Illustration by Ryo Takemasa

A Swiss Re report released earlier this year offered some valuable insights into the sustainability challenges unique to Asia. The insurance giant learned that nine out of 10 cities in the world ranked most vulnerable to natural disaster are located in the Asia region.

Most of the disasters cited were of the kind expected to become more severe and frequent due to climate change – damage and life loss associated with flooding, storm surges and high winds. Flooding rivers alone are expected to affect 380 million people globally, most of them in Asia.

Developing countries in this area of the world, by many measures, are at a crossroads. Together, they are home to a majority of the world’s poor. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), more than 600 million still have no access to electricity and nearly two billion still use highly polluting firewood and charcoal to cook food and heat homes.

At the same time, these countries are growing fast – and we’re not just talking population. Myanmar, which we profile on page 54, has seen its GDP grow 6 per cent to 10 per cent annually since 2000. That range of growth, shared over the past decade by economic titans such as China and India, is expected to continue as Myanmar opens up its economy to the world.

Such growth has its consequences. For one, it has created an insatiable appetite for energy, demand for which is growing faster than GDP. By 2035, developing Asia is projected to account for 56 per cent of worldwide primary energy use. That’s up from 34 per cent in 2010, according to ADB. Where that energy comes from – renewables, nuclear or fossil fuels – has huge implications for the climate and global sustainability.

The impact on public health also cannot be overstated. The Lancet, one of the world’s most respected medical journals, recently dedicated an entire issue to what it called a health “time bomb” ready to go off in China. Rising standards of living have also driven an increase in obesity and substance abuse. This, along with environmental pollution caused by a fossil-fuel dependent energy system, has boosted rates of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Such chronic diseases, according to an editorial in the journal, “are now China’s number one health threat.”

Change is happening. Geothermal is being developed in Indonesia. Growth in coal use in China is starting to fall. India has embraced solar. Myanmar is working to put more social and environmental safeguards in place. And island nations like the Maldives, which we spotlight on page 54, are pursuing aggressive adaptation strategies. But is it enough? Is it happening fast enough?

Clearly, when it comes to sustainability performance, some countries in the region are doing better than others. Perhaps not surprisingly, Singapore ranks at the top of the list. This is according to Corporate Knights’ first Sustainable Asia Scorecard, which ranks all countries in Asia (as defined by the United Nations Statistics Division) across 25 sustainability indicators.

These indicators cover a lot of ground – from each country’s natural, human and social capital to health, quality of life, education and gender equality.

[highcharts chart='4264' performer='ALL' measurement='Total' order_field='Total' order='DESC']

To download an Excel sheet of the data used to calculate this year’s ranking, click here.

Of the 50 countries assessed, it is no surprise that the Top 5 (and six of the Top 10) are considered by the International Monetary Fund to be “advanced” economies – Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Israel, in that order, with Cypress coming in ninth.

The rest would be considered “developing” or “emerging” economies. Of these, Malaysia ranked highest (sixth place) followed directly by Turkey and Thailand. China just squeezed ahead of Indonesia to take 10th spot.

Looking at all the data, Corporate Knights walked away with the following observations:

  • Hong Kong scored highest on energy and greenhouse-gas emissions productivity, while Singapore got top marks for water productivity. Being among the most resource-deprived countries in Asia, the need for them to embrace efficiency of resource use makes sense as a matter of survival.
  • In places like South Korea, we saw a direct correlation between rates of education enrolment and number of patents per unit of labour. Generally, the higher the education rates, the more patents produced per capita.
  • More advanced Asia economies tend to have a greater inequality gap.
  • There is generally a direct relationship between higher GHG productivity and life expectancy.
  • The Philippines, which at 14.6 per cent has the highest percentage of non-hydro renewable power in its mix, scored second best on the air pollution indicator

Perhaps our most surprising observation is that there is no obvious relationship between urban air pollution and life expectancy. Deaths are probably caused by a host of other environmental, social and demographic factors.

Click here to go back to the ranking landing page.

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