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Eco-Developmentalism: The Political Economy of Asia’s Energy Transition


While facing the consequences of rapid industrialization and urbanization, East Asian countries have developed an effective model for environmental governance: eco-developmentalism.

Alongside tremendous economic growth and industrialization rates, East Asia has witnessed the rise of numerous ecological issues: from GHG emissions, deforestation, water and air pollution to waste management problems, environmental matters are further worsened by rapid population growth and the transnationalization of local issues. Nevertheless, national governments have successfully developed eco-developmental governance models capable of tackling the most pressing problems while simultaneously delivering economic results, promoting innovation, and enhancing industrial growth. 

The Eco-Developmentalist Model 

Eco-developmentalism, or developmental environmentalism, focuses on shifting from high economic growth to obtain popular legitimacy to a broader emphasis on sustainability and ecological issues. Achieving sustainability goals is fundamental to pursuing economic growth, as environmentally related facilities and technologies lead to innovation, industrial development, and investments (C. East Asia's New Developmentalism - (CM Dent) final, deposited.pdf). As the shift to developmental environmentalism spurs from the population’s evolving needs and priorities, ecologism is also pivotal to maintaining domestic legitimacy. Finally, Asian countries are also willing to gain international ecological leadership. Civil society's contribution to environmental awareness and local governments are also pivotal to developing this model: notwithstanding national differences, most Asian countries have a long tradition of local policymaking experimentation before national policy implementation. Additional supporting factors to this model are industrial alignment to national goals, state capacity, and ruling party support. Additionally, external factors, such as market competition, operational costs, and the possibility of obtaining a competitive advantage, further explain the political economy of environmentalism in East Asia. Finally, it must be noted that eco-developmental countries are most and foremost developmental, meaning that the policy-making institutions and national plans focus primarily on growth rather than pure ecologism. 

Japan: A Footprint for Ecologism in Asia

Japan was the first state in Asia willing to adapt its developmental model to ecological issues, especially in manufacturing, construction, and waste recycling. The local civil society, strongly supported by environmental lawsuits, has played a vital role in pushing for ecological awareness and grew in the post-war period due to the deteriorating effects of air quality and some industrial incidents, such as the one in Minamata. NGOs and environmental organizations have also been influential, especially when finding allies among the Liberal Democratic Party bureaucrats and local governments. Since the passing of the Basic Environment Law in 1967, Japan has aspired to become a leader in sustainability management and environmental policymaking: Japan’s Overseas Development Agency and Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) have played a prominent role internationally, and Tokyo has also started to consider ecologism when implementing international assistance projects. Among them, the Green Aid Program was conceived to transfer Japanese pollution control measures to industrializing countries, and Japan’s Environmental Agency’s Global Environment Department was established to lead environmental negotiations. Nationally, Japanese businesses and industries have aligned with this new ecological turn: Mitsubishi and Toyota are known for their energy efficiency, pollution control technologies, and low-emissions vehicles. 

South Korea: National Competitive Advantage and Industrial Development

Environmental developmentalism in South Korea has traditionally been viewed as a strategic model to gain a national competitive advantage and unleash industrial potential. Mainly since 2017 President Moon Jae-in's presidency, Seoul has boosted the use of renewables at home: the main goals, in this case, were to grant energy security nationally, promote new strategic growth, and achieve green technologies autonomy while becoming a green tech manufacturer. Seoul’s green transition plan was enshrined in the Renewable Energy 2030 Plan, which aimed for 20% renewable energy generation by 2030: as a consequence, the government has committed to investing 47.4 billion dollars in solar and wind generation, new green financial incentives have been provided and, finally, the energy market has been expanded to favor energy businesses. It must be noted that, similarly to Japan, these policies and measures have been conducive to boosting the electric vehicles (EV) market, positively benefitting companies like Hyundai and Kia. Further factors supporting Seoul’s boost to sustainability policies are a drop in renewables costs caused by China’s domestic green market expansion, the increased global competition over green technologies, and, finally, the greening of global supply chains, which also explain the political economy of East Asia’s massive energy shift. Before these developments, civil society stances have also positively benefitted environmental awareness. In this case, as the nationalist-military regime failed to meet popular demands, the ecological movement also converged with the democratizing forces. 

China: An Ecological Civilization?

China’s stances on sustainability have evolved from an initial resistance to a more proactive engagement: Beijing’s broad adoption of renewable energies has contributed to dropping renewables costs internationally, and the country has become a leader in endangered species protection. However, regarding eco-developmental governance, China displays some critical differences from other Asian countries. First, its size and resources pool make Beijing much less dependent on energy, resources, and food imports than any other nation: this makes environmental policymaking much more independent. Secondly, civil society’s involvement in ecological policymaking has been much more guided by the CCP, and Party members are directly involved in environmental movements. However, compared to Japan and South Korea, the Chinese Communist Party has managed to keep ahead of societal requests by implementing increasingly determined environmental policies to decrease societal unrest. When environmentalism became rooted in society, it was finally incorporated into the governance model, giving birth to the Chinese eco-developmental state and marking China as an “ecological civilization” (生态文明). A pivotal sector that displays the characteristics of the eco-developmental model in China is one of the renewables: the energy sector in China is primarily led by some significant state-owned enterprises (SOEs), state banks, and local regulators, which are ultimately orchestrated by Party-State officials. In China, the renewables sector has faced little resistance from these electricity incumbents, as the benefits of developing wind and solar solutions represent valuable business opportunities rather than a threat to the status quo: sustainability not only represents a goal to meet but also a push factor for innovation and industrial development.

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