Asia-Europe cooperation is essential to the success of Agenda 2030


Global Europe


Giulia Tercovich

Research Fellow in the Peace and Security Section of the Global Governance Institute

Francis Acevedo

Research Assistant in the Peace and Security Section of the Global Governance Institute

Adopted in September 2015, the United Nations resolution on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) contains 17 agreed-upon objectives to ensure that humanity’s actions today do not endanger the lives of future generations. The SDGs acknowledge that sustainable development requires a focus on many categories, and thus cover anything from eradicating hunger to establishing strong and inclusive institutions.

Understandably, all countries are not the same and are at different levels of development: an economically developed country has a different set of priorities than an emerging one. The difference in sustainability priorities also applies to Asia and Europe, and understanding these differing views is important so that the full benefits of the upcoming Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) can be properly leveraged for the benefit of all.

Regional organisations in both Europe and Asia can help delegate official development assistance

As one of the most industrialised regions in the world, Europe holds an important role in realising the SDGs. Yet, in 2015, the 28 member states of the European Union, home to a little less than 7% of what global population was at the time, emitted 3.5 billion tonnes of CO2, shadowed only by the United States and China. And, while the EU is making progress on most of the SDGs, income inequality and consumption patterns remain of paramount concern. In November 2016, the European Commission released a document outlining the EU’s approach to promote sustainable development in Europe, adopting a two-stream method that integrates the SDGs into current EU policy and establishes an imperative for an SDG-focused long-term vision beyond 2020. Much work remains to be done, however, to reverse worrying trends.

Meanwhile, in Asia, most countries are experiencing impressive economic growth at 5.9% per year on average. But issues, such as poverty, inequality and carbon emissions, still persist. With the demonstrable effects of climate change, many of the emerging economies in Asia have to balance industrialisation and development to meet the needs of their peoples while also meeting the requirements to reduce emissions, both of which are objectives included in the SDGs. Indeed, this dilemma has been highlighted by many influential individuals, from Indian environmentalist Dr Sunita Narain to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

But Duterte and other Asian leaders have other pressing matters to address, too. Progress in a number of Asian countries on SDGs related to hunger, employment, inequality, urban sustainability and life on land has actually regressed, and progress on SDGs related to health, sanitation, infrastructure, responsible consumption and institutional strength is not moving forward fast enough. If Asian countries are to continue growing at the current pace, then it is absolutely necessary to ensure that this growth does not occur unsustainably.

Differences aside, Asia and Europe are indispensable to achieving the SDGs. The 53 partners of ASEM represent 60% of the world’s GDP, population and trade activity. Therefore, strong cooperation between the two regions is imperative, and it should focus on a set of specific issues.
ASEM provides a platform for cooperative dialogue that should be pursued by Asian and European countries. Indeed, the wide range of fora and participants at ASEM provide an unrivalled opportunity to create a multi-faceted approach to common sustainable development issues.

Regional politics should also be used to coordinate efforts to fulfil the SDGs. Regional organisations in both Europe and Asia can help delegate official development assistance to countries that need it most. Together, they should work to strengthen and focus the political frameworks, dialogues and development assistance that flow between the two regions, especially the EU and ASEAN which coordinate development aid through different programmes for many areas from poverty reduction to scientific cooperation. Partnerships like this, and other modes of cooperation similar to the Enhanced Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument, should be strengthened. ASEM provides the perfect venue for member states of various regional organisations to make such commitments.

As one of the most industrialised regions in the world, Europe holds an important role in realising the SDGs

Trade leveraging can also help Asia and Europe make progress on the SDGs. Trade between the two regions is a force that can be used to drive sustainable production and consumption and an economic link valued at more than one trillion euros. If traded goods were to be manufactured with sustainability in mind both in Asia and in Europe, essentially tackling the source of the issue, the power of global trading connections could lead to the proliferation of sustainable goods on a large scale. This solution would require engagement not only from the governments of export-oriented countries but also from corporations through platforms like the Asia-Europe Business Forum. ASEM can prove useful in providing the venue for creating a consolidated economic global approach.

An Asia-Europe partnership for sustainable development presents a bright future for all of humanity. But a gap in progress prevents countries from realising this vision – a gap that can only be bridged through global discussion, understanding and cooperation.

This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘My ASEM wishlist: how Asia and Europe should really be working together’, in which we go beyond officialdom and seek out ‘unusual suspects’ – students, teachers, activists, journalists, think tankers, etc. – who consider where they would like the state of Asia-Europe relations to be by 2030 and what the two continents should do to get there.

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