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How biodiversity can drive Southeast Asia’s sustainable future (I/II)

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By Alex Hong

· 12 min read

This is part one of a two-part series about building ASEAN's sustainable future. You can find part two here.

ASEAN boasts unparalleled biodiversity, but its future is uncertain. This commentary explores how a robust biodiversity index can be a powerful tool for conservation and economic prosperity, navigating the pitfalls of carbon pricing markets. By learning from past experiences and fostering regional cooperation, ASEAN can unlock the true potential of its natural wealth for a sustainable future.

The economic engine of Southeast Asia, ASEAN, faces a hidden threat that could stall its growth. While the region boasts impressive GDP figures and a burgeoning middle class, the very foundation of its prosperity – its rich tapestry of biodiversity – is under siege. From deforestation to unsustainable resource extraction, the choices made today will determine the fate of ASEAN's irreplaceable natural heritage and the well-being of future generations. This commentary delves into the vital role of biodiversity in accelerating ASEAN's sustainability pivot. It explores innovative solutions, the importance of regional cooperation, and the call to action for all stakeholders. By safeguarding its biodiversity, ASEAN can not only secure a sustainable future but also unlock new avenues for economic growth and solidify its position as a global leader in environmental responsibility. Let us embark on a journey of transformation, where the protection of nature becomes the catalyst for a thriving and resilient ASEAN.

I. Introduction 

Preserving our natural wealth: How biodiversity can drive ASEAN’S sustainable future

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a region of unparalleled biological richness. Encompassing only 3% of the world's landmass, it boasts an astonishing 20% of all known species [ASEAN Biodiversity Outlook Report 2010]. From the towering rainforests of Borneo, home to the world's oldest rainforests and the elusive orangutan, to the vibrant coral reefs of the Coral Triangle, teeming with over 600 species of coral and a third of the world's reef fish, ASEAN's ecosystems are a treasure trove of biodiversity. This incredible diversity is not merely a source of wonder; it is the lifeblood of the region, underpinning the economic and ecological well-being of over 600 million people.

The economic powerhouse of nature

ASEAN's economy is intricately linked to the health of its ecosystems. A 2020 report by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia revealed that nature provides the region with a staggering US$3 trillion in economic benefits annually [Straits Times, 2020]. This translates to roughly the equivalent of the entire combined GDP of ASEAN member states in that year. Let's delve deeper into some key sectors:

  • Tourism: Pristine beaches, lush rainforests, and vibrant coral reefs attract millions of tourists each year, generating billions in revenue for the region. A 2018 report by the World Travel and Tourism Council estimated that travel and tourism contributed directly to 10.3% of ASEAN's GDP and supported over 24 million jobs [World Travel and Tourism Council, 2018]. However, this sector heavily relies on healthy ecosystems to maintain its appeal.

  • Agriculture: Southeast Asia is a major agricultural producer, with fertile soils and diverse climates supporting a wide range of crops. However, healthy ecosystems provide essential services like natural pest control and pollination, crucial for agricultural productivity. A study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that the economic value of natural pollination services in Southeast Asia alone amounts to US$15 billion annually [IUCN, 2015].

  • Fisheries: The region's rich marine ecosystems are home to a vast array of fish species, supporting both subsistence fishing and a thriving commercial fishing industry. However, overfishing and habitat degradation pose a significant threat to these resources. A 2019 report by the World Bank highlights that unsustainable fishing practices in Southeast Asia could lead to annual losses of US$1.3 billion by 2040 [World Bank, 2019].

A looming crisis: Threats to biodiversity

Despite its immense value, ASEAN's biodiversity faces growing threats. Habitat loss due to deforestation for agriculture, unsustainable logging practices, and rapid infrastructure development is a major concern. A 2019 study by Forest Trends indicates that Southeast Asia lost over 17 million hectares of forest cover between 2000 and 2018 [Forest Trends, 2019]. This habitat loss not only disrupts ecosystems but also displaces wildlife, pushing countless species towards extinction.

Climate change presents another major threat. Rising sea levels threaten coastal ecosystems like mangroves, while changes in temperature and precipitation patterns can disrupt breeding cycles and migration patterns of various species. A 2020 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that Southeast Asia is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, which could have severe consequences for its biodiversity [IPCC, 2020].

The urgency for action is undeniable. By effectively safeguarding its biodiversity, ASEAN can unlock a path towards a sustainable future. But how can we achieve this? The answer lies in understanding the true value of our natural wealth and utilizing innovative tools to guide conservation efforts.

II. The power of biodiversity: A key to sustainability

Beyond its direct economic contributions, ASEAN's rich biodiversity provides a wealth of essential ecosystem services that underpin regional economies and food security. These services, often taken for granted, are vital for our well-being.

The invisible backbone of our economies

Healthy ecosystems act as nature's silent workhorses, providing a range of services that benefit us all:

  • Water filtration and purification: Forests and wetlands act as natural filters, removing pollutants and sediments from water before it reaches our homes and farms. A study by the World Bank estimates that the economic value of watershed protection services provided by forests in Southeast Asia is a staggering US$17.2 billion annually [World Bank, 2005].

  • Soil fertility and erosion control: Healthy ecosystems with diverse vegetation cover prevent soil erosion, ensuring fertile land for agriculture. A study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights that the economic value of soil formation services provided by ecosystems globally is estimated at US$1.5 trillion annually [UNEP, 2021].

  • Climate regulation: Forests absorb carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, helping to mitigate climate change. A 2019 study by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) estimates that the Indonesian peatlands alone store an estimated 70 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to roughly two years of global fossil fuel emissions [CIFOR, 2019].

These services are not just a matter of environmental concern; they are crucial for the economic well-being of the region. Without clean water, fertile soil, and a stable climate, agricultural productivity would plummet, tourism would decline, and the overall economic health of the region would suffer.

Success stories: Nature-based industries thrive

Several ASEAN member states are showcasing the economic potential of thriving biodiversity through innovative industries:

  • Sustainable tourism: Countries like Thailand have successfully developed nature-based tourism industries that generate significant revenue while promoting conservation. In Thailand, ecotourism revenue in protected areas reached US$4.5 billion in 2018, highlighting the economic value of preserving natural beauty [Bangkok Post, 2019].

  • Bioprospecting: The rich diversity of plant and animal life in ASEAN holds immense potential for bioprospecting – the discovery and development of new medicines and materials from natural sources. Countries like Malaysia are actively exploring this field, with research on natural products leading to the development of new pharmaceuticals and industrial materials.

These success stories demonstrate that protecting biodiversity is not just about conservation; it is a smart economic investment. By nurturing healthy ecosystems, ASEAN can unlock a future where economic prosperity and environmental well-being go hand in hand.

III. The biodiversity index: A navigation tool

The fight to preserve ASEAN's biodiversity requires a clear roadmap. This is where the concept of a biodiversity index comes into play. A biodiversity index is a metric designed to measure and track the health of ecosystems within a specific region. It functions as a vital tool for policymakers, businesses, and conservationists alike.

Quantifying nature's health: A guide for sustainable development

Biodiversity indices can be constructed using various approaches. One common method involves calculating the number of species present in an area relative to the total number of individuals. More sophisticated indices might incorporate factors like species richness, evenness (distribution of abundance across species), and the presence of threatened or endangered species. By tracking changes in this index over time, we gain valuable insights into the health of our ecosystems.

This information can then be used to guide critical decisions. Policymakers can utilize biodiversity indices to:

  • Prioritize conservation efforts: By identifying areas with declining biodiversity, resources can be strategically allocated for targeted conservation interventions.

  • Assess the environmental impact of development projects: Indices can be used to evaluate the potential impact of infrastructure development or resource extraction on biodiversity, allowing for more informed decision-making.

  • Promote sustainable practices: Governments can incentivize businesses and communities to adopt practices that enhance biodiversity, such as sustainable agriculture or responsible forestry.

A well-constructed biodiversity index can also play a crucial role in attracting responsible investment. Investors increasingly seek opportunities that align with sustainability goals, and a robust biodiversity index can serve as a reliable indicator of a region's commitment to environmental well-being.

Existing examples: Learning from global benchmarks

While the development of a regional ASEAN biodiversity index is crucial, we can learn valuable lessons from existing global indicators. The Living Planet Index, developed by WWF, is a widely recognized metric that tracks population trends of vertebrate species. This index has served as a wake-up call, highlighting the alarming decline in global biodiversity.

By adapting and refining existing frameworks, ASEAN can create a biodiversity index that is specific to the region's unique ecological challenges and opportunities. This index can then be used as a powerful tool to navigate the path towards a sustainable future.

IV. Beyond transparency: Envisioning blockchain for biodiversity

While biodiversity offsets offer a promising approach, ensuring their effectiveness requires a transparent and secure system for tracking conservation efforts. This is where the innovative potential of blockchain technology comes into play.

Revolutionizing conservation with blockchain: A distributed ledger

Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology that creates a secure and transparent record of transactions. Essentially, it functions as a digital ledger shared across a network of computers, where each transaction is documented chronologically and immutably. This technology holds promise for revolutionizing biodiversity conservation by:

  • Enhancing traceability: Blockchain can track the provenance of biodiversity credits associated with offset projects. This ensures the legitimacy of credits and prevents double-counting of conservation efforts.

  • Facilitating secure transactions: The secure nature of blockchain transactions can streamline funding for conservation projects, allowing donors and investors to track the use of their resources with greater confidence.

  • Empowering communities: Blockchain platforms can empower local communities involved in conservation by providing them with a transparent record of their contributions and allowing them to participate in the market for biodiversity credits.

Price versus provenance: The challenge of valuation

While blockchain excels in tracking provenance, assigning market value to biodiversity remains a challenge. Unlike commodities with standardized units and clear market prices, ecosystems defy such easy categorization. The true value of nature encompasses its intrinsic worth, beyond its readily quantifiable services.

Envisioning the ideal state: A collaborative ecosystem

The ideal state for blockchain in biodiversity conservation involves a collaborative ecosystem. Here's how it might work:

  • Standardized Metrics: Combining blockchain with a robust biodiversity index can create a system that tracks both the impact of development projects and the effectiveness of offsetting actions.

  • Community Ownership: Local communities can utilize blockchain to manage and document their conservation efforts, fostering a sense of ownership and accountability.

  • Incentivized Participation: Blockchain-based platforms can facilitate reward systems for sustainable practices, encouraging broader community participation in conservation.

Case study: The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and tokenization

Instead of focusing on a specific coin, let's explore how a renowned organization like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) could leverage tokenization via blockchain for biodiversity conservation. Tokenization allows for the creation of digital tokens representing specific conservation outcomes. Here's how WWF could implement it:

  • Species Conservation Tokens: WWF could create tokens representing the successful conservation of a specific number of endangered animals. Each token could be tied to a unique identifier for a protected animal or a specific conservation project.

  • Habitat Restoration Tokens: Tokens could represent the successful restoration of a designated area of habitat. These tokens could be linked to verifiable data on the restored land and the improved biodiversity it supports.

These tokens could then be traded on a secure blockchain platform. This creates a market for biodiversity conservation, allowing investors, corporations, and individuals to directly support specific WWF initiatives and track the impact of their contributions.

Unlocking possibilities for ASEAN: A sustainable future

For ASEAN, blockchain technology offers exciting possibilities for enhancing transparency and trust in biodiversity conservation efforts. By harnessing this technology alongside robust offset programs and a regional biodiversity index, ASEAN can chart a course towards a truly sustainable future. Here's what this future could look like:

  • Increased investor confidence: Transparent and secure transactions through blockchain can attract responsible investments in conservation initiatives within the region.

  • Empowered local communities: Blockchain platforms can empower local communities to participate in the management and monetization of their natural resources through tokenized conservation efforts.

  • A sustainable development model: ASEAN can establish itself as a global leader in sustainable development by showcasing a model that balances economic growth with robust environmental protection.

A call for innovation and collaboration

The path toward a sustainable future for ASEAN demands innovation and collaboration. By embracing a biodiversity index, exploring the potential of biodiversity offsets, and harnessing the power of blockchain technology, the region can unlock a future where economic prosperity and environmental well-being go hand in hand. It is time for ASEAN to become a global leader in safeguarding its natural wealth and charting a course towards a truly sustainable future. Let us act collectively to ensure a thriving future for ourselves and future generations.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

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