Asia faces growing threats from climate change. Here’s what can be done

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A boy searches for remaining food in polythene packets at roadside in Allahabad, India, on May 11, 2018. In 2021, over 57 million people were affected by climate disasters in Asia, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reported.
Sanjay Kanojia | Afp | Getty Images

Asia, one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change, is also home to the biggest contributors of global warming.

In 2021, over 57 million people were affected by climate disasters in the region, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reported.

And the risk Asia faces is only going to grow.

In a worst-case scenario, by 2050, a substantial majority of people living in areas with a probability of lethal deadly waves will be in Asia, according to a 2020 report by McKinsey Global Institute.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a highly anticipated report on Monday, stating that current efforts to tackle climate change are simply not enough.

“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5?C,” IPCC Working Group III co-chair Jim Skea said. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”

And yet, efforts to mitigate that risk haven’t been adequate on several fronts — especially when it comes to China and India, two of the top three contributors to global emissions in addition to the U.S.

Asia plays a crucial role in global efforts to decarbonize because it accounts for almost half of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, the region presents an uneven picture, with culpability and vulnerability varying significantly with each country.

China and India

At the U.N. COP26 summit last year, China and India weakened their pledge to “phase out” coal. Instead, they proposed to “phase down” the leading source of climate change.

As the climate crisis intensifies, such moves are setting off alarm bells. The IPCC reiterated in February that incremental and reactive changes are no longer enough — a view scientists have echoed.

In 2019, China’s greenhouse gas emissions exceeded that of the whole developed world for the first time, according to a 2021 report by research and consulting firm Rhodium Group.

Dimitri de Boer, chief representative of ClientEarth China, an environmental charity, acknowledged that China has stepped up efforts to fight climate change — by pledging to stop building coal power plants overseas, and supporting other countries in developing renewable energy systems.

However, he noted that the Chinese economy continues to be heavily reliant on coal, which may impede its progress.

Similarly, Gabriel Lau, professor emeritus at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, also recognized the progress China has made. But he said more attention must be given to renewable energy resources, more widespread conservation measures, and educating the public.

India, for its part, is expected to see the largest increase in energy demand globally over the next 20 years. And none of the country’s cities met the World Health Organization air quality guidelines, according to a report by IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology firm.

Setting a deadline 50 years away is by no means a cop-out — we don’t have that option anymore.
Avinash Kumar
Greenpeace India

While India’s net-zero emission target by 2070 is in the right direction, the country still needs “rigour, good practice and equity” to achieve its targets, Avinash Kumar, climate campaign manager at Greenpeace India, a non-profit organization told CNBC in an email.

On top of government incentives, the country’s energy transition must also be driven by big industries, he added.

“Setting a deadline 50 years away is by no means a cop-out — we don’t have that option anymore,” he said. “It cannot be business as usual with new fossil fuel projects, open-cast mines and dilution of environmental laws.”

Asia’s developing countries

Many of Asia’s most vulnerable countries, however, lie elsewhere.

“There isn’t necessarily one Asia — we have many different parts of Asia … that are all quite different in their economic structures, their degree of integration, and with that, their exposure to climate change,” said Jonathan Woetzel, director of McKinsey Global Institute.

Southeast Asia, for example, has sea levels rising faster than any other part of the world and bears the brunt of many climate hazards. That’s in part because the region is home to a significant number of low-lying countries with lower levels of per capita GDP, such as Cambodia and Myanmar.

Though every country in Southeast Asia signed the Paris Climate Agreement, most have few strategies to prevent the most severe climate risks.

If climate change is left unchecked, Southeast Asia’s economy could shrink by 11% by the end of the century, according to the Asian Development Bank.

“Developing nations in Asia [will] need to invest more than the global average, as a share of GDP, to secure low-emissions growth and to decarbonize,” said McKinsey’s Woetzel.

He noted that large shares of these economies are in industries with high emissions or are dependent on fossil fuels.

However, these developing regions may face challenges such as lack access to capital markets, and owning young high-emissions assets, he said.

People are losing their lives to floods, heatwaves, droughts, cloudbursts and more. They cannot wait for another 50 years to see real climate action on the ground.
Avinash Kumar
climate campaign manager, Greenpeace India

Kumar of Greenpeace India pointed out that developed countries will need to assume greater financial accountability.

“The $100 billion commitment promised by rich countries to developing countries back in 2009 is yet to be delivered,” Kumar said. “At the current state, developing countries are far too short of the funds needed for climate mitigation.”

What the future holds

Despite Asia’s efforts thus far, climate model simulations indicate it will still be difficult to limit global warming to below 1.5?C even if targets are met, said Lau.

Still, integrating climate policies into national development plans is of “immediate importance” to mitigate harmful effects of rising temperatures, said the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Kumar warned that the next 10 years will be crucial, and stricter plans to halve emissions by 2030 need to be made in COP27, the next UN climate summit.

“People are losing their lives to floods, heatwaves, droughts, cloudbursts and more,” he added. “They cannot wait for another 50 years to see real climate action on the ground.”

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