as a Challenge to Sustainable Development

Evidence to the contrary has not dispelled the perception that the environment is a luxury good that can be demanded as incomes rise with economic growth. As a result, developing countries tend to ignore environmental concerns as policymakers focus almost exclusively on accelerating economic growth. By doing so, they ignore the potential enormity of economic, social, and ecological costs and the reality that sometimes the damage incurred is irreversible. For example, while air and water pollution levels appear to be reversible, their impacts on human well being often are not, and promises of future remedial action can hardly compensate for health and safety losses by the present generation.

Belying East Asia's phenomenal record of economic growth and poverty reduction is its poor environmental record. In 1995, China was home to 15 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, as measured by the concentration of total suspended particulates [11]. Air pollution, especially high levels of total suspended particulates, resulted in premature deaths and severe health damage in several cities in China and outside China in urban areas such as Bangkok,

Jakarta, and Manila. Countries that experienced rapid growth in the context of economic reforms in the 1980s—China, Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand—saw carbon dioxide emissions per capita double or triple after reforms that had led to accelerated economic growth.

However, it is not just rapid growth that leads to problems of natural capital degradation. Neither rapid nor slow growth is automatically a predictor of the degradation of natural capital [12]. While air pollution is not as widespread a problem in Central and South America as in Asia, in part because of the relatively low growth of industrialization, pollution is a serious concern in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Santiago. Because of low growth, highly skewed income distributions, inadequate investments in education and health, and political instability, poverty has remained stubbornly high, creating vicious cycles of increasing natural resource degradation and further loss of income. In another example, measured in the 1980s, differences in air pollution and traffic congestion between slow-growing Manila and fast growing Bangkok were minimal [13]. Fast-growth, with increasing urbanization, industrial expansion, and exploitation of renewable and nonrenewable resources, place pressure on the environment such that many indicators show a decline in the quality of natural capital during growth periods. However, growth creates conditions for environmental improvement by creating demand for better environmental quality and making resources available for improvement.

Not all indicators show worsening environmental conditions among the fast growing economies in Asia. Access to clean water and sanitation increased rapidly in China, Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand. In 1995, the share of the population with access to safe water rose from 71% in 1982 to 89% in Malaysia, from 66 to 89% in Thailand, from 39 to 65% in Indonesia, and from 65 to 83% in the Philippines. Similarly, sanitation service availability rose from 46 to 96% in Thailand, from 30 to 55% in Indonesia, and from 57 to 77% in the Philippines [11]. Though still at low levels in Cambodia, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, and Vietnam, access to safe water and sanitation has been steadily increasing with economic growth [9,11].

While countries embarking on a path of sustainable development can incorporate environmental policies directly into their economic strategy at any time, most countries have followed the grow-now-and-clean-up-later approach. The fast growers among developing countries, such as China, Indonesia, Korea, and Thailand, have paid severely in terms of deteriorating environmental quality. This has recently become an even greater problem for Thailand and Indonesia. When recovering from the economic crisis of 1996-1997, both countries made environmental protection a low funding priority for implementation of even existing environmental policies. Although the economies in the region slowed during 1998 and gradually recovered during 1999 and 2000, the environmental impacts did not follow a similar fluctuating trend and were more or less persistent. For example, the levels of pollution in coastal waters showed no incremental reduction during the 1997-2000 period [14]. Economic growth in the region was, and continues to be, strongly tied to export-oriented policies, high savings rates, sound macroeconomic policies, and strong institutional frameworks [15].

Despite claims that the region contains a "wealth of natural resources" [16] environmental degradation in Asia is indicated by a precipitous decline in living and non-living resources; loss of habitat, species and environmental services; and growing levels of pollution and waste production. Environmental problems are increasingly regional in nature, either because they are common and shared problems, or because their causes or consequences cross borders. The Asia's changing political economy and modes of production contribute to environmental problems. Also subsistence lifestyles, which remain heavily dependent on the direct exploitation of natural resources and environmental services, still constitute the basic means of survival for over half the region's population. However, the leading cause of environmental decline and resource depletion has been the "industrialization of Asia within the world economy" [17]. From an economic perspective, private gains have come at the expense of the public or common good embedded in environmental systems. The environment continues to be exploited in the process of economic activity [18]. The damaging environmental consequences have been and continue to be extensive while the region is becoming "dirtier, less ecologically diverse and more environmentally vulnerable" [19].

Deforestation, desertification, land degradation and the loss of arable land have become enduring features of environmental decline in East Asia. According to the Asian Development Bank [18], "pressure on land in the Asia and Pacific region is most severe.compared to other regions of the world." Deforestation offers some of the most "visible evidence of the rate of environmental change" [17]. Primary forests have been severely depleted and forest cover continues to be lost at a rate of approximately 1 per cent per year [18]. About 20% of vegetated land in East Asia suffers soil degradation from water logging, erosion, and overgrazing. Severe land degradation in China, Thailand, and Vietnam threatens several ecosystems with irreversible damage [11]. Biodiversity in 50%-75% of coastlines and protected marine areas in East Asia is classified as highly threatened.

In this region the rule of law, political stability, and historical context cumulatively play an important role in defining a country's growth. Despite some variability from country to country, Asia has certain commonalities, including, colonial rule accompanied by a lasting influence from Europe and/or the U.S., and political instability, which impact economic growth and the ability to compete in regional and global economic activity [14].

Under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States has negotiated a number of government-to-government bilateral agreements and has established a series of bilateral environmental programs. It has also supported a feasibility study on the establishment of an Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) network for the assessment and promotion of environmentally sound technologies. However, in spite of growing global demands that the "new" world environmental order should be based on solidarity and collective responsibility, neither U.S. environmental policy towards the region nor the regional consequences of its international environmental policy meets this test. The results of recent research have revealed that the U.S. is fundamentally "self-regarding" rather than "other-regarding" in the various dimensions of its environmental relationship with the region and suggest that the consequences for both the region and for the U.S. may be substantial. Continued environmental degradation in the region has the potential to undermine other U.S. policy goals in terms of its reputation, economic objectives, and even its more orthodox geopolitical security objectives [20]. Moreover, the ASEAN countries have made it quite clear that they wish to see the U.S. reconsider its position on Kyoto in view of the global nature of climate change [21].

Controlling the common causes of global environmental degradation seems daunting because it originates with a large number of economic activities considered essential to growth. Moreover, factors that contribute to environmental degradation differ from nation to nation, depending on the stage of development. For example, most developing nations depend on fossil fuel combustion for economic production and are unlikely to switch to cleaner, but more expensive fuels. While stricter environmental regulations force developed nations to use cleaner and more efficient energy sources, other industrial practices like the use of synthetic fertilizers in modern agri-businesses contribute to the destruction of the ecosystem [22].

In fast and slow growing economies, developing and developed nations, evidence of the declining quality of natural capital indicates heavy costs and diminished prospects for future growth. Segments of the population that are already multiply disadvantaged—the poor, women, and young children—are forced to bear the brunt of environmental degradation. For example, when industrial toxic effluents degrade water quality, the poor often lack access to purified municipal water supplies or the resources to invest in water filters and other purification systems. As a result, human damage may be irreversible, including the loss of genetic material.

The complex causes and effects of global environmental degradation demand development strategies that require adherence to standards of growth that promote sustainability of natural capital and compatibility with domestic and external economic stability. This translates into growth that does not excessively degrade the natural environment and includes the support of the poor and vulnerable. Typically, the state is responsible for development strategies that orchestrate economic growth and environmental management, and, in this role, should focus on collaborative approaches with local communities and the private sector that balance economic and social performance. Global environmental problems, while challenging, do offer opportunities to address national problems if international cooperation can be secured, which in return balances economic and social measures of success [23,24].

While development strategies and plans are essential for highlighting important environmental issues, they are less effective in identifying priorities for action and making explicit the process of necessary policy reform. As a result, policy matters, documentation, and dissemination of successful cases and specific experiences in environmental management take on added importance [23,24]. Therefore, various national, regional, and international agencies have striven to document and share evidence of specific cases of good practices in sustainable development. Yet, the record shows that attempts to reach consensus, set a standard for good practices in sustainable development, and obtain compliance have been less successful in the United States than in Europe.

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