Pursuing Green Growth in the Greater Mekong Subregion

Women ride past burning garbage in Cambodia.
Women ride past burning garbage in Cambodia.

By Javed Hussain Mir

Picture this: rapid urbanization and massive infrastructure development and people trapped in outdated polluting transportation, escalating environmental degradation and deforestation, rising potable water shortages and food security concerns, extreme climate change occurrences and growing disaster risks.

Picture this: rapid urbanization and massive infrastructure development and people trapped in outdated polluting transportation, escalating environmental degradation and deforestation, rising potable water shortages and food security concerns, extreme climate change occurrences and growing disaster risks.

Inefficient resource use has led to increased competition for resources, rising costs and a growing set of ecological constraints. For example, food demand from the Mekong River Basin is projected to increase by 20-50% by 2030, while agricultural yields are likely to decline. 

Although GMS is well endowed with water, but that may provide a false sense of security. In the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), Thailand is the most vulnerable to climate-induced change in freshwater availability as the country has the highest ratio of annual freshwater withdrawal to total internal water resources (41.5%) in Southeast Asia. 

Consequently, the urgency to undertake an environmentally sustainable path towards “green” growth has never been stronger, the clamour even louder.

Green growth is economic progress that fosters environmentally sustainable, low-carbon, and socially inclusive development. It is growth that is well-distributed and does not compromise ecological assets for current and future generations. Undeniably, green growth should be at the core of every development.

To deliver green growth, green economies must be created. This entails a reconfiguring of policies, businesses, and infrastructure to deliver better returns on natural, human and economic capital, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, economizing resource use, creating less waste, and reducing social disparity. 

So, how can we make the case for green growth with the policy makers as well as ordinary citizens? First, green growth supports resource-efficient development, creating ‘win-win’ scenarios for both the economy and individual wellbeing. Second, green economy can provide new drivers for growth through the growing market for green technologies, goods and services – create a job full growth. The United Nations Environment Programme and the International Labour Organization estimate that the transformation to a greener economy could generate 15 to 60 million new jobs globally over the next two decades and lift tens of millions of workers out of poverty. Imagine the economic and social impact of this transformation -- even if only 10% of these jobs were created in the GMS. It can even soar higher than 10% if the right mix of policies and investments are put in place to create enabling conditions and develop an educated workforce ready for the green market.

To operationalize green growth, we need to go beyond the buzzwords and put the concept into practice. Key actions to operationalize green growth include: promoting sustainable investment in physical and natural capital; strengthening resource governance and capacity; responding to climate change; and enabling people to harness new economic opportunities from green growth. 

ADB’s approach in meeting this challenge is to combine, where applicable, finance, leverage, and knowledge, or what we call “finance++”.  Climate change is one area where the ADB’s finance++ approach is clearly demonstrated by building GMS capacity to assess climate risks. As massive investments are required for adaptation, efforts are being intensified to leverage external finance. The Climate Public-Private Partnership Fund has been established for this purpose. This $1 billion+ investment vehicle, in which ADB has made an equity investment of $100 million, will mobilize financing both the public and private sectors. Through this fund, ADB will expand its traditional role of financier and bring to the table leveraged resources along with its development knowledge to help countries address climate change.

Other initiatives include the promotion of sustainable investment in infrastructure through the GMS Regional Investment Framework. A pipeline of new projects, loans and grants worth around $9 billion toward economic integration for the next decade provides opportunity to increase investments in sustainable infrastructure in the region. Likewise, cross-border issues are being addressed through the GMS Core Environment Program. ADB is also supporting Lao PDR, Thailand, and Viet Nam to pilot green technology to reduce energy use from road freight along the GMS East-West Economic Corridor.  

ADB is also promoting investment in the region’s natural capital and improved resource governance. The GMS governments have piloted landscape-based approaches to integrated conservation and development in key transboundary forest landscapes. These successful pilots have been scaled up through ADB’s Biodiversity Conservation Corridors investment projects in Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Viet Nam, totalling $69 million. Work will also commence on economic assessment of natural capital and ecosystem services in the GMS to inform sector planning and investment screening. 

At the country level, ADB is providing investments and technical assistance in the energy, transport, and urban sector, including the first two solar energy projects in Thailand, the Hanoi Metro Rail transport system that fosters pedestrian-friendly development, and new projects in Viet Nam and Myanmar that aim to develop green cities. 

Last but not least, ADB is supporting GMS through the Biodiversity Conservation Corridors projects that fund livelihood diversification for forest-dependent communities through activities such as green value chains and agro-livelihood based tourism. Through the GMS Core Agricultural Support Program, ADB is promoting agricultural trade and agribusiness investment. This program will develop clusters of agro-industrial small-medium enterprises which will be supported by an agribusiness network capable of responding to new green market requirements. The program will also help establish networks of certified organizations to support eco-friendly supply chains that are founded on community and participatory certification. 

Undoubtedly, a transition to a green economy will not be possible without strong and committed leadership by all parties. I believe that the GMS experience will resound loudly to transcend regional barriers to re-echo the importance of pursuing a green growth agenda globally. The challenge is great, but the potential for gains is undeniable. After all, a reconciled balance between economic growth and environmental protection will enable humanity to enjoy growth benefits not only during our lifetime but also for the generations to come.