Making Sustainability Work

Girls heading to school in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Girls heading to school in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

By Vinod Thomas

For a long time, sustainability was seen as an environmental issue that represented an unwelcome trade-off with strong economic growth. But now it encompasses a more mutually dependent set of environmental, economic, and social goals.

Asia’s headlong charge for growth brought spectacular economic gains over the past decades, but came at the cost of catastrophic environmental impacts. The question of how to sustain this growth is foremost on the minds of many governments in these precarious times, marked by slipping growth in the People’s Republic of China causing global concern. The wrong response would be simply to return to the policies of the past.

Encouragingly, there is talk of sustainable economic growth – rather than growth at any cost. Global initiatives being readied for a new development agenda for the next 15 years and action on climate change should provide a sturdy framework for policy actions to help sustain socio-economic progress.This month sees the launch in New York of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by member countries of the United Nations, an initiative that is far broader and more ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals, which they replace from next year. In December, at a summit in Paris, a global deal will be tabled to contain runaway climate change. Past efforts to address climate change disappointed, but expectations are rising that Paris will deliver following recent pledges on emission reductions by some of the world’s largest economies.

Sustainability is the key principle underlying both global efforts, and setting goals for sustainable development and confronting climate change will have an acute bearing on keeping Asia’s economic and development progress on track.

Sustainability is broadly understood as meeting the needs of the present without endangering the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It underlies the 17 proposed SDGs that will set the post-2015 development agenda for governments, development institutions and NGOs. Quite rightly, the unfinished business of ending poverty in all its forms tops the SDGs. Asia, after, all is still home to 544 million people living on less than $1.25 per person a day and 1.4 billion on less than $2 a day.

Closing the income gaps that are widening in many of the countries that make up 80% of Asia’s population will be critical for achieving sustained development, and this is recognized in the goals to reduce inequality within and among countries. Clearly, turning aspiration to reality—especially on sustainable development and climate action—will require very considerable resources and political will. But it will be harder for Asia to sustain strong growth unless the worst effects of climate change are averted. And there will be no improvement in the quality of growth unless income disparities narrow.

For a long time, sustainability has been thought of as an environmental issue that represented an unwelcome trade-off with strong economic growth. More recently, as countries grapple with the perils of climate change and income disparities, sustainability has come to encompass a more mutually dependent set of environmental, economic, and social goals. Failure in one area, it is increasingly understood, threaten progress in others. As we are already seeing in Asia, dramatic environmental degradation and rising social inequality hurt economic performance.

Ensuring greater sustainability is the theme of "Think Sustainable, Act Responsible", a knowledge sharing event hosted by Independent Evaluation at ADB on September 15-16, 2015. The topic will be addressed on four fronts: macroeconomic and fiscal, environment and climate change, institutions and governance, and project investment.