Environmental costs of growth in S-E Asia

Environmental costs of growth in S-E Asia
The sun is seen behind smoke billowing from a chimney of a heating plant in Taiyuan, Shanxi province

The costs of modernisation have an environmental face, one that in many regards is well known. The destruction of forests, the extinction of species, the pollution of water courses, and the erosion of the livelihoods and the cultural integrity of minority (tribal) groups have become leitmotifs of rapid economic expansion.

Optimists think - and the rest of us hope - that with growing affluence, awareness and education, society's concern for the environment will grow. Governments, responding to public and media pressure and with a reduced need to pursue development "at all costs", will incorporate stronger, more robust environmental controls and regulation, and so such environmental costs will wane.

The idea is reassuring. Just keep on the growth path to material riches and, with patience, a better environment will follow.

Experience tells us, however, that some environmental challenges, such as access to clean drinking water, are addressed early in the modernisation process. Others, such as dealing with airborne pollutants, tend to get resolved rather later. There are also some environmental challenges which seem to increase with modernisation and so far have shown little evidence of being resolved. The most obvious of these is greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions, and to some extent airborne pollutants, remain to be comprehensively addressed in South-east Asia, even in middle income countries.

There are four factors that either question or challenge the assumption that environmental problems will be easily and automatically abated as development proceeds.

First, from a purely economic standpoint, it may be more sensible to deal with environmental problems before they become too serious. This is a key issue with climate change, but it also applies to deforestation, environmental degradation, over-fishing, and pollution. Economists such as Nicholas Stern argue that tackling climate change now will be a good deal cheaper for us all - and, probably, less catastrophic - than dealing with it in 10 years' time.

Second, some environmental processes may be irreversible, reaching a "tipping point" or ecological threshold from which recovery is slow, highly costly, and possibly impossible. Over-fishing, for example, rather than leading to a gradual fall in stocks, may result in their total elimination.

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