Taking Stock of Asia's Response to Environmental Sustainability

Villagers from the K’ho ethnic minority patrol a pine forest in Viet Nam. Photo credit: ADB.

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Surveyed developing member countries have priorities aligned with the environmental dimensions of the Sustainable Development Goals but need to take steps to overcome barriers and achieve their targets. 


Fourteen Asian Development Bank (ADB) developing member countries (DMCs) from Asia and the Pacific participated in a stocktake of national responses to selected environment-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, it focused on the SDGs on Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), Life below Water (SDG 14), and Life on Land (SDG 15).

The stocktake was completed under the first phase of an ADB technical assistance project on Supporting Implementation of Environment-Related Sustainable Development Goals in Asia and the Pacific.The project aims to help DMCs in Asia and the Pacific strengthen their responses to the environmental dimensions of the SDGs.

The stocktake indicates that environment priorities identified by surveyed DMCs are generally aligned with the selected environment-related goals and targets. However, there is a challenge to translate their environmental commitment into meaningful action. 

Still, there are some promising good practices and experiences in the region with the potential to address many of the common barriers to integration.

This article was adopted from the report, Strengthening the Environmental Dimensions of the Sustainable Development Goals in Asia and the Pacific: Stocktake of National Responses to Sustainable Development Goals 12, 14, and 15.

Key Findings

Participants from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Fiji, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines, Samoa, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste, and Viet Nam were surveyed in a stocktake of national responses on the SDGs on Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), Life below Water (SDG 14), and Life on Land (SDG 15).

The stocktake involved an extensive desk study using primary and secondary sources and approximately 50 semi-structured in-country interviews with more than 120 respondents from the 14 surveyed DMCs. Preliminary results and findings were presented and validated at a regional knowledge-sharing workshop attended by DMC representatives and subject matter experts. 

The stocktake aimed to answer four questions: 

1) Which of the selected environment-related goals and targets are priorities for DMCs in the 

2) What are the main issues, challenges, and barriers to DMCs leveraging the SDGs to effectively address existing and emerging environmental issues and priorities? 

3) What activities have DMCs already initiated to address the SDGs and their environmental dimensions? 

4) How can the international development and environment communities help DMCs in the region overcome barriers and expand promising practices? 

Respondents were asked which SDG 12, 14, and 15 targets had been identified
 as priorities in their DMCs (Figures 1 to 3).

The stocktake found that, at the headline goal level, surveyed DMCs' environment priorities are generally aligned with the SDGs 12, 14 and 15. Also, most government ministries and agencies interviewed possess a high level of awareness of these SDGs since they are parties to related multimateral environment agreements and the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production. 

Figure 1: Variation in Priorities at Target Level for Sustainable Development Goal 12

Source: Asian Development Bank

Figure 2: Variation in Priorities at Target Level for Sustainable Development Goal 14

Note: For SDG 14, the percentage for the total number of countries analyzed was nine, as four did not identify SDG 14 as a priority due to their being landlocked.
Source: Asian Development Bank

Figure 3: Variation in Priorities at Target Level for Sustainable Development Goal 15

Source: Asian Development Bank

It was found there is significantly more variation in the kinds of issues considered priorities at the target level than at the headline goal level. For some of the targets, only one or two of the surveyed DMCs indicated they were a priority despite the goal itself being a priority. At the same time, there also appears to be some convergence among many of the surveyed DMCs on SDG targets addressing a familiar set of longstanding “conventional” environmental issues, including the multilateral environment agreements.

Figure 4: Identified Challenges at Different Stages of the Policy Cycle

Source: Asian Development Bank.

Frequently cited barriers to integration of the SDG targets include lack of institutional coordination, constraints on technical capacity and difficulty in developing monitoring indicators.

To understand these barriers, as well as possible solutions, the stocktake looked more closely at the following areas: (1) institutional architectures; (2) enabling policies and regulatory frameworks; (3) finance, capacity, and other means of implementation; and (4) indicators, data, monitoring and evaluation. It was found that: 

  • Most of the stocktake DMCs have created institutions to implement the SDGs in general, but few have yet to focus on implementing environment-related goals and targets. There is still scope for greater integration between environmental and socioeconomic issues. 
  • In some of the stocktake DMCs, overlapping, conflicting, and lack of appropriate enabling
 policies impedes integration. This can be due to the absence of robust legal frameworks that can support sector policies. 
  • Many of the stocktake DMCs do not yet have incentives to promote action on the environmental dimensions of the SDGs. Funding the environmental dimensions will require enabling other actors to get involved. 
  • Stocktake DMCs are beginning to map their indicators and identify data gaps. Some are selecting proxy-indicators and started costing exercises for implementing the SDGs, even where data might still be missing. Most stocktake DMCs require attention to monitoring and evaluating progress in the coming years. 
Conclusion and Recommendations

Many stocktake DMCs have made commitments to the environment, but the challenge is translating these into meaningful action. Most of them are focused on addressing “conventional” environmental issues and their environment ministries or agencies are doing so in isolation of other sectors. This sector-based approach is not conducive to integration.

While most countries surveyed expressed awareness of the links between environment and socioeconomic development, there is significant scope to leverage the SDGs to transform national development models and place the region on a more environmentally sustainable course. 

Policy makers need to better comprehend the impact of their policies on the environment, and the importance of delivering the SDGs as an integrated whole. Screening mechanisms and strategic environmental assessment are important tools for ensuring conflicts and trade-offs are understood, and for facilitating the reworking of draft policies. Understanding of green financing tools, methods, and approaches by governments and financial institutions needs to be strengthened. Capacities must be 
developed and strengthened so those responsible for data collation and management can work together, and with more innovative data technologies and sources. 

The stocktake concluded and recommended that an important way forward is to equip decision makers at different levels with decision-making tools that support integration. 

Moving forward, there is no need to invent new concepts. Many existing decision-making tools and methods can be used to help promote more integrated and coordinated approaches to the environment. Fitting them to specific national and local realities will become important since the applicability of tools for integration often depends on the issues, stakeholders, and national contexts. There is no one-size-fits-all set of tools due to these differences in context. 

Many successful existing regional and national initiatives also exist with the potential to address many of the common barriers to integration that can be scaled up. Scaling up of these existing approaches will require concerted effort and collaboration among different stakeholders, including governments, civil society, and the private sector. 

The technical assistance project has published a separate tool compendium that offers government and other stakeholders guidance on what tools are available for different purposes when seeking to address environmental sustainability at policy level. 

Emma Marsden
Senior Environment Specialist, Office of Safeguards, Asian Development Bank

Emma Marsden has over 20 years experience in the fields of environmental and sustainability assessment. Her current responsibilities include undertaking environmental safeguard compliance reviews for ADB projects, and managing preparation of the ADB Sustainability Report. Prior to ADB she worked in environmental consultancy, where she managed and coordinated environmental impact assessments, strategic environmental assessments and sustainability appraisals of policies, plans, and projects in the energy, water and urban sectors.

Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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