Asia-Europe Sustainable Connectivity (AESCON 2020)
The Asia-Europe Meeting, commonly known as ASEM, was established in 1996 at what became the first ASEM summit in Bangkok, attended by the then 15 EU members, ASEAN7, China, Japan and Republic of Korea. The number of participants increased as the EU and ASEAN included new members and other countries joined – India, Mongolia and Pakistan in 2008, Australia, New Zealand and Russia in 2010, Bangladesh, Norway and Switzerland in 2012 and Kazakhstan in 2014.
Current membership is 51 countries plus the secretariats of the EU and ASEAN. The main activity has been the summit meetings which take place every two years, alternating between Europe and Asia. The November 2020 summit in Cambodia has been postponed until 2021 due to Covid-19.
At AESCON over 50 speakers addressed political, trade and investment, energy and transport connectivity as well as impacts of Covid-19 on connectivity.
Richard Pomfret, Professor of Economics and Jean Monnet Chair on the Economics to European Integration presented The Eurasian Landbridge: Implications of linking East Asia and Europe by rail in the scientific session on transport connectivity. The transport session included active discussion of the merits of rail, sea and air transport.
A striking theme in the presentations and Q&A was the emphasis on sustainability and especially on environmental costs associated with each mode of transport. Plamen Tonchev of the Institute of International Economic Relations in Athens offered a striking visual of the impact of zero-emission targets on container ships
The majority of EU-China bilateral trade travels by sea (over 90% by volume and about 70% by value), but rail freight has increased rapidly since 2011. The cost and time of rail have been decreasing, and its environmental impact is less negative than air or sea transport.
The carbon footprint of planes has attracted most attention, but maritime transport also has serious environmental issues. The negative environmental effects arise from ballast water and transfer of invasive species, release of oil, chemicals and human waste into the sea, noise pollution (impacting on whales and other marine life), and air pollution. Regulation of the sulphur content and other greenhouse gas emissions have led to reassessment of fuels for ships (as illustrated in the above graphic), which not only requires refitting of ships but also investment in port facilities to provide compatible fuel.
These debates and potential policy outcomes are relevant to Australia which relies on sea and air transport for trade. As least-cost transport modes change in Eurasia, it is plausible that Australian exports will be shipped by sea to Asian ports linked by efficient rail transport to destinations west of Suez or north of Iran. This would in turn make some trade partners, such as Eurasian landlocked economies, relatively more attractive.
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