Education the Only Goal on Track in Asia-Pacific

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The year 2019 will be a landmark one for the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Four years will have passed since world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), four years since governments recommitted themselves to eradicating extreme poverty, improving universal healthcare coverage, education and food security and achieving a sweeping set of economic, social and environmental objectives. Four years is long enough to assess our direction of travel and then refocus work where progress is falling short.

As the UN development arm in the region, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific’s (ESCAP) absolute priority is to help our members achieve the SDGs by 2030. We work to scale up their efforts through regional cooperation and South-South cooperation. So, we see stock-taking in 2019 as an opportunity, including as a chance to ensure our region remains on track toward sustainable development.

Our analysis shows that on our current trajectory only one SDG, universal education, is on track to be met by 2030. Environmental degradation and air pollution are worsening. Our region is feeling the full force of climate change, but our greenhouse gas emissions remain high. Intraregional trade and connectivity remain below their potential. Inequalities, both within and between countries, are widening.

Much good work is underway to overcome these challenges, but there is scope to step up our region’s response in three main areas.

First, the region cannot afford to ignore widening inequality. Had the proceeds of growth been shared more equitability over the past decade, 140 million more people could have been lifted out of poverty. Inequalities of income, opportunity and increased exposure to natural disaster are all on the rise. Our response clearly needs to cut across sectors, but UN ESCAP research show social protection deliver the higest return on investment. Countries such as Thailand or Vietnam have expanded their social protection programs and have expertise to share. Let us use South-South co-operation to share it.

Continuing to strengthen our resilience to natural disasters is also key. Disasters keep children out of school and adult out of work, increase inequality and entrench poverty.

Regional cooperation can help establish multihazard early warning systems and improve impact forecasting and damage assessment. UN ESCAP works closely with the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN) toward these objectives. LAPAN had a leading role in developing the recently agreed Asia-Pacific Plan of Action on space Applications for Sustainable Development.

Now, we need to focus on implementation, to harness space applications and digital innovations to better protect people from natural disasters.

Second, the region must fulfill its longstanding ambition to increase intraregional trade. Recent trade tensions highlight the Asia-Pacific region’s vulnerability to protectionism from major export markets. UN ESCAP analysis shows how regional value chains are being disrupted. At least, 2.7 million jobs could be lost because of trade tensions, with unskilled workers, particularly women, suffering most. Increasing intraregional trade and connectivity should be part of our response.

By implementing the framework agreement on facilitation of cross-border paperless trade in Asia and the Pacific, adopted by UN ESCAP members to support the exchange of electronic data and documents, smoother commercial exchanges are within reach, particularly if transport and energy connectivity are also increased.

ASEAN’s achievement in strengthening power grids across borders is a leading sample of successful political commitment and technical cooperation. We need this at the regional level.

Third, Asia and the Pacific should move decisively to reduce its ever-growing environmental footprint that is undermining development and people’s health. Let’s start with air pollution. As rapid urbanization continues, the region accounts for the bulk of cities with unhealthy air pollution levels. It leads to more than 2 million premature deaths a year.

Now is the time to agree on a common response, one that limits hazardous health effects, accelerates the region’s transition to cleaner energy, promotes sustainable transportation and strengthens our fight against climate change.

A framework for science-based policy cooperation could make a real difference, including by raising ambitions when it comes to fighting climate change. The countries of Northeast Asia have already agreed on a Clean Air Partnership. We should consider building on this approach at a regional level.

The year 2019 is the region’s moment to build a more coherent regional response to these major challenges, to take decisive steps to combat air pollution and climate change, boost intraregional trade and improve social protection and resilience to natural disasters.

We owe it to future generations to seize this opportunity, to come together and to quicken our pace to achieve sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific.

The writer is United Nations under-secretary-general and executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP).