It is easy to understand why protecting the environment does not figure high on the agenda of many developing economies. When poverty casts such a dark shadow over a society, any priority which diverts efforts and resources from tackling poverty can be seen as an indulgence.
But the experience of countries further down the development path shows that environmental degradation comes with a large cost attached – and the bill invariably falls on the poorest. Food shortages occur and prices increase as agricultural yields fall on degraded land. Economic growth slows and unemployment rises as resources are squandered. Widespread pollution worsens public health, which adds to costs and cuts growth. It is the already marginalised and vulnerable who suffer the worst of these impacts.
Kazakhstan, which inherited many wasteful industries and inefficient processes from the old Soviet Union, has not escaped this sad legacy. But as the country’s economy develops rapidly, we are also determined to do all we can to repair the damage and avoid any future mistakes.
The urgent need to develop a green economy is at the heart of the EXPO 2017 exhibition, which Kazakhstan will host in Astana in 2017. Our country’s Samruk Kazyna Sovereign Wealth Fund is investing heavily in the knowledge and technology needed to support innovative and sustainable development.
But while the commitment to sustainable economic development is clear, what is not yet in place are the concrete policies to deliver this ambition. Getting this right requires nothing less than a revolution in the way we produce and consume as a country.
At the heart of this task must be a relentless focus on waste minimisation. Our past failures have led both to the squandering of precious resources and mountains of industrial waste. Estimates suggest that there are more than six billion tonnes of toxic waste dumped, usually without precautions, across Kazakhstan. Without action, this could increase five-fold by 2030. The result is that our land and water has been slowly poisoned and public health is being damaged.
There is, of course, an urgent need to remove safely, and re-cycle where possible, the waste already produced. But the lesson to be learnt from other countries is that it is better and cheaper to stop pollution and waste happening in the first place than to deal with its consequences.
The Need to Redesign
So what is needed is to find ways – and urgently – as a country to use resources including energy and water more wisely, to reduce industrial emissions and to re-use materials within the same manufacturing process. It requires us to redesign not just the way we produce goods but, where possible, the goods themselves.
We remain a long way in Kazakhstan from the policies required to drive such fundamental change. At the moment, environmental goals, if considered at all, are very much secondary to our economic ambitions.
This cannot continue, not least because the continued inefficient use of resources and the cost of cleaning up pollution will make achieving economic goals harder. Cutting waste is not just the right step environmentally but also economically.
Government, at all levels, has a major role in getting this right. Protecting our environment can no longer be an after-thought in policy-making and must be given equal footing with other pressing issues. Legislation must be drawn up in line with international best practices. The aim must be to create the framework to first stabilise before reducing the production of waste within an agreed period of time.
This requires agreed and relevant environmental standards to which everyone signs up and which cover all activities. This must be coupled with a clear definition and allocation of responsibilities and powers between different levels of government. Too often in the past, it is the lack of clear responsibility that has allowed the worst abuses to occur.
We need a thorough study of the environmental impact of existing facilities and installations with recommendations, if necessary, to lessen damage. All new economic developments must have a compulsory review, before planning decisions are made, of their likely environmental impact.
The Community Role
It is also clear just how important the role of community groups and civil society is in putting pressure on both enterprises and government to meet environmental goals. Kazakhstan actively needs to create the conditions where public participation is encouraged in such decisions.
But this role can only be properly fulfilled if information is provided to let citizens to hold companies and government to account. So public authorities should be required to publish regular reports on the state of the environment. Access to information, now easily available through the internet, about waste and pollution levels should have as few restrictions placed on it as possible.
This is a big agenda – and there are major barriers to overcome. But over the last 20 years, Kazakhstan’s economic progress has been remarkable. We now need, for the long-term health of our economy, our citizens and country, to put the same emphasis on development in a truly green sustainable way.
The author is PhD, Ambassador-at-Large of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan
This article first appeared in the CIWM Journal Online Exclusive, with CIWM standing for the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management.