Getting sustainable development back on track in Asia and the Pacific
2019 will be a landmark year for the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Four years will have passed since world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Four years since governments recommitted themselves to eradicating extreme poverty, improving universal health care coverage, education and food security, and achieving a sweeping set of economic, social and environmental objectives. Long enough to assess our direction of travel and then refocus work where progress is falling short.
As the United Nations development arm in the region, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific’s (UN ESCAP) absolute priority is to support our members achieve the SDGs by 2030. We work to give scale to their effort through regional cooperation and the South-South cooperation. So, we see the stock taking in 2019 as an opportunity. One to ensure our region remains on track to achieve sustainable development.
We already know our region’s effort must be intensified. UN ESCAP analysis shows that on our current trajectory only one SDG, universal education, is on track to be met by 2030. Environmental degradation and air pollution are worsening. Our region is feeling the full force of climate change, but our greenhouse gas emissions remain high. Intraregional trade and connectivity remain below their potential. Inequalities, both within and between countries, are widening.
Much good work is underway to overcome these challenges. But there is scope to step up our region’s response in three main areas.
First, the region cannot afford to ignore widening inequality. Had the proceeds of growth been shared more equitably over the past decade, 140 million more people could have been lifted out of poverty. Inequalities of income, opportunity and increased exposure to natural disasters are all on the rise. Our response clearly needs to cut across sectors. But UN ESCAP research shows social protection delivers the highest return on investment. Countries such as Thailand or Vietnam have expanded their social protection programmes and have expertise to share. Let us use South-South cooperation to share it.
Continuing to strengthen our resilience to natural disasters is also key. We know disasters increase inequality. They keep children out of school and adults out of work, increase inequality and entrench poverty. Regional cooperation can help establish multi-hazard early warning systems, improve impact forecasting and damage assessment. UN ESCAP works closely with the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space of Indonesia (LAPAN) towards these objectives. LAPAN had a leading role in developing the recently agreed Asia-Pacific Plan of Action on Space Applications for Sustainable Development. Now, we need to focus on implementation, to harness space applications and digital innovations, to protect people from natural disasters better.
Second, the region must fulfil its longstanding ambition to increase intraregional trade. Recent trade tensions highlight Asia and the Pacific’s vulnerability to protectionism from major export markets. UN ESCAP analysis shows how regional value chains are being disrupted. 2.7 million jobs could be lost due to trade tensions, with unskilled workers, particularly women, suffering most. Increasing intraregional trade and connectivity should be part of our response. By implementing the framework agreement on the facilitation of cross-border paperless trade in Asia and the Pacific, adopted by UN ESCAP members to support the exchange of electronic trade data and documents, smoother commercial exchanges are within reach. Particularly if transport and energy connectivity are also increased. ASEAN’s achievement in strengthening power grids across borders is a leading example of successful political commitment and technical cooperation. We need this at the regional level.
Third, Asia and the Pacific should move decisively to reduce its ever-growing environmental footprint that is undermining development and peoples’ health. We should start with air pollution. As rapid urbanization continues, the region accounts for the bulk of cities with unhealthy air pollution levels. It leads to over 2 million premature deaths a year. Now is the time to agree a common response. One which limits hazardous health effects, accelerates the region’s transition to cleaner energy, promotes sustainable transport and strengthens our fight against climate change. A framework for science-based policy cooperation could make a real difference, including by raising ambitions when it comes to fighting climate change. The countries of North East Asia have already agreed a Clean Air Partnership. We should consider building on this approach at a regional level.
2019 is the region’s moment to build a more coherent regional response to these major challenges. To take decisive steps to combat air pollution and climate change, boost intraregional trade, improve social protection and resilience to natural disasters. We owe it to future generations to seize this opportunity, to come together and to quicken our pace to achieve sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific.
Ms. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)