Sustaining a Green and Equitable Future in Asia-Pacific

April 2017 – Beijing, China – 22nd Biennial Conference

Conference summary:

The dynamic Asia-Pacific region is major contributor to global economic growth, making the largest contribution to global growth in 2017 with the promise of retaining the lead in 2018.  Yet, it is also confronted with challenges, particularly, pronounced demographic changes, environmental deterioration, economic restructuring, and a widening income gap.

A fundamental consensus is that economic growth alone cannot automatically tackle such problems.  Instead there is a need to balance economic development and socio-environmental improvements through inclusive growth and sustainable development.  In the Asia-Pacific region, economies need to boost domestic demand, improve labour productivity, and enhance economic stability through investment in education, health care, the environment, and infrastructure, to ensure that everyone benefits from economic development.

To achieve fair and sustainable development, Asia-Pacific countries must work together to draw lessons from each other and to develop a collaborative and inclusive development path.  The 22nd Biennial Conference of the Association of Asian Social Science Research Councils (AASSREC) offered an opportunity for leading scholars from the Asia-Pacific region to open this dialogue and shine a light on successful models for sustaining a green and equitable future.


Sustaining a Green and Equitable Future in Asia-Pacific

The 22nd Biennial Conference of the Association of Asian Social Science Research Councils was held in Beijing on April 20-21, 2017.  Thirty participants, including representatives of member organisations and invited speakers, contributed to the discussion on “Sustaining a Green and Equitable Future in Asia-Pacific”.  The conference consisted of a keynote speech and discussions around four key topics:


Population and Environmental Sustainability

With a human population of more than 4 billion, the Asia-Pacific region is the most populous in the world.  This creates both challenges and opportunities for sustainable development.  In Sri Lanka, for instance, income inequality, increasing environmental pollution and degradation, and rapid rural urban migration create obstacles to attaining the Sustainable Development Goals.  In China, a vast and rapidly changing “floating population” impedes equitable development, while in Korea, the concentration of population and wealth and the subsequent over-urbanisation of Seoul, creates its own sets of social problems.  To address such challenges, dynamic policies that facilitate socio-economic transformation are needed, particularly in terms of incentivising the provision of intergenerational equity.  New frameworks that reconcile the common disconnect between the present and future, such as Future Design, can help with this process.  Similarly, lessons from other countries in the Asia-Pacific region can help shine light on what encourages sustainable development.  As an example, Australia’s experience addressing water scarcity, can help identify what might aid other countries in the region struggling to address water insecurity.  In New Zealand, new innovations in resource management, such as granting environmental goods and resources legal rights, can help inform policy across the region.  Through collaboration and open dialogue, countries in Asia-Pacific can look to overcome challenges that would otherwise stymie growth and development in the region.


Green Economy and Employment

To achieve fair and sustainable development in the 21st century, an economic and social transformation that improves livelihoods for all is needed.  One pathway towards change in the Asia-Pacific region is through investment in natural capital and the development of a ‘green economy’. In China, such investment is leading to the creation of jobs that produce goods or services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources.   Known as ‘green jobs’, these employment pathways are growing in number as China moves towards adopting a greener agenda.  However, new research by the Institute of Population and Labour Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences suggests that green may not necessarily be better.  Findings show that green jobs are often at the lower end of the quality spectrum, which impacts social equity and equality.  As the Asia-Pacific region endeavours to bring about social transformation, it is critical that such disparities don’t become embedded in social structures.  To facilitate sustainable futures countries can use methods, such as the nexus approach, to understand the linkages between inter- and intra-regions; rural, urban, and industrial sectors; and, water, energy, and food networks.  By focusing on the interconnectedness between various sectors of society, countries in the Asia-Pacific region can ensure that strong outcomes can be assured for the environment, alongside the economy and employment.


Economic and Social Inequality

Inequality is one of the biggest barriers to sustainable economic development in the Asia-Pacific region.  In China, for instance, although extraordinary levels of growth were recorded between 1980 and 2008, they were accompanied by the fastest increases in income and wealth inequality in the world, impeding social development.  Similarly, even today high levels of inequality threaten national development in Vietnam, as they do other countries in the region.  Oftentimes, the gap can be evident in the rural-urban divide, between ages, and across regions.  Interestingly, in 2008, income inequality stabilised and started to decline in China.  Reasons for this trend reversal remain unclear, but the introduction of new social policies could be one explanation.  Certainly, improving policy efficiency and integrating economic and social policy goals is likely to increase incomes and living standards in most cases.  Similarly, diversifying national investment portfolios, like social security systems, is likely to improve outcomes for all and help deliver social equality.


Social Security System

The population in the Asia-Pacific region is aging at a remarkable rate.  As the region looks to ways of becoming more equitable and sustainable, social security systems are going under the microscope. In Taiwan, by 2060, 40% of the population will be over 65, while in Bangladesh there is concern about the gender perspectives of old age, particularly the effects on women.   To be more equitable and sustainable, China has been undertaking pension reform for decades, adopting policies that address the biggest demographic inequalities.  In Taiwan China, in addition to government policy, a civic moment is emerging that complements the welfare system and aids in assisting an aging population through technology.  Whatever the approach taken – whether it be through government policy or citizen science – there can be no doubt that inclusive growth must include an inclusive social security system.


Concluding Remarks

One inescapable conclusion from this AASSREC conference is that all of our governing bodies across the vast and populous region share common problems and the resulting dilemmas of trying to achieve multiple and complex goals simultaneously.  The inevitable need for compromises seems to hold the promise for all of our societies, but the compromises are not easily achieved.  For instance the demands of natural resource management and human needs for resources defy simple solutions and here is where the exchange of ideas between our members can filter through to policy makers as options to be considered.

There are many problems facing our region, and each of them will need to be met not as barriers, but as opportunities for wise approaches to problem solving based on expert advice. Professionals, both researchers and practitioners in the social sciences, have deep understanding of economics, political necessities, institutional behaviour, human population aspirations and the need for stable and secure systems of governance and the support of citizens in forming harmonious societies.

AASSREC members are proud to be able to collaborate in our joint venture, and we will meet again in 2019 at a time and place to be determined.