Ten years ago an economist would have been laughed out of the room but last week the Asia Development Bank's Principal Economist, Dr. Guanghua Wan spoke to a room full of environmental experts who welcomed the innovative idea that cities could be turned into environmentally sustainable, inclusive growth centers.
“Asia has seen unprecedented urban population growth but this has been accompanied by immense stress on the environment,” said Dr. Wan. “The challenge now is to put in place policies which will reverse that trend and facilitate the development of green technology and green urbanization.”
Since the 1980s, Asia has been urbanizing at a faster rate than anywhere else, with the region already home to almost half of all the world’s city dwellers. In just over a decade, it will have 21 of 37 megacities worldwide, and over the next 30 years another 1.1 billion people are expected to join Asia’s already swollen urban ranks.
The principal economist of Asia Development Bank presented the special chapter of ADB's flagship annual statistical publication, Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2012
. ADB examines the challenges and opportunities associated with the region’s breakneck urban boo, including a sharp rise in pollution, slums, and widening economic and social inequalities which are causing rapid environmental degradation. Of particular concern are rising urban CO2 emissions and risks of coastal flooding. He notes that unless managed properly, these trends could lead to widespread environmental degradation and declining standards of living.
But the main message was that there is hope.
The Asia Development Bank will no longer be fighting the inevitable growth in the urban sector. Instead ADB believes the growth in cities could actually help promote environmental sustainability -specifically, the growth of cities can have many advantages, such ascritical masses of people in relatively small areas, making it easier and more cost effective to supply essential services like piped water and sanitation. Rising education levels, factories leaving cities, the growth of middle classes and declining birth rates typically associated with urbanization also have a broadly beneficial impact on resource use and the environment.
Already steps have been taken by countries such as Singapore and Indonesia where inefficient fuel subsidies have been removed. But ADB says much more is needed, including the development and mainstreaming of new green technologies. Early examples are waste-to-energy conversion plants, as seen in the Philippines and Thailand, or “smart” electric grids.
For urbanization to be not only green but inclusive, policy makers need to promote climate resilient cities in order to prevent disasters like the 2011 Bangkok floods and improve urban slum areas.
ADB sees hope for Asia's urban future.