A Long-term Perspective on Environment and Development in the Asia-Pacific Region
1.2 Current status of environmental problems
1.2.1 Environmental problems caused by industrialization
The progress of industrialization has been accompanied by a steady rise in emission levels. In China, for example, SO2 emissions surged from 15.23 million tons in 1985 to 17.95 million tons in 1993. However, there have also been cases of substantial abatement of pollution once industrialization has progressed to a certain extent. In the Republic of Korea, for example, SO2 emissions improved considerably in the late 1980s. An analogous improvement was achieved by Japan in the 1970s; yearly SO2 emissions, which probably topped 4.8 million tons in the late 1960s, have been reduced to about 1 million tons since the 1980s. These cases show that air and water pollution from industrial processes can be largely corrected if the proper technical measures are taken.
However, there also exist problems for which substantial improvement has not been achieved even in countries possessing sophisticated technology, as well as problems which surface along with the emergence of new technology. In Japan, groundwater has been polluted by chemical substances (such as trichloroethylene) used in the fabrication of semiconductors. Similarly, many Asian countries are grappling with problems associated with the storage and disposal of large quantities of hazardous chemical substances used in semiconductor fabrication.
A great risk is also posed by marine pollution by oil tankers in the Straits of Malacca and other bodies of water in Asia.
Furthermore, industrialization is being linked to the spread of mass-production and consumption-oriented lifestyles throughout Asia. Burial of the vast quantities of resulting waste in inland and coastal areas is having an adverse impact on the natural environment. In some cases, groundwater is being polluted by waste stored in the open.
1.2.2 Environmental risks associated with energy consumption
Primary energy consumption in the Asia-Pacific region in 1992 was estimated at 1.9 billion TOE (tons of oil equivalent), or 24 percent of the global total. It was also estimated that the region had already come to account for 27 percent of the total atmospheric emission of carbon dioxide by the same year.
Besides becoming one of the biggest causes of climate change, the region could also become among the most severely affected by them. It has a high concentration of population and social capital in coastal areas, and contains many island countries. For these reasons, it is also a focus of concern about the prospect of a sea level rise. In island countries that rise only a few meters above sea level, what is at stake is nothing less than the survival of the state, which itself may bear almost no blame for emission of greenhouse gases. In many areas of the region, there is concern about worsening soil degradation and corresponding decline in agricultural productivity. In such areas, climate change induced by increasing energy consumption could deal a further blow to such productivity.
Although the developed countries of the West are working to reduce them, volumes of SO2 emissions are expected to continue to rise in the Asia-Pacific region due to increased energy consumption and insufficient countermeasures for atmospheric pollution. ESCAP has estimated that the region's emission of this pollutant was 35 million tons in 1990. This would be the highest such figure in the world, exceeding those of North America and Europe.
With the exception of certain areas, acid rain has not yet had as great an impact on the ecosystem in the region as in Europe. According to the World Bank, however, soil in southern China and Southeast Asia tends to have a low capacity to act as a buffer against acid rain, and there is a concern about impact on the ecosystem in these areas.
According to UN statistics, the 1992 population of the Asia-Pacific region was over 3.1 billion, or more than half of the total world population. Moreover, the population is rapidly concentrating to cities. In many cities, improvement of the social infrastructure cannot keep abreast of the influx, and serious environmental problems are surfacing. Besides pollution from domestic sewage and household waste as well as noise and air pollution due to traffic congestion, there are problems of deterioration of the living environment due to uncontrolled development of slums and the shrinkage of fertile farmland and forests by urban sprawl.
The group most affected by worsening environment is generally the urban poor, who are liable to receive the brunt of the impact of industrial pollution in the vicinity of factories without sufficient anti-pollution measures, as well as of unsanitary water and inadequate hygiene-related facilities.
Economic growth and rising income levels are being accompanied by a rapid increase in the number of motor vehicles on the road. The number of passenger cars per thousand people in Japan was 283 in 1990. In Singapore and Malaysia the number exceeds 100, and in the Republic of Korea has reached 50. The Republic of Korea and Malaysia have entered the phase of full-fledged motorization that could culminate in the same level of ownership. However, there has not been a corresponding expansion of the capacity of mass transit and roads, with the result of increasing traffic congestion and the associated air and noise pollution in the major cities.
1.2.4 Natural resource degradation and poverty
Against this background of fast-paced industrialization and urbanization, environmental problems deriving from poverty are also coming to the fore in the Asia-Pacific region. ESCAP estimates that the region is home to about 72 percent of the world's farming population, in spite of the fact that it contains only about 30 percent of the world's arable land. In addition, population is increasing much more rapidly than the area of land under cultivation, resulting in a decrease in average acreage per capita of farming population and increase in farmers without land.
The consequences of this situation, which include soil erosion due to cultivation of hillsides and other land of low productivity and the practice of unsustained farming methods on forest land, are factors behind falling agricultural productivity, deforestation, and soil degradation. ESCAP figures indicate that soil degradation is affecting from 10 to 50 percent of the land area of the countries of East and South Asia, and that 36 percent of the arable land in Asia is being desertified.
Deforestation continues to be a serious problem in the region. According to the FAO, 3.9 million hectares of forestland in the region were lost between 1981 and 1990. This translates into an average annual loss rate of about 1.2 percent, higher than in any other tropical region.