Mindless consumption will lead to a depleted Asia and the Pacific

Kaveh Zahedi says the trend of mindless, voracious consumption in developing Asia-Pacific must change - for survival's sake

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 3:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 3:00am

The theme of this year's World Environment Day - "Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume With Care" - will strike a chord with the people of the Asia-Pacific region. The economic and environmental destiny of our "one planet" is increasingly driven by our actions.

The speed of economic growth here has surpassed global rates for several years, lifting millions out of poverty and improving their living standards. Consumption and resource use will continue to increase as the 700 million middle-to-high-income consumers exercise their buying power.

In September, countries will meet in New York to approve new universal guidelines for development: the Sustainable Development Goals. Reaching these ambitious goals - ranging from ending poverty to ensuring healthy lives - will require the integration of economic, social and environmental policies. The track record so far is not encouraging.

Asia-Pacific is rich in natural resources but the signs are that we are consuming without much care. According to a recent report released by the UN Environment Programme, over half of the annual world use of materials - estimated at a staggering 37 billion tonnes in 2010 - is in Asia and the Pacific, and mostly for domestic consumption. While the use of these materials, which include fossil fuels, construction minerals and metal ores, is fuelling development, the region lags far behind in terms of efficiency.

All this has resulted in widespread natural resource degradation and severe stress for the region's air, land, water and forests. Environmental health problems, such as air pollution, are costing millions of lives. The consequences of traditional models of development are undermining development itself.

Against this backdrop, the First Forum of Ministers and Environment Authorities held last month called for a resilient, resource-efficient Asia-Pacific. Countries resolved to address large-scale human and environmental damage. They undertook to put in place the necessary policies to maintain the ecosystem and the region's natural capital - including vital fisheries - not only for the sake of environmental protection, but as a critical element for poverty reduction. And they prioritised addressing the problems of growing waste.

The region has set an ambitious environmental agenda for itself. As a region, Asia-Pacific is not yet consuming with care. But future development of the smallest and poorest countries, as well as the biggest and richest, will depend on a very different pathway than the one that has brought us here.

Kaveh Zahedi is regional director and representative for Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Environment Programme