Climate Action

How Southeast Asia can simultaneously protect nature and generate $2 trillion a year

Rainforest in Balok, Malaysia. Southeast Asia has the potential to become a global role model.

Southeast Asia has the potential to become a global role model. Image: Unsplash/Eutah Mizushima

Simon Read
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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  • Protecting nature in Southeast Asia could create jobs and generate wealth across the region, says a study from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia.
  • Investing in nature now is projected to yield massive economic and environmental returns - up to $2.19 trillion annually, say scientists.
  • The study comes ahead of COP15, a landmark United Nations conference to find ways to protect biodiversity.

Investing in measures to protect the biodiversity of Southeast Asia’s forests and seas could produce benefits valued at more than $2.19 trillion a year - while slowing down climate change - according to a new study published by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM).

That result could be achieved if $10 billion was invested now, rising to $46 billion by 2030, says Eco-Business. The study’s authors point out that the investment is a tiny fraction of the possible paybacks in job creation, higher incomes, and a more sustainable environment.

“Southeast Asia is one of the most mega biodiverse regions of the globe, boasting the most extensive and diverse coral reefs and mangrove areas on the planet,” said Professor Emerita Datuk Dr. Asma Ismail, ASM President, in the report. “We must open our eyes and minds to the fact that these are national treasures of great sovereign worth.”

But those treasures are under threat across the world, with the United Nations warning nature is declining and species are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate.

Infographic showing the 5 threats to biodiversity.
Protecting nature could also generate wealth, says a new study. Image: WWF/Earth.org

The ASM study highlights how the loss of biodiversity could lead to significant economic risks, but: “Viewed from another vantage point, there is considerable opportunity for countries and regions around the world to embrace biodiversity conservation and invest in natural infrastructure … for development, job creation and socio-economic growth.”

Conserving the seas

The researchers highlight nature conservation projects in the region which prove the point. One example is the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Cambodia, which is the ancestral home of the Bunong people and provides a habitat for more than 40 threatened species, including Asian Elephants and birds like the Giant Ibis.

A project there has succeeded in minimizing deforestation and cutting emissions while increasing income for the local community by creating 449 jobs in law enforcement, community patrols, conservation and eco-tourism.

There are economic rewards for looking after Southeast Asia’s rich marine environment, too. The ASM cites the Tun Mustapha marine park in Malaysia which houses more than 250 species of coral reefs, and 400 different types of fish and animals including sea turtles and humpback whales whose survival is under threat.

Research on individual countries needed

To stop over-fishing and preserve the biodiversity of the waters, the park has been divided into zones. Large-scale commercial fishing is only allowed in one area – in other zones fishing is banned, or only traditional methods are allowed.

According to the UN, the measures have boosted the local economy, increasing the incomes of people living in coastal communities, providing jobs and improving food security. Work to provide safe habitats for the park’s sea turtles has also attracted tourists, bringing a bit more wealth to people living on the coast.

The ASM estimated the economic benefits to the entire region by calculating Southeast Asia’s share of the £125 trillion global value placed on nature by the WWF.

Dr. Teckwyn Lim, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, who was not involved in the study, says more detailed work is necessary: “There needs to be a country-by-country approach, in order for it to be more actionable. The countries are very different from one another; they range from Laos to Singapore.”

UN biodiversity talks

The study comes ahead of COP15 – the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity – which will conclude in Montreal in December 2022. The talks aim to agree on international targets for preserving biodiversity, but progress has been slow, according to the International Business Times.

A group of NGOs and campaign groups has written an open letter claiming the talks are in crisis due to a lack of support from governments: “Negotiations have become stagnant … Today we all have a choice – let this process run its course and endorse business as usual – which will take our planet to the brink - or provide the leadership that the moment requires.”

The authors of the ASM study point out that conservation can’t be considered just a “nice to have” anymore – and that Southeast Asia has the potential to become a global role model for prosperity and biodiversity growing side by side.

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Related topics:
Climate ActionNature and BiodiversityGeographies in Depth
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