[ An excerpt of this article was published in our New Millennium edition as Asia Takes Eco-Control. But when I went looking for the old web site address for the integral version, the url was no longer good. I tracked it down at: http://cnn.com/ASIANOW/asiaweek/99/0820/cs20.html Remy C. ET Ed. ]
Environmental awareness is growing.
But the region still has a long way to go. And time may be running out.
By Bina Jang
IT'S 2050. From a space ship - or space station - the earth no longer looks like a big blue marble. Water and air pollution have not only changed the planet's environment, they have changed its appearance Though the seas, thanks to global warming, cover a greater expanse than ever before, they are no longer azure but dull gray. Pollution from agricultural run-offs, oil spills, factory effluents and human waste have made the oceans inhospitable to fish and unattractive to man. A carbon monoxide cloud, created by too many coal-burning industries and energy-inefficient vehicles, has spread from Asia to cover most of the world.
Life on earth has changed too. Plant and animal species are fast disappearing despite attempts to clone them in laboratories. One-third of all species of mammals, birds, butterflies, plants and sea creatures are now extinct, and scientists believe that number will go to two-thirds by the year 2100. Tropical rainforests cover less than 10% of the globe, the Arctic permafrost is rapidly melting, fresh water is a rare commodity and all the coral reefs are dead. A nuclear tragedy - more likely to come in Asia than anywhere else - could make the picture even worse.
That is what this poor 4.5-billion-year-old globe has to look forward to in the next millennium. Unless man chooses another fate. In fact, man is determining the earth's future every day, in small ways and large: whether or not to use leaded fuels, to recycle, to spurn plastic, to waste water, to slash-and-burn away jungle, to use chemicals that deplete the ozone level, to punish polluters both in the marketplace and in the courts.
Though well behind Europe and the U.S., Asia has seen its environmental consciousness grow steadily over the past decade. In terms of awareness, Japan is certainly in the lead. In a recent survey by the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper, 70%-90% of respondents said the environment was the most important issue for the government to tackle.
In China, home to nine out of 10 of the world's most polluted cities, the authorities are starting to act. In May, Beijing sent out teams to inspect the air in five major cities. They came back with data that showed air quality far worse than in foreign cities. That prompted lawmakers to call for urgent anti-pollution measures, including the introduction of cars powered by cleaner-burning liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and coal-free zones in densely populated areas. Shanghai has already slashed air pollution levels by using energy- efficient vehicles and planting more trees. In Hong Kong, the government plans to switch the city's 18,000 taxis from diesel fuel to LPG by the end of 2005. In India, another pollution hot-spot the Supreme Court in May brought forward the deadlines for two tough emissions standards. The court also restricted new private-car sales in the Delhi region to 18,000 units per year, versus the current 84,000.
Of course, sometimes government orders mean nothing. Consider the haze, the billowing smoke and ash from forest fires in Indonesia that two years ago fouled air as far as Singapore and Malaysia. In response to regional and NGO (non-governmental organization) pressure, Jakarta promised to introduce zero-burning planting techniques in the fire-prone area. Instead of torching old forests for planting or logging, the clearing is supposed to be done with labor and machinery. But slash-and-burn practices continue and the haze is back.
Still, the haze has had two positive effects. It brought the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations together to fight a pollution issue. And, quips Sabri Zain of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) in Malaysia, "it did more for environmental awareness than all NGOs and policies could."
Water supplies are also highly vulnerable to pollution. Though millions more people in Asia now have access to safe water and adequate sanitation than 15 years ago, water shortages routinely blight Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and New Delhi. Environmentalists believe better management of water resources will help alleviate the shortages. Instead of building dams and canals, they say, governments should encourage conservation techniques such as gathering of rainwater and run-off during the monsoons. India's Center for Science and Environment estimates that water gleaned in this traditional way from just 2% of India's land area every day could yield about 100 liters per person.
"People and industry should know that if you pollute, you pay," says Mayumi Takahashi, founding member of Hong Kong-based Safe Alternative for Food and Environment. For example, leaded petrol can be taxed more heavily than unleaded, or the use of four-stroke engines can be made mandatory (the bulk of emissions are from three-stroke motorcycles and three-wheelers, according to the U.N.). Thailand already has differential taxation that encourages the use of four-stroke engines.
The courts can help the anti-pollution crusade, but the process is slow. In Kawasaki, Japan, 495 sufferers from pollution-related ailments spent 17 years in court, winning some cases, but ending up with only a government promise to make serious efforts to meet environmental standards. Under pressure from legal suits and local communities, the Philippines has taken a lead in Asia in confronting environmental issues in mining legislation, says David Smith, acting dean of the law school of the City University of Hong Kong. A 1995 law establishes provisions for environmental monitoring, and sets fees for tailing and other wastes. Most important, it safeguards the rights of indigenous peoples, a crucial issue in many parts of the developing world.
Since extraction and processing of minerals, not their use, poses the greatest threat to the environment, industrial countries should reduce the demand for virgin material and use metals already extracted more efficiently. "Taxing, rather than subsidizing, production of virgin minerals would create stronger incentives for efficient use, and could also provide revenue to pay for mine cleanups," notes "Mining the Earth," a Worldwatch paper by John Young. "Governments could require manufacturers to offer longer warranties or to take products back at the end of their useful lives. Deposit-refund systems, for items as diverse as beverage containers and automobiles, can encourage consumers to return products for reuse instead of throwing them away."
Will this happen? "Over the next 10 years, we will see increased consciousness in major transnational companies, and a higher level of awareness in government," says Smith. "Asia is coming to grips with the problem." The WWF's Sabri agrees: "A lot depends on social and economic conditions and on political will, but I am generally optimistic about the new millennium - a new world that is cleaner than it is now."

FUEL CELLS Through reverse electrolysis, the century-old technology combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce water and power - but no pollution. With DaimlerChrysler's help, Iceland plans to introduce fuel cells in buses this year and to eventually require the technology for all cars and fishing boats. DaimlerChrysler hopes to sell fuel-cell cars by 2004.
FUSION REACTORS Fusing atoms of hydrogen isotopes, which are abundant in sea water, produces heat and non-toxic helium. Princeton University's National Spherical Torus Experiment aims at making fusion reactors a viable power source by 2050.
SINKING CO2 The buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere creates the "greenhouse effect" blamed for heating up the earth. One solution to global warming is to send excess CO2 to the bottom of the ocean, where high pressure should, in theory, liquefy the gas and give us a few centuries to come up with a better plan.
HYBRID CARS With gasoline and electric engines, hybrid cars may become standard in a few years. Toyota's Prius, already sold in Japan, will go global in 2000. Honda's Insight may launch even earlier. Both cars go 20-35 km a liter with half the emissions of current autos. Fully electric cars are also on the way.
ALIEN ACTION The Asian zebra mussel, which likely entered North America hidden in cargo, killed wildlife and damaged water pipes in the Great Lakes. To prevent worse cases, the U.S. has launched the Invasive Species Council, which aims to have an anti-alien plan by 2001.