Over the past two decades, Cambodia has achieved outstanding economic growth and development, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia . However, Cambodia’s impressive growth rate (around 7% GDP growth/year for the last two decades) has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Food insecurity, unsafe food and malnutrition have also worsened significantly with COVID-19, putting a significant strain on the economy and human development. In addition, economic growth in Cambodia has come at the expense of significant environmental degradation .
Cambodia’s geography, reliance on agriculture, and low adaptive capacity makes it one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. The Ministry of Economy and Finance and the National Council for Sustainable Development (NCSD) estimated that climate change could reduce Cambodia’s GDP by 2.5% by 2030 and by almost 10% by 2050 .
Urbanization in Cambodia offers increased employment opportunities, but it is still in the early stages, with only about 23% of the population living in urban areas. However, this is expected to increase rapidly as Cambodia’s annual rate of urban growth is one of the highest in the region. This is predicted to place a strain on infrastructure and services. Cities such as Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville are already experiencing the stress of urban growth with insufficient solid waste management and wastewater treatment, urban flooding, and air pollution .
Urbanization and economic development have driven Cambodia’s growth, though this has placed pressure on its natural resources. This pressure arises from the construction of hydropower dams and over-exploitation of forests and mangrove ecosystems. Climate change exacerbates these challenges through sea-level rise and shrinking arable land, threatening clean drinking water supplies and food security .
The industrial sector in Cambodia generates a high level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The garment sector, the largest industry, also produces large amounts of waste and consumes more than 300 000 tons of wood per year, mostly sourced unsustainably. Due to COVID-19, this sector has suffered tremendously through supply chain disruptions and a drop in demand. Investing in resource and energy efficiency in manufacturing offers the opportunity to boost recovery, reduce production costs, improve competitiveness and reduce negative environmental externalities .
Key policies and governance approach
In 2019, Cambodia launched the Rectangular Strategy IV, a socio-economic policy agenda that acts as a blueprint to guide national development in four priority areas: (i) Human resource development; (ii) Economic diversification; (iii) Promotion of private sector development and employment; and (iv) Inclusive and sustainable development. The Rectangular Strategy IV signals a need to strengthen the sustainable management of natural resources, manage urbanization, address climate change, and improve gender equality and social protection. The RGC is also implementing the Cambodian Climate Change Strategic Plan 2014-2023 (CCCSP) .
The National Strategic Development Plan 2019-2023 (NSDP) serves as the roadmap for the effective implementation of the Rectangular Strategy IV. A green growth model for urban development is suggested to address challenges in areas such as transportation, waste management, and energy supply .
Cambodia became one of the first countries in the world to develop a National Green Growth Roadmap (2010) . Subsequently, the Cambodian National Strategic Plan on Green Growth (NSPGG) 2013-2030 and the National Policy on Green Growth (NPGG) 2013-2030 were published under coordination of the NCSD , . The National Green Growth Strategic Plan outlines key strategies to improve green growth, including: (i) Promoting renewable energy, especially in rural areas; (ii) Enhancing the efficient use of natural resources and waste management; and (iii) Developing indicators to show green economic growth .
At the city level, the Phnom Penh Sustainable City Plan and the (draft) Secondary City Strategic Plan for seven secondary cities look holistically at the requirements for green urban development, setting objectives for clean energy, sanitation, waste management, mobility, green building, manufacturing and more .
The Government and UN agencies also recently released the Cambodian Roadmap for Food Systems for Sustainable Development 2030, with the Vision “By 2030, all Cambodians will have access to healthy diets and safe food, with an initial focus on women and children, to break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition and address the nutrition transition. Food systems will nourish Cambodia’s population, strengthen local production and distribution, generate domestic and international opportunities for trade and enterprise, offer equitable livelihoods especially for youth, be resilient to vulnerabilities, shocks and stresses, steward the environment, and help mitigate and adapt to climate change by shifting the food system towards green growth”. Major drivers for modernizing agriculture and food systems in Cambodia lie in innovation and investments for digitalization, modern technologies and infrastructure development .
SUCCESSES AND REMAINING CHALLENGES
According to Global Green Growth Institute’s (GGGI) Green Growth Index, a metric used to measure the green growth performance of a country, Cambodia performs well in efficient and sustainable energy, due to its current high levels of hydropower. However, Cambodia makes limited use of non-hydropower renewable energy and shows a trend of increasing fossil fuels in the electricity mix. Renewable energy, such as solar photovoltaics (PV), offers a way to decarbonize industrial energy demands. However, the lack of policy towards the deployment of renewable energy undermines investor confidence and active private sector participation .
Cambodia still scores high on natural capital protection – which combines indicators around GHG emissions, biodiversity, environmental quality, and social and cultural value. However, green economic indicators highlight untapped opportunities for green investment, green trade, green employment, and green innovation .
In its 2018 “Green Growth Potential Assessment”, GGGI assessed Cambodia’s green growth performance compared to Lower Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) and a selected group of peer countries, including Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Cambodia scored relatively low for waste management and recycling. While high-level policies exist, particularly for solid waste, there is a lack of mechanisms for on the ground implementation. For instance, there are insufficient master plans, detailed regulations, and budgets to enable efficient action, infrastructure investment and operations and maintenance. Waste management interventions often also rely on the support of development partners. A further barrier is the high investment costs required for efficient waste and wastewater management, despite the possibility to develop sustainable business models .
Initiatives and Development Plans
Aiming to address its growing materials consumption and waste problem, the country’s National Council for Sustainable Development (NCSD) and Ministry of Environment, with support from Sweden, Japan and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), recently launched the National Circular Economy Strategy and Action Plan, as well as a platform to engage the private sector in the transition towards a circular economy .
Goals and Ambitions
The Phnom Penh Urban Transport Master Plan 2035 seeks to increase the use of public transport in the country’s capital city to over 30% of the modal share by 2035 .
- Prioritise sustainable options in industries and promote resource efficiency.
- Introduce renewable energy, new regulatory frameworks, and enabling policies for a green economy focused on supporting local and regional energy transformations.
- Capacity building for line ministries to ensure the quality of implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and to set up a structured system of overseeing green economy planning.
- Promote a circular economy by increasing financially sustainable facilities and systems to collect waste.
- Create green transport structure at national and sub-national level.
- Increase access to sustainable transport solutions, including electric motorcycles and buses.
- Improve land use and the city environment to promote good health e.g. green urban spaces.
 UNDP (2021). [Online]. Available: https://www.kh.undp.org/content/cambodia/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/2021/cambodia-sets-sights-on-circular-economy-with-launch-of-new-stra.html.
 Vuola M, Korkeakoski M, Vähäkari N, Dwyer MB, Hogarth NJ, Kaivo-oja J, Luukkanen J, Chea E, Thuon T, Phonhalath K. What is a Green Economy? Review of National-Level Green Economy Policies in Cambodia and Lao PDR. Sustainability. 2020; 12(16):6664. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12166664.
 National Council for Sustainable Development (NCSD), Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) and the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM) (2016). Green City Strategic Planning Methodology.