Journal of Environment and Development 15(2):107-111, June 2006

"Environmental Reform in Asia" 

David A. Sonnenfeld and Arthur P. J. Mol

© 2006 Sage Publications


The Asia Pacific region is unquestionably one of the most economically dynamic areas in the world. In the People's Republic of China, India, Malaysia, Vietnam and recently Thailand, to name a few countries, the financial crisis of the late 1990s now seems only a small irritation in two decades of steady economic growth. Political scientists and governmental analysts in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries expect Asian countries to play an increasing role in global politics, as well. The developments at the 2003 World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Cancun, where economic "upstarts" Brazil, China, and India turned down the trade liberalization proposals of the old centers of global and economic power (USA and EU), may be just the beginning of a radical shift in global economic and political power.

The speed and trajectories of economic growth and development in the Asia Pacific region have consequences for the environmental sustenance base in Asia and the entire world (cf. Bradsher, 2003; Yardley, 2004). Continuing industrialization and urbanization, enhanced levels of consumption, rapidly increasing energy consumption, dynamic growth in modes and quantities of transport, all relate to increased use of natural resources, higher levels of emissions, and greater social pressure on water, land, forests, and other natural resources. This does not differ much from what occurred in OECD countries during their rapid industrial and economic developments in the past. Similar environmental disruptions and increased use of natural resources took place during the 19th century European industrial revolutions and post-World War II economic expansions, all with consequences for local livability.

But there are a number of important differences between past environmental crises in the OECD countries and contemporary ecological disruptions through developments in Asia. Firstly, most OECD countries developed at the expense of natural and social environments in other parts of the world. The literature (see for instance those in the tradition of world-systems theory, dependency theory and environmental sciences) is quite uniform in its assessment of the net flow of natural resources from developing to developed countries, and the – up until today – unequally large contribution of the developed world to global environmental change. While China ironically follows in Japan's footsteps in extending its ‘ecological shadow’ beyond its borders (cf. Dauvergne, 2001; Marshall, 1995; Carter & Mol, 2006), this is less so for other Asian economies. Secondly, while most OECD countries started to worry seriously about and act on the ‘environmental side-effects’ of rapid economic growth only after as much as a century following industrialization, the Asia Pacific region is, in historical terms, rather quickly developing environment-oriented institutions together with rapid changes in industrialization, urbanization and economic growth.

Thirdly, widespread environmental consciousness, globally organized environmental interest groups, and available and generally accepted knowledge and information on environmental deterioration – to a large extent originating from the struggles with environmental problems in the OECD countries – make contemporary domestic and international pressures for environmental improvements in Asian industrializing countries different than the pressures resulting from civil society and emerging scientific insights during European and US industrialization decades earlier. Finally, contemporary advancements in environmental knowledge and technologies, global environmental monitoring and information exchange and global environmental institutions (including those associated with the multilateral environmental agreements – see Meyer et al. [1997]) create a completely different setting for addressing the environmental consequences of high levels of economic growth in Asia today.

Comparing Environmental Reforms in Asia

One might consequently expect rapidly industrializing Asian economies to include environmental considerations more rapidly within economic and industrial development paths than OECD countries did in earlier years. At the same time (and notwithstanding all the rhetorics of sustainable development, win-win opportunities and environmental niche-markets), including environmental considerations in economic developments is not without costs, difficulties and conflicting interests. One cannot expect an uncomplicated route in taking care of the environment alongside industrial-economic development, in Asia or anywhere else. Different circumstances do not make ‘clean growth’ (Angel & Rock, 2000) easier, more affordable, or inevitable.

The central questions that lay behind all contributions to this special issue are thus to what extent and especially how Asian industrializing and developing economies today have included environmental reforms in their development paths and trajectories. In investigating environmental reforms in Asian economies, the various contributions to this special issue use comparative methodologies to search for successes and failures in environmental governance and reform, and to identify factors, actors, institutional designs and circumstances that explain these successes and failures. Rather then comparing contemporary Asian economies with OECD counties in the past, the emphasis of most articles in this special issue is on specific environmental issues within a limited number of Asian countries, allowing for in-depth analyses of both successes and failures in environmental reform.

This Special Issue

The issue opens with a broad overview and survey by David Sonnenfeld and Arthur Mol of trends in environmental performance and reform in eleven states in South, Southeast, and East Asia. The opening article has several aims. First, it draws from available quantitative datasets to provide an overview of important trends in environmental performance and reform in Asia in the last several decades. While interesting in its own right, this review is intended to serve, as well, as a backdrop to the other more focused, sectoral studies in this collection. Additionally, the article assesses current possibilities and challenges of using available quantitative datasets, typically derived exclusively from official, governmental data, for quantitative comparative studies on environmental reform in Asia. The article concludes that for theoretical, methodological and informational reasons, there are significant limitations to the insight that such studies can provide at this time on the dynamics and successes of environmental reform trajectories in Asian countries. The article calls for further qualitative comparative studies, more focused in the number of countries, environmental issues, indicator and explanatory variables they take up – just what is done by the other articles in this collection.

The second article in this collection focuses on the critical and escalating environmental problems and services associated with rapidly urbanizing Asia. Mushtaq Memon, Hidefumi Imura, and Hiroaki Shirakawa review experiences in urban environmental reforms based on increased decentralization, private sector participation, and community participation in 15 Asian countries. More specifically they provide a series of case studies on particular reforms in the management of solid waste, water supply and wastewater treatment, and air quality in 14 major Asian cities. The authors find "considerable improvements in the quality and coverage of urban environmental infrastructure and services" in the locations studied; however, the same reforms worked in some places while not in others, varying "due to differences in the political will and commitment of stakeholders."

The critical energy needs and environmental impacts of China and India, the continent's two largest, and arguably most dynamic countries, are the subjects of the third article in this collection. Focusing especially on rapidly expanding electricity production, Antonette D’Sa and Narasimha Murthy document efforts by the two central governments to address environmental issues through both regulatory approaches and incentives for development of alternative and cleaner energy technologies and more efficient consumption. They call for continued strong government leadership in environmental reform in the electricity sector, including even greater implementation of policy directives.

Arguably, no environmental problem is more important in Asia and much of the rest of the world today than access to clean and sufficient water. The challenges of local and transboundary water and catchment management and reform among the six nations (China, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) in the significant and at times contentious Mekong River basin are the focus of the fourth article in this collection, by Phillip Hirsch. Reviewing water/ river management related programs and practices of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Mekong River Commission (MRC), individual nations, and others, he finds singular "best practice, catchment-oriented water governance" to be simplistic and ineffective, and stresses rather the importance of negotiated environmental water governance at "multiple and interconnected scales."  

Persistent and troubling transboundary haze in Southeast Asia and the multi-scalar political and environmental reforms it has provoked are the subject of the fifth article in this collection. Judith Mayer "explores initiatives in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia to eliminate transboundary 'haze' in Southeast Asia, and the fires in Indonesia that are its major cause." The much-touted ASEAN Haze Agreement is an important milestone in regional, multilateral environmental governance, but has remained limited in its effectiveness due to Indonesia's reluctance to ratify and implement it. Indonesia has undergone tremendous political, institutional, economic, and social upheavals while relatively unfettered local land/ forest clearing has continued to take place. For Mayer, strengthened central government leadership, "decentralized and community based fire management" in Indonesia, and continued "transnational cooperation", are the important components for further resolution of this transboundary environmental problem.

Asia's rapidly growing and industrializing economies have placed tremendously increased pressures on the region's countryside as source of raw materials for greatly increased levels of production and consumption, and on workers and communities in resource-extractive regions. As discussed in the sixth and final article of this special issue, much of this extraction continues to be carried out in small-scale, "artisanal" mines. Gill Burke discusses the potential for environmental reforms in this sector in the Asia Pacific region, drawing from her extensive industry experience and case studies from China, the Philippines, Papua and New Guinea, and Indonesia. Perhaps surprisingly to some readers, Burke finds significant reason for hope for environmental reform in small-scale mining in the region, through strengthened government-producer partnerships, environmental education, and performance incentives.

A number of common themes cut across the multiple contributions to this special issue: the great diversity of states, economies, cultures, and environments in Asia; the importance of multi-scalar approaches; complementarities and tensions between transnational, national, and community-based environmental reporting, management, and reform; the pushes and pulls of global, regional, national, and local reform processes; and the unique character of environmental problems, management strategies, and reforms in particular locations and in different environmental "sectors" or media. Scale, global dynamics, national characteristics, and local context all matter.

Taken together, the six articles in this collection present powerful and convincing evidence of the great economic and political vibrancy and cyclicality, sobering environmental threats, remarkable efforts of environmental reform, and tremendous remaining challenges in numerous societies in Asia today. The collection furthers as well methodological discussions and debates on how to study Asian environmental reform, and the necessary and appropriate combination of quantitative and qualitative methods in environmental social science and policy analysis.


This special issue was supported by the Agro-Industrial Transformations for Sustainability (AGITS) project of the Interdisciplinary Research and Educational Fund (INREF), Wageningen University, Netherlands; the Wageningen Institute of Environment and Climate Research (WIMEK); and Washington State University. Olivia Castillo, Ratana Chuenpagdee, Shobhakar Dhakal, Navroz Dubash, David John Frank, Chris Gracean, Ann Hironaka, Kungwan Juntarashote, Sureeratna Lakanavichian, Peter Marcotullio, Richard Norgaard, David O'Connor, Mark Radka, Rajah Rasiah, Michael Rock, Saskia Sassen, Evan Schofer, Azmi Sharom, Niclas Svenningsen, Jenny Suat Eam Tan, Zhang Lei, and Zhou Da Di contributed useful feedback and support at various stages in the development of this collection. Raymond Clémençon and Valerie Kao, of the Journal of Environment and Development, were very helpful and efficient in their editing of and active support for this special issue. To all, as well as to the contributing authors, the guest editors would like to express their sincere thanks and appreciation.


Angel, D. P. & Rock, M. T. (Eds.). (2000). Asia’s Clean Revolution: Industry, Growth and the Environment. Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf.

Bradsher, K. (2003). China's Boom Adds to Global Warming Problem, New York Times, October 22.

Carter, N. & Mol, A. P. J. (Eds.). (2006). Environmental Governance in China. London: Routledge.

Dauvergne, P. (2001). Loggers and Degradation in the Asia-Pacific. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Marshall, J. (1995). To Have and Have Not: Southeast Asian Raw Materials and the Origins of the Pacific War. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Meyer, J., Frank, D. J., Hironaka, A., Schofer, E. & Tuma, N. (1997). "The Structuring of a World Environmental Regime, 1870-1990," International Organization, 51, 623-651.

Yardley, J. (2003). China's Economic Engine Needs Power (Lots of It), New York Times, March 14.

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