Barun Roy: A quiet revolution

Last Updated: Wed, Dec 12, 2012 21:32 hrs

What should nations, rich or poor, do to survive or grow in an environmentally challenged world? That’s always the question at global environmental meets, but there’s never an agreed answer as neither side will budge from its entrenched political position. If the rich nations won’t rein in their profligate economic behaviour, why should the poorer ones sacrifice their own growth ambitions? That’s always the argument, hard to refute as far as plain logic goes, and we’re left going eternally round the prickly pear.

But, even as governments keep up the polemical heat, there is a growing realisation deep down that plain logic isn’t necessarily good logic and nations need to look the truth in its face. For, the effects of climate change and environmental degradation are becoming increasingly apparent as much in the developed world as in the developing, and business as usual is no longer an acceptable proposition. While nations have to grow to meet their economic aspirations, they’ve got to find benign alternatives that would achieve the same purpose with the least possible harm.

At the Asia Future Energy Forum in Singapore last October, Tsoi Mun Heng of Singapore’s National Research Foundation reminded nations in no uncertain terms: “Asians are rapidly catching up with the developed world to experience the lifestyle that the developed world has enjoyed for a long time. But this lifestyle was built on a mountain of carbon emissions, and to duplicate another mountain for Asia is simply not sustainable.”

And, as the usual noises were being made at the United Nations annual meet on climate change in Doha, Qatar, an expert group of the International Energy Agency met quietly in Beijing to hammer out the needs and priorities of developing nations in energy-related research. Since much of the demand of these nations is still in the future, there’s a huge research and development (R&D) opportunity for them, the group felt, to invent new practices and bypass old, discredited ones.

That’s the new lesson, and some Asian nations are learning faster than others. According to a recent Economist Intelligence Unit report, the US was the world’s biggest R&D spender in 2009, the latest year for which complete figures are available, with $340 billion in public and private funds combined. But Japan was next with $178 billion, followed by China with $113 billion, Germany with $69 billion, South Korea with $39 billion, France with $38 billion, the UK with $29 billion, and India with $25 billion. It’s quite significant to find four Asian countries among the world’s top 10 R&D spenders. It’s even more so that the combined spending of these four countries, at $355 billion, surpassed that of the US.

According to another research firm, Battelle, the Asian footprint has only got bigger since then. In its forecast for 2012, the US remains the global leader with $436 billion, but China with $198.9 billion ousts Japan ($157.6 billion) as the world’s second biggest R&D spender. South Korea and India log in with $56.4 billion and $41.3 billion, respectively. Thus, the same four nations, with a likely combined 2012 spend of $454.2 billion, maintain their lead over the US, and Asia as a whole, with $514.4 billion, goes past the Americas ($505.6 billion) by a convincing distance.

Final figures may not be exactly the same, but one gets a reassuring indication of how Asia is getting busy on the ground and how serious China, in particular, is in its commitment to green growth. It has emerged as Asia’s undisputed green leader, setting standards across a wide spectrum of activities, and is also the principal driving force behind global renewable energy initiatives.

Obviously, mere value addition is no longer China’s R&D goal, and, as it moves from a “made in China” to a “created in China” policy regime, shifting emphasis from cost-cutting to process reinvention, technology across the board is bound to get cleaner and friendlier making development that much more sustainable. A cleaner China, thus, would be a real game-changer for the world.

What’s happening is a quiet revolution and its spread through Asia is showing in other encouraging ways. South Korea is betting its entire future on cleantech and could become the world’s seventh largest green power by 2020. Malaysia is fast emerging as a hotspot for cleantech start-ups. India has begun to get the message though its responses are still half-hearted. Singapore is on a cleantech overdrive and expects much of its future gross domestic product to come from this sector.

Last month in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong opened a Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE), where 15 interdisciplinary research groups from 10 renowned international universities will join hands with local institutions to develop practical innovations and economic opportunities. Lee described CREATE as a “collaboratory”, indicating that as R&D crosses borders, our frontier of hope widens even more.  

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