Asean's sustainable future? Science and technology
October-December 2015
By: David L Carden and Montira J Pongsiri

These needs and challenges are new, given Asean’s aspiration to participate in the global economy. Without meeting them it will be very difficult for the region to go beyond provisioning the world with its own diminishing natural resources. The simple truth is that Asean will need new approaches to growth than those that were effective elsewhere in the past. So too will the rest of the world.

In the past, people altered their landscapes and exploited their natural systems with great economic benefits, and seemingly little impact. We are only now witnessing the cumulative impact of such past practices. Scientific studies have shown that human activity has and continues to transform the structure and functioning of the earth's systems upon which we have long relied, including its forest cover, rivers, oceans, climate and atmosphere. None have been exempt from what we have done and are continuing to do. Now these changes are affecting health and well-being because they are affecting human safety and our basic necessities.

Yet too many persist in following old paths to progress despite concerns that they are not sustainable. Indeed, recent economic analyses such as “triple bottom line” accounting strongly suggest that businesses only are able to make a profit by avoiding the full economic, social and environmental costs of their operations, which are paid in large part by the public or deferred to future generations. A new report from the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health makes it clear: the planet has been mortgaging the future to live in the present. Asean is doing the same.

Some think it unfair to deny past paths to prosperity to those who are trying to take them now. The ongoing international negotiations attempting to establish goals for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are but one example of countries making the case for them staying the course charted by the past. One of the positions taken by developing countries – the developed world has caused most of the problem and should bear the burden of limiting greenhouse gas emissions – is understandable as a matter of past equity since the developed world was able to develop in part by doing as the developing world wants to do now.

But those past practices are not sustainable. There is growing evidence the planet cannot absorb the additional effects of pollution and natural resource exploitation. The result of attempting to utilize past growth models would exacerbate climate change, create critical shortages of the very things that once supported development and damage the natural resource base upon which we all depend. It would be just a matter of time before those impacts take an existential toll.

Allison 11/03/2015 09:40 AM
David L Carden and Montira J Pongsiri rightly highlight how science and technology (S&T) could help address sustainability issues looming in ASEAN members’ futures. There is clearly a need for greater S&T collaboration throughout the Southeast Asian region, and Carden and Pongsiri provide valuable detail about the activities that the US Mission to ASEAN facilitates. However, I am surprised that ASEAN’s own S&T mechanisms were overlooked for their potential to contribute. ASEAN’s S&T activities trace to the establishment of the Committee on S&T (COST), which first convened in 1978. The high level body is a focal point for coordinating regional cooperation on S&T matters and has responsibility for developing ASEAN’s Plans for Action in S&T (APAST). The ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Science and Technology (AMMST) regularly brings together member leaders and S&T ministers to discuss regional issues of S&T significance, with an informal AMMST (IAMMST) interspersed between them. Contrary to what the authors state, ASEAN does in fact have long term planning initiatives in place that could help address regional sustainability. The extant APAST, which plans for the 2007-2011 timeframe (and was later extended to 2015), identifies several avenues of S&T cooperation that address issues such as climate change, renewable energies, transboundary marine pollution, and environmentally-friendly materials development. APAST’s planned successor, which is set to cover the 2016-2020 timeframe, will likely be organised around the eight thematic tracks identified at the 2010 Krabi Initiative. These tracks include green technologies, food security, water management, and biodiversity for health and wealth. In addition, COST coordinates several S&T flagship programs with aims in building an early warning system for disaster risk reduction, building climate change resilience in ASEAN, and reducing the incidence of infectious diseases in Southeast Asia. The challenge for ASEAN may well lie in implementation as it’s not always clear how such initiatives have progressed in practice. Yet ASEAN certainly has communicated a desire to support members in “moving up the technology ladder” and move away from economic growth that is founded on exploiting natural resources. At the eighth IAMMST in 2014, ministers agreed to a new vision that seeks to build “a Science, Technology and Innovation-enabled ASEAN which is innovative, competitive, vibrant, sustainable and economically integrated”. It is perhaps too early to tell how this will advance past a policy statement, but continued US technical assistance would definitely help this occur. S&T collaboration can facilitate a sustainable future for the region, though the best solution will be one that is entrenched within existing ASEAN mechanisms. This way, like Cardin and Pongsiri argue, we can see ASEAN building informed ASEAN solutions. ---------------------------- Dr Allison Sonneveld is a Research Officer for the Australian Army. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.
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