Environmentally Sustainable Cities in ASEAN

Did you know that more than 50 percent of ASEAN’s 600 million people now live in urban areas, and that this figure is expected to increase? This fact puts ASEAN cities at the top of the global list of cities most vulnerable to climate change.

Environmental sustainability is a priority in the region, so much so that it is enshrined in the ASEAN Charter: “ASEAN shall promote sustainable development so as to ensure the protection of the region’s environment, the sustainability of its natural resources, and the preservation of its cultural heritage and the high quality of life of its people.” At its first meeting in 2008, the East Asia Summit (AES) Environment Ministers adopted Environmentally Sustainable Cities as the priority area for environmental collaboration.

Singapore has recently been recognized as Asia’s most innovative city, in part to its commitment to sustainable business.

Good progress has been made since then. Last week, I was privileged to be part of a delegation which traveled to Hanoi, Vietnam to attend the 4th High Level Seminar on Environmentally Sustainable Cities. The meeting brought together approximately 200 participants from the region – from national governments, local authorities and international organisations, NGO’s, research institutes, private companies, and others – to exchange information on progress made on sustainable cities activities in ASEAN and to discuss how to build on these efforts in the future.

For me, it was a wonderful opportunity to meet and learn from on-the-ground practitioners who are dedicated to improving the sustainability of their communities in the face of climate change, natural disasters, and rampant development pressures.

Just a few of the best practices and lessons learned:

  • Regional initiatives such ad USAID’s Mekong – Building Resilience in Asian Cities to Climate Change (M-BRACE) and the Asia-Pacific Adaptation Project Preparation Facility (ADAPT Asia-Pacific) are supporting city adaptation efforts, including helping cities access financing for climate adaptation.
  • The Climate Resilience Framework is an excellent tool which provides communities with a clear approach to building resilience into sustainable city planning and implementation. Their website is worth checking out.
  • Because ASEAN cities are diverse in their interests and values, public and private sector stakeholders need to play meaningful roles in policy planning and implementation. There also needs to be institutional incentives and structures that enable cross-sectoral engagement – not only across government sectors, but also stakeholders such as NGOs, universities, and the private sector. As a good example, the city of Hue, Vietnam instituted climate change coordination teams to integrate science and local knowledge in sustainable city planning.
  • City successes can also have a positive impact on provincial and national policies, as was shown in Albay Province, Philippines, where best practices in urban adaptation and resilience lead to the creation of two national laws.

The High Level Seminar was also an opportunity for us to present the CityLinks Pilot Partnership between U.S. and ASEAN Member States, an 18-month technical exchange program aimed at improving sustainability in ASEAN cities. Through this activity, we are also seeking opportunities to apply the best available science and technology to inform planning, implementation and monitoring of climate adaptation and urban resilience in ASEAN’s cities. Such S&T tools could include:

  • Spatial data analysis to understand risks over space and time;
  • Mobile apps to inform vulnerable communities with the right information on climate-related risks at the right time;
  • Inventory tools to systematically account for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in an understandable, standardized manner; and
  • Systems-based models to help decision-makers understand the tradeoffs of environmental, social, and economic impacts of different policy interventions under consideration.
U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN David L. Carden announces the CityLinks Pilot Partnership.

Regional platforms such as ASEAN can share proven science-based decision-making tools and policy guidance on climate adaptation and building city resilience. They can facilitate city-to-city learning and cross-sectoral information sharing, and, perhaps most promisingly, accelerate innovation for the direct benefit of ASEAN communities.

By Dr. Montira Pongsiri, PhD, MPH, Science Advisor at the U.S. Mission to ASEAN