Development without Destruction: ASEAN’s need for sustainable development

The ASEAN community is promoting new connections of every kind across Southeast Asia. New roads, bridges, trains, and more will physically unite ASEAN Member States and distant communities within each nation. New mutual recognition agreements will encourage professionals to move and explore and form new connections with international communities and companies. Increased urbanization is aggregating people from diverse backgrounds, experiences and cultures. More prevalent mobile technology and improved internet access is overcoming any physical barriers to connect citizens, companies, and governments digitally. In this bright new era, one connection that cannot be forgotten is our connection with the earth.

April 22nd is Earth Day. This is a day to stop and to reflect on how ASEAN can expand and grow in harmony with the surrounding natural resources.

ASEAN is home to a plethora of natural resources and beauty, but unfortunately they have been under assault for a number of years. Forests have been hit particularly hard in Southeast Asia. A study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific found that over the last twenty years, Southeast Asia has lost 13 percent of its forest. Approximately 2 percent of the remaining forests are being destroyed every year (Miettinen, Shi, & Liew, 2011), as timber is continually needed for fuel and livelihoods and space is needed for agriculture and homes (UNESCAP, 2011).

Of particular note is the destruction of peat swamp forests, which is happening at an alarmingly high rate. In Sarawak, Malaysia, for example, over half of the peat swamp forests were removed between 2000 and 2010, leaving only 26 percent of the previous forests remaining (Liew & Miettinen, 2011).  Peat swamp forests are tropical forests that serve a critical role as natural carbon sinks. Almost half of the world’s peat swamp forests exist in Indonesia and another ten percent are scattered throughout ASEAN. The destruction of these forests poses a double threat to the environment. First, removing the forests limits nature’s ability to resorb much of the man-made carbon dioxide in the environment. Secondly, when these forests are destroyed to make way for roads, farms, and irrigation systems, they release the carbon that they were previously sequestering.

2010 Land Cover with Deforested Areas; From Miettinen, Shi, & Liew. Global Change Biology (2011)

The removal of forests throughout Southeast Asia is further fueling global climate change; the region is responsible for producing 12 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases (Asian Development Bank). In the United Nation’s recent report of global climate change entitled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”, Southeast Asia was identified as a spot that will be largely influenced by the negative effects of climate change including heat stress, extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, as well as drought and water scarcity. These deleterious effects will not only increase the potential for injury, disease, and death, they will also hinder economic growth, as coastal Asian urban centers are likely to be among those experiencing the worst of these conditions (McKie, 2014).

So rather than exacerbating already precarious environmental positions by further destroying forests and generating more carbon, ASEAN must strategically move forward to harmonize its growth with environmental protections. ASEAN governments and citizens must pick more sustainable options for the region as cities expand and the need for space and resources increases.

Luckily, ASEAN is not starting from ground zero. In 2008, the Environment Ministers from across the region created the East Asian Model Cities Initiative, which encourages and supports innovative and voluntary bottom-up initiatives to create sustainable cities. Since the inaugural year of building in 2011, over 35 cities have participated in the initiative (ASEAN ASC).

Moreover, ASEAN cities that have yet to begin their sustainable transformations have role models in other ASEAN Member States and elsewhere in the region. A green city index survey ranked Singapore as one of the region’s top performers, with a history of emphasizing sustainability, preserving green space, and developing new technologies to recycle and save resources. Even though Singapore currently produces the least amount of waste per capita — 307 kg per person per year compared to the average 380 kg per person per year — Singapore’s government is still pushing to increase it’s recycling to 65% of waste by 2020. To curb emissions, Singapore has significantly invested in its public transport system and facilitated connections between rail and bus systems. The result is that 60 percent of people commute via public transportation. For those who do not, there are strict quotas for vehicles and more licenses are available for smaller, fuel-efficient cars (Economist Intelligence Unit).

Similar examples exist throughout Asia. Tokyo created the first cap and trade system in Asia to cut energy related emission by 17% by 2020. Seoul has the densest public transport network of the Asian cities polled in the Green City Index, boasting 6.6km per square km, which is almost three times that average (Economist Intelligence Unit). China is also working on the world’s largest eco-city near Tianjin. What was once one of the dirtiest parts of China has been cleaned up and replaced with improved technologies. Wind turbines and solar panels are common, and one-fifth of the energy used in the city will be emission-free. Technologies from across the globe including motion-sensitive lights, pneumatic waste collection, and electric vehicles have shaped this city into a model of what can be done in Asia (Vince, 2012).

While the need to move towards greener cities and to preserve the environment is more urgent than ever, ASEAN cities also now have the ability to utilize state of the art technology, innovate in new ways, and to learn from those around them. These exciting advances in sustainability and urban develop will enable ASEAN cities to progress even more than before to ensure their livelihoods, economic prosperity, and restored harmony with the natural world.


Works Cited

Ahmad, S., & Tahar, R. M. (2014). Selection of renewable energy sources for sustainable development of electricity generation system using analytic hierarchy process: A case of Malaysia. Renewable Energy, 63, 458-466.

ASEAN ASC. (n.d.). ASEAN Model Cities. Retrieved from ASEAN Model Cities:

Asian Development Bank. (n.d.). The Economics of Climate Change in Southeast Asia: A Regional Review. Asian Development Bank.

Economist Intelligence Unit. (n.d.). The Green City Index. Siemens.

Liew, S. C., & Miettinen, J. (2011, July 6). Illegal Logging Update Meeting: Chatham House. Retrieved from Southeast Asian Deforestation Rates and Agricultural Conversion:,%20Environment%20and%20Development/060712%20Liew.pdf

McKie, R. (2014, March 22). Global Warming to hist Asia hardest, warns new report of climate change. The Guardian.

Miettinen, J., Shi, C., & Liew, S. C. (2011, February 20). Deforestation Rates in insular Southeast Asia between 2000 and 2010. Global Change Biology, 17(7), 2261-2270.

Page, S. E., Siegery, F., Rieley, J. O., Boehm, H.-D. V., Jaya, A., & Limin, S. (2002, November 7). The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature, 420, 61-65.

UNESCAP. (2011). UNESCAP. Retrieved from Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2011:

Vince, G. (2012, May 3). BBC-Future. Retrieved from China’s eco-cities: Sustainable Urban Living in Tianjin:


About the Author: Holly Lauridsen is a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Yale University, where she is conducting research on inflammation and vascular health. She is participating in the United States Virtual Foreign Service internship with the US Mission to ASEAN. She is originally from Portland, Oregon. Follow Holly on Twitter @HollysSciFinds to learn more about exciting new science!