Will the fulfilment of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) be a boon or bane to the region’s natural environment?

It is well known that the AEC formally comes into being at the end of this year, thereby formalising closer integration of the economies of the 10 countries comprising the regional grouping. But by its very name, AEC is focused almost entirely on the economy. Hence, the specific policy, institutional and administrative reforms that the member-countries had committed to under the AEC Blueprint, numbering more than 400, focus on the economy and on making trade and investment flow more freely across the region. Strategies to achieve this include wider and deeper liberalisation of trade and investment policies, trade and investment facilitation, and greater physical, institutional and people-to-people connectivity. These entail measures like extending trade and investment liberalisation to services; easing infrastructure and policy impediments to the movement of vehicles, goods, services, knowledge and skilled labour across national borders; and activities to promote wider and stronger interaction among the peoples of the Association of Southeast Nations (Asean).

Where is the environment in all of this? How do we ensure that in the drive toward freer flow of goods, services, capital, knowledge and capital across the region, we will not end up sacrificing the natural environment and the well-being of people and communities in the process? How do we avoid the problems caused by transnational crime, illegal immigration, environmental degradation and pollution both within and across national borders, and other cross-border challenges? Will we not see the dreaded “race to the bottom”, where governments are too often led to relax social and environmental protection standards in the competition to attract a greater share of investments? Will the preoccupation with economic growth set aside the concern for sustainability and ensuring long-term welfare across generations?

Left out of the equation

In the approach to Asean integration as a regional community, there appears to be a key aspect of integration missing. While it seeks closer integration among the economies of the region, it appears to neglect the holistic integration of the social, environmental and economic dimensions of development. Instead of an integrated strategy to achieve the envisioned Asean community, it compartmentalises the approach into three distinct tracks toward its attainment. It’s well known that there’s an Asean Economic Community, but far less well known are the Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC), and the Asean Political-Security Community (APSC). The latter two do not receive anywhere near the attention given to the AEC, and commitments therein don’t seem to be as closely tracked and monitored as those in the AEC Blueprint.

It is the ASCC that addresses the region’s environment. Under “Ensuring Environmental Sustainability”, the ASCC Blueprint in fact says all the right things in terms of challenges and strategies. It identifies 11 thrusts addressing, pursuing or promoting: (1) global environmental issues; (2) transboundary environmental pollution, particularly haze pollution and movement of hazardous wastes; (3) environmental education and public participation; (4) environmentally sound technology; (5) quality living standards in Asean cities/urban areas; (6) harmonisation of environmental policies and databases; (7) sustainable use of coastal and marine environment; (8) sustainable management of natural resources and biodiversity; (9) sustainability of freshwater resources; (10) climate change and its impacts; and (11) sustainable forest management.

This is all well and good, except that those in government who will pursue these thrusts and translate them into action are in different ministries or offices from those who will act in pursuit of the AEC Blueprint. We all know that tensions often arise between actions to facilitate business and promote economic growth.

Left to itself, business acting in response to market forces and trends will tend to have a short-sighted planning horizon, versus the intergenerational perspective that sustainable development demands.

Economic officials responding to concerns from business stakeholders will in turn tend to neglect longer-term environmental implications of economic policies and measures they undertake. A holistic and integrative approach will thus be elusive unless the decision-making process brings together policymakers from the various perspectives involved. But governments and Asean mechanisms have always been structured sectorally. It will take a deliberate move away from compartmentalised planning and decision-making, towards a more holistic and integrative approach, to overcome this.

There’s reason to be hopeful, however. Rather than permit a “race to the bottom”, for example, Asean governments can decide to coordinate and deliberately harmonise social and environmental standards. Business matching initiatives that identify and link firms so that one firm’s waste and byproducts are another’s inputs – thereby promoting minimum or zero-waste outcomes – are likely to find even more such matches when done at a regional level. The move toward greater connectivity and integration within the region actually provides greater opportunities to address key sustainability challenges. Asean just needs to be creative enough to find them. –Cielito F Habito, The Philippine Daily Inquirer
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