The Asian Explosion: Searching for Sustainability on the World’s Most Populous Continent

"Countries that move quickly down a clean energy pathway will be the economic powerhouses of the 21st century." -- United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

The majority of the world's people live in Asia. With a total population of over 3.8 billion, it dwarfs Africa, the second-most populous continent, which has 922 million. Asia is home to the world's most populous city, Shanghai, with 17.8 million people, making huge metropolises like Mexico City (8.8 million) and New York (8.1 million), look puny in comparison.


Considering all those people, it's not surprising that Asia contributes the highest annual global warming emissions among all the continents. The Union for Concerned Scientists, a non-profit environmental advocacy group headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also notes that "the Asian region also faces a range of climate impacts, including extreme heat, imperiled drinking water resources, and accelerated sea-level rise, which can lead to widespread population displacement, food insecurity, and costly damage to coastal cities and towns."

UCS contends that the solutions to mitigating the effects of climate change throughout Asia include "providing cleaner cook stoves to rural families, improving rice cultivation to decrease methane emissions, reducing emissions from deforestation, cutting a deepening dependence on carbon-emitting coal, and tackling emissions from a growing number of cars, trucks and buses."


These and more solutions are likely to be found within Asia, which is rapidly emerging as a leader in research and development, bolstered by growing economies and talented professionals who no longer look to the United States or Europe as the place to go to develop cutting-edge technologies.

As Juliana Chan notes in the Singapore-based Asian Scientist Magazine, "The emerging Asia-8 economies (China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand) are currently leading this change in status quo, driving a shift from the traditional hubs of research in the US and countries in the EU-27."

Indeed, the "Asian explosion" isn't limited to population. It also applies to research and development. "Over the past decade, R&D intensity has grown in Asia and has remained steady in the United States and EU-27," according to the National Science Board's 2010 report "Key Science and Engineering Indicators," which found that R&D growth in the US and EU-27 averaged 5 to 6 percent over the ten-year period leading to 2007, compared to Asia-8 economies that often exceeded 10 percent, and China, which managed a jaw-dropping 20 percent.

The NSB contends that the explosive growth in R&D expenditures across Asia "reflects rising private spending by domestic and foreign firms as well as increased public R&D spending, designed to support strategic policies that aim to raise economic competitiveness through the development of knowledge-intensive economies."


Asia will need to channel a good chunk of that R&D towards finding solutions to a whole host of problems, many of which are tied to climate change and exacerbated by explosive population growth and industrial development. Issues such as solid waste, electronic waste, air pollution, agricultural runoff, deforestation, water contamination, biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation and disease control are interrelated concerns that challenge the health and sustainable development across the region.

In 2004, for example, China surpassed the US as the world’s largest generator of waste, according to the 2005 World Bank report "Waste Management in China: Issues and Recommendations." The report also estimates a growth in China's annual solid waste quantity from about 190 million tons in 2004 to over 480 million tons in 2030, an increase of 150 percent.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB), a major Asia-Pacific development financing organization based in Manila bank that is brimming with over $17.5 billion in approved financing, is leading the money charge in green energy. It recently announced plans to expand its annual lending for clean energy investments, including the areas of energy efficiency and renewable energy, from the current USD 1 billion annual target to USD 2 billion by 2013.


It's clear that there will be a lot to discuss when environmental technology providers from around the world gather in Singapore next month for the International Environmental Technologies Exhibition & Conference (EnviroAsia2011), an event that aims to address "the urgent demand for governments and industries to alleviate the undesirable outcomes of relentless urban growth in Asian cities."

EnviroAsia2011 is held concurrently with two other related events. The International Exhibition & Conference on Controls, Instrumentation & Automation (CIA2011), Asia's leading exhibition of process engineering, controls instrumentation and scientific equipment, will present new offshore automation solutions for offshore oil and gas, while the International Scientific & Analytical Technology & Equipment Exhibition and Conference (AnaLabAsia2011) will target solutions and business opportunities in the fields of analytical and lab technology, biotechnology and diagnostics. The three events will be held simultaneously over four days at Suntec Singapore from November 22 - 25.


With all the R&D investment, talent and desire for sustainable development flowing throughout Asia, there is every chance to discover and enact socially responsible solutions to the various problems tied to the region's explosive growth. But organizing so many nations, politicians, citizens and businesses is no easy task. Ultimately, the consumer may hold the key. Adapting current modes of personal consumption on a consumer level to be more in line with larger sustainable goals will effect change that will radiate outward, impacting decision-making on industry-wide levels. And those consumers aren't just Asian; pocketbooks around the globe open up every single day to purchase Asian-produced goods and services.

If people have an opportunity to purchase sustainably-made products and start avoiding products that are damaging to their health or the health of the environment, then the money flows will undoubtedly follow. On the basic level of ethical consumption, perhaps the differences between the citizens of the world's nations aren't so stark. As Asia's political and business leaders maneuver through the Asian explosion, they might consider the words of the ancient Chinese sage Confucius, who once observed, "Men's natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart."



image: Orthographic map of Asia (Wikimedia Commons)