Thailand dropping ball on 'global goals'

Thailand dropping ball on 'global goals'

Far from costing money to meet the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a major report by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, an alliance of business leaders, economists, trade unionists and civil society actors, details how economies can benefit.

Asian businesses stand to obtain US$5 trillion in business opportunities from countries meeting the new "global goals" set for the full implementation by 2030. Yet with Thailand only ranking 100th in the 2016 Global Sustainability Competitiveness Index (GSCI), and the government unable to clearly articulate its Thailand 4.0 strategy, Thai companies may be unable to reap this windfall.

Asia is encountering multiple environmental and social burdens, including climate change, loss of biodiversity, and transformations in land use. In the GSCI, Thailand ranks a derisory 153rd in natural capital due to water management problems, local pollution, falling biodiversity and the depletion of natural resources like forestry.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha speaks at a forum on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) last year. A lack of clarity in the ‘Thailand 4.0’ strategy means firms may be unable to reap business opportunities arising from implementing the SDGs. CHANAT KATANYU

Further, increasing inequity is reflected by the vast majority of Asians now living in countries where wealth inequality has actually risen over the past two decades, depressing the middle classes, with Thailand third worst globally in wealth inequality.

The key to transforming a fixation on costs to one cognisant of business opportunities is for governments to buy into the SDGs by proactively shaping market activity and investment via blended public-private finance, with an estimated US$1.7 trillion required to unlock the five trillion in business opportunities. This is central to Asian countries wishing to escape the middle-income trap, such as Thailand with its entrenched, relatively low 3% economic growth.

Asian businesses have huge value chains involving millions of businesses, implying high levels of flexibility. Moreover, successful Asian cultures value the environment, promoting education and social justice, and reducing waste. This dynamism leads the commission to estimate that placing the SDGs at the centre of corporate and governmental goal-setting will create almost 230 million new jobs by 2030 -- 12% of the Asian labour force. This could spread prosperity across both rural and urban settings and reinvigorate local labour markets, especially in countries mired in the middle-income trap.

Adopting cutting-edge technology will unlock opportunities that align with the SDGs. Asia has already led the way in mass producing LEDs and solar photo-voltaic cells. Asian business pioneers are developing electric bikes and will soon shape the market for electric vehicles. Thai intellectual capital scores highly in the GSCI, being ranked third in the Global South and 43rd globally, meaning its businesses are innovatory and entrepreneurial, with a dismal education sector being the main obstacle to more high-value-added businesses.

The commission's report identifies four commercial systems in the Asia-Pacific region crucial for implementing the "global goals".

First, demographic change means that by 2030, an additional 550 million people will move to cities, generating over 85% of GDP and raising the urban share of the population to 44%. Reshaping urban housing via affordable accommodation, implementing energy efficient infrastructure, and developing electric transportation systems will unlock business opportunities worth US$1.5 trillion in 2030, with electric vehicles expected to reach over a third of overall car sales by 2040 and shared transport models flourishing.

Second, shifting energy and materials systems onto sustainable pathways by 2030 should generate business opportunities worth US$1.9 trillion and reduce local climate risks. Driven by China, Asia is rapidly shifting to sustainable energy, meaning peak oil demand may be reached by the late 2020s. In Southeast Asia, renewable energy could account for approximately a quarter of the total by 2040.

Thailand's ranking of 145th in the GCSI for resource management intensity means it is highly reliant on raw materials and energy. Therefore, it will face higher costs and challenges to growth. Yet, Thailand is still wedded to centrally managed fossil fuel subsidies, locked into a coal future where renewable, sustainable energy companies cannot compete fairly and electric vehicles are not prioritised.

Third, regarding food and agriculture, depletion of local resources combined with rising demand for variety is creating intense societal pressure. Adopting sustainable business models in agriculture and food production, distribution and retailing could be worth US$1 trillion in 2030. Reducing the US$260 billion in waste in food supply chains is key because over a third of food is wasted in the region. Sustainable aquaculture should nearly double in the next 15 years.

Finally, changing demographics are bringing new challenges to Asia's healthcare systems. More than 190 million people now have Type 2 diabetes, with obesity rising even in rural areas. Additionally, the Asian Development Bank estimates Asia's elderly population could reach 923 million by 2050.

Shifting to more inclusive, affordable healthcare models and developing tailored well-being services will open up opportunities worth US$670 billion by 2030. Risk pooling to extend insurance via public–private community insurance schemes and the use of digital technologies to provide services like micro-finance will be growth areas, making healthcare affordable and more widely available.

Thailand's governance is ranked 69th in the world in the GSCI, meaning much of the regulatory and infrastructure framework to encourage sustainable development is in place. However, it ranks at 95th for social capital.

While Thailand ranks well for the availability and affordability of healthcare, it ranks much lower for equality within society in terms of income and assets and for civil freedoms and freedom from fear.

Unfortunately, Thailand cannot achieve its potential because of the government's inability to capitalise on a social dialogue for transformation due to the climate of fear the military regime provokes.

Consequently, society lacks the freedom to openly criticise government inefficiency and corruption, with Thailand's position in the 2016 Corruption Perception Index actually falling relative to Laos, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

What is lacking at present is the capacity to understand business needs and the vision to inspire sustainable, equitable, high technology and high value-added profitable business initiatives, as the ongoing migrant worker fiasco illustrates.

Until this leadership vacuum is addressed, competing countries will leave Thailand far behind.

John Draper is a member of the Project for a Social Democracy and a Director of the Social Survey Centre at the College of Local Administration (COLA), Khon Kaen University. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is a founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.

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