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Key Environment Stories to Watch in 2014

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17 Jan Key Environment Stories to Watch in 2014

The year 2013 has seen more and more devastating environmental disasters in many parts of Asia. The worst haze in history blanketed Southeast Asia in June. Heavy air pollution hit new highs in Shanghai. One of the most powerful typhoons on record struck the Philippines and resulted in tragic loss of life.

These calamities raised awareness and triggered prompt actions by governments toward the better preparation for disasters. ASEAN leaders have agreed to adopt a joint Haze Monitoring System (HMS) to track those responsible for forest burning. The 2013 Warsaw climate change conference laid the groundwork for a loss and damage mechanism, by which developing countries affected by severe weather would receive assistance.

Yet, there is a long journey ahead for Asia and the world to ensure environmental sustainability. The SIIA’s Special Insights highlights three key environmental stories that Asian leaders must watch in 2014.

1. Closing the gap between countries on a global climate change deal 

The world will be looking for leadership and breakthroughs in the next two years as it struggles to put in place a climate change solution. The slow progress of climate change negotiations over the last two decades has been due to the complex multi-scale nature of climate change and the uncertainties surrounding the negotiations. The 2013 United Nations climate change conference in Warsaw encountered the same problem.

The divide between developed and developing countries in climate change negotiations remains a critical setback to a new global deal on emissions for 2015. Disagreements between the United States and China over how to share the burden of emissions are still on-going.  Newly emerged negotiating blocs, such as “like-minded developing countries” including China, India, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Venezuela, have gained leverage over the developed countries. These groups, mostly from the Group of 77, must remain as the bedrock of any future agreement.

Recent events in the US and China may offer hope for a breakthrough in the upcoming climate talks in 2014. Record-breaking cold, also known as the Polar Vortex, recently hit the US, while China still suffers from extreme heavy smog. Particularly, China’s domestic policies on climate change are moving quickly as the country recently opened two experimental carbon trading systems in major cities.

Still, it is unclear how China’s plan to curb emissions will affect global climate change negotiations in Peru this year. If anything, 2014 will be a litmus test for the US and China to show how they can move together towards a historic global deal on emissions.

2. Clean air and greening Asian cities   

Over the last 20 years, there has been a considerable expansion in many Asian cities, particularly those in China. Economic growth has boosted purchasing power. Increased use of commercial vehicles, the expansion of residential areas and increased industrial activity have worsened air quality.

Air pollution is becoming the hardest to tackle and the most deserving of attention. Hong Kong has recently reported a surge of PM 2.5 and other pollutants due to increased use of vehicles and transboundary pollution from southern China, something which it finds hard to resolve.

Singapore also suffers from transboundary air pollution, more commonly known as the haze, arising from burning in regions where forests are cleared to make way for plantations. The main source of pollution comes from Indonesia, but it was recently reported that fires in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar are also sources of haze in the region. The combination of wind direction and large-scale burning could prove to be disastrous in 2014 if ASEAN countries revert to business-as-usual.

For the first time, Singapore’s Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) has spoken about the need to have a law to make Singapore companies and executives accountable for transboundary effects. It is crucial that as and when such a draft legislation becomes available for consultation, relevant experts and the public must participate actively and agree on desired outcomes.

While it is unlikely that legislation can solve the haze overnight, legal mechanisms would at least be in place to prosecute companies in Singapore found to be using large-scale fires to clear land.

3. Integrating sustainability across sectors 

Increased demand and competition for scarcer resources will put enormous pressure on resource prices, which poses significant challenges to sustainable growth in Asia. Growing demand for food and agricultural commodities particularly in the region is likely to continue this year. This will require more land and water resources as well as the significant amount of energy.

How can Asia address these challenges to sustainable development while making opportunities? Resource efficiency is one way to reduce business costs and boost economic competitiveness. Domestically, cross-sectoral efficiency and cooperation on resources is a prerequisite for resource efficiency in the region.

In 2009, Singapore launched the Singapore Sustainability Blueprint to improve resource efficiency and build capacity for sustainable development. It is timely that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently announced that Singapore will review the blueprint because of demographic and social changes.

More importantly, the updated blueprint will guide industries on how to adopt sustainable business practices. Looking beyond corporate social responsibility, 2014 will be the year of rethinking current practices and integrating sustainability into business operations.

Conclusion 

Climate change and air pollution cannot be solved by one country or one city’s efforts. The year 2014 is on the road to sustainability. We will be watching how governments, business leaders and citizens bring their collective strengths together to provide a remedy for sustainability.

To create a networking platform for different stakeholders toward the sustainability of world resources, the SIIA plans to organise the 1st Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources in May 2014.