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Environment

Empower the Community to Protect the Ecosystem

Assistant Professor at the Singapore Institute of Technology and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Markets can fail in their primary functions. Too often, the community is not involved in fixing these failures and can only remain silent victims of policies and regulations that lead to the failures. Having a stake in the ecosystem offers some form of gatekeeping duties bestowed to the community, as well as an opportunity to be a voice for the environment to slow the rate of environmental degradation.

The Ecosystem

The Earth is experiencing the impacts of global warming with coral reefs bleaching, sea levels rising and islands submerging, and these effects have been particularly pronounced in Asia. Climate change has had severe impacts—from droughts to floods with intensifying occurrences. There has been a fall in yield of between three to seven percent for the world’s staple crops because of erratic weather phenomena. To prevent the collapse of the agricultural sector and protect livelihoods of farmers, governments have intervened with subsidies funded by taxpayers.

As the economy continues to grow and inflict environmental damage, destructive weather phenomena will be a regular occurrence. It is unclear if economies can continue growing forever, but it is almost certain that economic activities will continue to grow unchecked for now, with weak responses to counter any environmental impacts. For instance, although subsidies can sustain the agricultural sector, the soil quality may negate their positive impacts, as prolonged use of fertilizers and pesticides degrade the soil.

The ecosystem is a source (as it provides resource for production) and a sink (as it absorbs the waste from production) and hence, a key production factor. Should the health of the ecosystem not be cherished in a closed-loop system, macroeconomic goals of employment and inflation may not be met and will certainly not be sustainable, apart from disastrous climate outcomes.

To appeal for mass understanding of the ecosystem’s health, cost estimation of environmental degradation in monetary terms would illustrate the damage inflicted. Take the harvesting of Vietnam coffee as an example. Erratic weather phenomena have reduced the land available for coffee farming due to irrigation challenges from rising temperatures, coupled with an extended blistering dry season from changing rain patterns.

A Missing Market for the Ecosystem

A public good serves to benefit and improve the well-being of the public. For instance, a breath of fresh air is a public good. This suggests “free” consumption of the good due to its abundance and the absence of a price. An abundance of the good is attributed to a lack of property rights, while an absence of a price can be explained by non-existing markets.

Market failure can make a breath of fresh air go bad due to pollution and degradation of the environment. There is no doubt the government is responsible for maintaining the macroeconomic goals of employment and inflation, but without the services of the ecosystem, development is impossible. Therefore, government intervention to protect the ecosystem is necessary. Although such responsibility falls with the government, there should be shared responsibilities on ecosystem maintenance where the public becomes a stakeholder and is involved in the formulation of development policies.

Power to the Community

One practice that engages the community and brings power to the public is the Environmental Impact Assessment. It serves as a protective mechanism for the natural environment and seeks to facilitate environmental stewardship at the community level. An EIA gives the community a platform to articulate their opinions of environmental impacts from potential developments and is a detailed analysis assessing the type and extent of effects a planned development would have on the ecosystem. This holistic approach summarizes both positive and negative consequences on the natural environment. This type of assessment ensures that decision-makers are well-informed of the environmental impacts of a project, and it gives the community rights on the ecosystem.

An EIA at the initial stage of a project aims to fulfill public consultation and explain the nature of the project to the community. This approach also allows stakeholders to comprehend the community’s views and incorporate them into the assessment. There are apprehensions that, even with consultation, it is unlikely that community views would be taken into consideration and that EIA is merely a process to fulfill a requirement toward development progression with informed decision-making. This reservation is unfounded, as the feedback from the community will be incorporated in the form of mitigation measures in lieu of a development proposal. In other words, an assessment mitigates environmental impacts while enabling development to proceed with adaptation.

Some examples of where the EIA was exercised:

  • Uthai Powerplant, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Province, 80 kilometers north of Bangkok, Thailand—EIA was submitted to the Asian Development Bank in September 2012 for a proposed gas plant construction, with plant operation commissioned in fourth quarter 2015
  • Ha Noi-Lang Son Expressway, Greater Mekong subregion—EIA was submitted to ADB in June 2017 for a transport linkage to facilitate trade between Vietnam and China and to hasten development of the key economic zone of Vietnam’s Northeastern area. Construction is expected to commence in the first quarter of 2019.

With reference to a development project, a brief EIA process is described below:

The public is involved at step two, where key environmental issues are identified by all stakeholders—project owners, policymakers, experts, and the public. This highlights potential environmental issues and seeks mitigation measures prior to the development work. This is a critical stage of an EIA as it dictates if the project proceeds with or without environmental intervention.

At this step of the EIA process, the public plays the important role of an ecosystem gatekeeper where they are consulted for their views and these views are accounted for. It is fitting to note that the consultation process is fluid to encourage open communication among stakeholders with an appreciation of the potential environmental challenges.

Studies have found EIAs to be useful in administering effective environmental policies but could inconvenience the promotion of development and miss attaining macroeconomic goals. Development will not be discounted when environmental impacts have been adequately studied in conjunction with robust mitigation options (to manage objections against developments). Together with the participation of the community, an EIA details the type and extent of effects that developments may have on the ecosystem.

Generally, the assessment highlights development challenges and serves two key purposes: (i) it offers a comprehensive understanding on environmental impacts from development, as well as appreciation of the mitigation tools accessible; (ii) it advances a platform for the community to exercise their public ownership rights.

A Fine Balance

As governments intervene to correct failures, the public deserves ownership rights to public goods, and a proper discourse within the environmental sphere is required. The EIA is not a development showstopper. It serves to grant an understanding of the damage that can potentially be made to the ecosystem, especially when development proceeds without consideration for the environment.

Seck Tan

Assistant Professor at the Singapore Institute of Technology and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Seck Tan is assistant professor at the Singapore Institute of Technology and adjunct assistant professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Seck’s research focus is on sustainable development, environmental economics, resource management, and valuation of environmental goods and services.

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