Asia must act now to pave the way for green, resource-friendly cities or face a bleak and environmentally degraded future. That was the key conclusion of a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) report released this month.
But amid the alarming details of the growing environmental crisis in Asia's expanding mega-cities, there were signs of hope and opportunity.
'Asia has seen unprecedented urban population growth but this has been accompanied by immense stress on the environment,' said Changyong Rhee, ADB's Chief Economist. 'The challenge now is to put in place policies which will reverse that trend and facilitate the development of green technology and green urbanization.'
In a special chapter of its flagship annual statistical publication, Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2012, ADB examined the challenges and opportunities associated with the region's breakneck urban boom. It also details measures needed to turn cities into environmentally sustainable, inclusive growth centers.
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.
This breakneck expansion has been accompanied by a sharp rise in pollution, slums, and widening economic and social inequalities which are causing rapid environmental degradation.
Particularly disturbing are urban carbon dioxide emissions, which if left unchecked under a business-as-usual scenario, could reach 10.2 metric tons per capita by 2050, a level which would have disastrous consequences for both Asia and the rest of the world.
Rising urban populations mean that over 400 million people in Asians cities may be at risk of coastal flooding and roughly 350 million at risk of inland flooding by 2025. Unless managed properly, these trends could lead to widespread environmental degradation and declining standards of living.
Natural disasters, especially floods, are common in Asia. Severe downpours in the Philippines killed at least 59 people and displaced some 300,000. Last month, Beijing suffered its heaviest rains in 60 years, causing widespread chaos. Floods in Thailand last year killed 529 people and disrupted millions of lives.
'We shouldn't think those incidents are the result of just bad luck,' said Changyong Rhee. 'In our report, the main message is that this kind of natural disaster, especially flooding in Asia, is a result of the combination of a growing risk of global warming and climate change, together with rapid and massive urbanisation in Asia without infrastructure,' he said.
Signs of Hope
The report notes that there is hope. The growth of cities can have many advantages, including critical 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.
Conservation and efficiency improvements will help. Many countries have begun diversifying their energy sources to include renewables and have been investing in energy-efficient buildings and sustainable transport systems. Imposing congestion and emission charges, as in Singapore, and removing inefficient fuel subsidies, as in Indonesia, can make prices more fully reflect social costs.
But the report says much more is needed, including the development and mainstreaming of new green technologies. Early examples are waste-to-energy conversion plants, as 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, the report points out.
Urbanization in Asia is Different
Asia's urbanization is different from what has preceded it notes the report, in both speed and scale, and it is generating and confronting unprecedented challenges. Urbanization also generates forces that can help to address these challenges if properly managed. Asia's future depends on using best practices and policy innovations to promote green urbanization, thereby ensuring a better life for its urban residents, and the world.
The Asia Development Bank report is available here.