Walking the Walk on a Green Future

The transformative journey towards green urbanization in Asia is challenging amidst rapid population growth. Photo: ADB
The transformative journey towards green urbanization in Asia is challenging amidst rapid population growth. Photo: ADB

By Amy Leung

Asia's urbanization challenge balances rapid growth with green initiatives and sustainable urban development.

The scale of urbanization in Asia over the past few decades has been truly astonishing and there is no sign of it stopping. In the next 20 years, another 1.1 billion people in the region will call cities their home. Sadly the rush to the bright lights is coming at a heavy cost. Many cities—especially in developing countries—are already under severe strain from environmental degradation, traffic congestion, inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of basic services, such as water supply, sanitation and waste management. Over 200 million people in Asia now live in urban slums and the number is expected to increase as cities continue to grow. 

Cities have become the economic engine rooms of the region producing about 80% of Asia’s gross domestic product (GDP). But, both directly and indirectly, they are making a similar contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The economic cost of pollution is huge. It is estimated that air pollution alone can negatively affect GDP by about 2% to 4%. Asian cities will be the main contributors to pollution costs over the next 20 years if nothing is done. 

How can these cities manage to sustain rapidly growing populations without further wreaking havoc on the environment and depleting resources, while still ensuring that they are livable and competitive?

The greening of cities is clearly the only solution. Without it, Asia faces an environmentally degraded future which will badly hurt its economy. 

There is no one size fits all solution for green urbanization. Each city has a vision of what it wants to look like in 20 to 30 years time. Typically the approach is to become more energy efficient, less carbon intensive and to aspire towards zero waste. But these are just some of the options. The ultimate goal is to build livable and inclusive cities in which people enjoy living and working, and where investors and skilled workers want to move.

We need to stop discussing the problems and finally commit to take those first bold steps towards change.

ADB’s Green Cities Initiative recognizes the need to develop a vision and strategy to achieve green goals. It calls for an integrated and dynamic planning approach so that green policies and activities are properly synchronized. It also recognizes the need for urban plans to be flexible so they can adapt to changes in the global economy and technology. The initiative gives developing countries in Asia the opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of more developed countries. 

ADB also recognizes the need for dedicated financing mechanisms for greening cities and it has proposed the creation of a special purpose green infrastructure fund which aims to catalyze financing support, both locally, and from international institutions. Local assistance could come in the form of national debt and/or equity funds, while international financiers could support the fund directly, or provide parallel assistance. In the long run, such a facility could jump start a green urban infrastructure bond market to channel domestic and international pension and insurance funds into resource-efficient, sustainable urban infrastructure and utilities.

Commitment and support from central government, meanwhile, would help build trust and boost private sector confidence and interest. Under ADB’s initiative the goal is to set up green city steering committees, comprised of public, private, and community stakeholders. Starting with countries in Southeast Asia, ADB plans to work with cities who will commit to long-term partnerships (15–20 years) to make this happen. These long-term commitments will help encourage private sector participation because pension funds, insurance companies, and private companies can invest in green financing with the surety of guarantees from the government. 

A long term commitment allows ADB to work with cities in developing sustainable green urban plans which will identify suitable green projects both short and long term, and which will prioritize and program investments, including financing options. Such plans can also support the development of new, creative financing modalities for infrastructure projects.

Creating jobs and improving the economy does not have to be done at the expense of the environment. In fact, businesses open up new growth opportunities when they commit to the environment and adopt sustainable practices. Sadly, at this point in time there are currently no green cities in any of the developing countries in Asia where they are needed most.  ADB has laid out a path forward with its Green Cities Initiative. What’s missing is action. We need to stop discussing the problems and finally commit to take those first bold steps towards change.