Leaders of the 21 member economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation take a family photo together with their spouses. The APEC summit was held in Manila, Philippines, from Nov. 17-19. Photo by: Gobierno de Chile / CC BY

The expected trade agreements and detailed economic discussions aside, two other important issues took center stage during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila this week: the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change.

Concluding their annual meeting in the bustling Philippine capital Thursday, leaders of the 21 member countries of APEC highlighted the need for a more integrated approach to collectively pursue the new sustainable development agenda. This, they agreed, would be achieved only through increased cooperation and knowledge sharing, while keeping a firm stance on tackling the adverse effects of climate change including stronger natural disasters and rising sea levels — issues many nations in the region are dealing with head on.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shared in a speech during the APEC CEO Summit attended by Devex that the SDGs present an opportunity for partnership, while laying out a blueprint for countries in the Asia-Pacific region — and the rest of the world — to start a more universal, all-of-government approach to development.

“We need to incorporate the SDGs into our respective development strategies and ensure its effective implementation,” the leader of the world’s most populous country said. “It is important that we establish an all-around partnership on development and mobilize the government, enterprises, and social resources in a concerted effort for the implementation of [this] agenda.”

The Chinese leader further explained that countries should stay true to the tenets of development: a means to make people’s lives better. He said that the “key to running a country is to make its people better off,” while highlighting that nations around the world should remember that the “ultimate aim of development is to serve the people by bringing more and more fruits of development in all parts.”

Over the last few decades, the East Asian nation has made great strides in pursuing its own development progress. Since the 1970s, China has been able to lift over half a billion people out of poverty — all this while maintaining remarkable double digit growth. But development challenges including urbanization, pollution and sustainability, among others, remain.

And despite the region posting similarly stellar economic growth in the past decade or so, along with the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, Asia and the Pacific remains home to around two-thirds of the world’s poor. Amid the rhetoric of a region rising from the rubble of underdevelopment, the challenge of making development work for the bottom of the pyramid remains, in many ways, completely unanswered.

So how can leaders of the 21 APEC members — a group of countries comprising almost 40 percent of the global population and 57 percent of world gross domestic product — address this issue?

For the APEC heads of state, inclusiveness is key. At the conclusion of the week-long summit, leaders of participating economies highlighted in a declaration priorities that they will be focusing on for the coming year.

Some of these priorities include the promotion of small businesses, fostering resilience and sustainable communities, and a more vibrant and progressive regional integration with a view on the sustainable development agenda, among others.

Climate change

While the SDGs remain a focal point in the development discussions of the predominantly economic summit, the issue of climate change — as highlighted by U.S. President Barack Obama — also took center stage.

“We know that no single weather event is necessarily caused by climate change alone,” the U.S. leader said. “But the patterns and the science don’t lie — temperatures and sea levels are rising, ice caps are melting, storms are strengthening. If we want to prevent the worst effects of climate change before it’s too late, the time to act is now.”

The Asia-Pacific region is considered to be one of the most vulnerable areas in the world to climate change. One major fear in the region is that climate change, over time, will lead to dramatic increases in climate refugees.

But climate change doesn’t just affect people’s lives tangentially when climate-related disasters strike. Climate change also puts poor people into a more vicious form of poverty, because it affects their livelihoods as well. For instance, coconut farmers in the Philippines found themselves looking for alternative ways to earn a living after Typhoon Haiyan wiped out crops.

This is something, among other issues, the U.S. president hopes leaders attending the COP21 climate talks in Paris at the end of the month will focus on — looking at the issue as an opportunity as much as it is a challenge.

“The old rules that said we couldn’t grow our economies and protect our environment at the same time,” Obama said to a crowd of state leaders and business luminaries in Manila. “Those are outdated; we can transition to clean energy without squeezing businesses and consumers.”

He added: “In Paris … we have to come together around an ambitious framework to protect the one planet we have while we still can … I’m optimistic that we can get an outcome that we’re all proud of, because we understand what’s at stake.”

His comments come just over a month after leaders of the world’s two biggest carbon emitters, Obama and Xi, met and released a strategic cooperation plan to tackle climate solutions including the reduction of their carbon emissions. The Chinese leader reaffirmed this plan in Manila, saying that his country “will make ecological progress part and parcel of the entire process of our economic and social development with a view to achieving sustainable development.”

While the commitments and declarations of the APEC leaders have been largely encouraging, it remains to be seen whether the rhetoric will lead to implementation. And the emergence of various issues including maritime disputes and shrinking development financing could significantly affect the global development landscape.

But as the Chinese president put it: “Even the shortest journey can't be finished without taking the first step. Even the most trivial task can't be completed without taking action. All APEC members will need to work hand-in-hand and we must step up policy dialogue and coordination and use APEC as a platform to create synergy.”

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.