Climate Change: A sea change in Asia's response

Julian Hunt & J. Srinivasan, For The Straits Times 30 Sep 11;

A YEAR ago, the July and August 2010 floods in Pakistan affected about 20 million people and killed an estimated 2,000. Today, Pakistan is engulfed once more in waters after three months of heavy rain, with the United Nations estimating that more than 5.5 million people have been affected and almost 300 are officially reported dead.

Pakistan's floods highlight the vulnerability of much of Asia to climate change. Indeed, an increasingly prevailing view is that the impact of climate change could be worse in Asia than all social, health and conflict disasters of the past.

In particular, there is growing recognition that global warming is dangerously linked to several significant threats - not just natural disasters, but also energy, water and food shortages, as rising temperatures reduce productivity, and agricultural land is threatened by sea level rises and salinification of coastal areas.

Reflecting this heightened concern, Asian prime ministers, legislators and business leaders are increasingly supporting new climate-related legislation, investments and research. They are also leveraging their growing influence at the UN to help secure a comprehensive global warming deal.

This significant shift in Asian elite opinion has occurred even though many in the region acknowledge that it is unrealistic to expect total emissions from developed countries to be significantly reduced over the next few decades.

There are numerous ways in which a growing 'Asian consensus' on climate change manifests itself across the region.

First, low-lying islands and coastal areas: Concern over the future of these terrains - threatened by rising sea levels, and assaulted by more frequent intense rainfall and the occasional typhoon and tsunami - is leading affected countries to play a very active role in international negotiations. Singapore has even instituted a climate change secretariat in its Prime Minister's Office.

There is considerable momentum to find new technical solutions. In Bangalore, companies are solving acute water shortages by high-tech recycling and restoring depleted aquifers from the still plentiful monsoon rain.

Second, continental-scale Asian countries: Countries such as India and China, with dense centres of population and growing megacities, are thinking seriously about responses to dangerous rises in temperature. In China, for instance, there has been a rise in temperature of 2 deg C since 1950, and the rise is expected to be greater than 4 deg C by 2100 if global emissions continue on predicted trends. To help prevent the looming problems associated with this, Beijing is harnessing new technologies to set ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions per unit of energy supplied by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020.

Within such continental-scale Asian economies, requirements for energy and food are increasing rapidly as standards of living grow. In India, these two requirements are competing with each other in some areas where large power stations, coal mining and biomass projects all take land from farmers, threatening food supplies and local political stability.

But this problem is mitigated by clean energy systems, such as wind power and the use of desert areas for direct solar production. Such projects are attracting international investment and funds for innovation.

Third, forests: Forests in Asia have been of concern since the 1920s when the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore raised the alarm. Now the monitoring, conserving and responsible use of forests is regulated through national legislation, combined with the international funding arrangements of a UN programme to cut emissions resulting from deforestation in developing countries.

Politicians in the region now increasingly realise that deforestation causes short-term drops in rainfall, lowers agricultural productivity, and increases air pollution. Fortunately, areas of forest in India and China are now increasing again, although dense forest areas are still threatened in other Asian countries.

As encouraging as many of these initiatives are, the scale of the challenge means that debate in Asia is also turning to whether there are acceptable low-risk geo-engineering solutions to climate change.

In a recent Indo-German experiment in the Indian Ocean, iron particles were released to increase absorption of carbon dioxide, but so far without success. Teams are also planning experiments to release droplets high in the stratosphere to cut solar radiation.

The International Maritime Organisation is meeting to consider a trial on the release of iron particles. This brings to the fore the question of which international organisations should accept responsibility for regulating geo-engineering. Indeed, many in Asia already believe that wholly new approaches to international governance will be needed to obtain a consensus in the region to tackle these unprecedented challenges.

The first writer is visiting professor at Delft University of Technology and the Malaysian Commonwealth Studies Centre in Cambridge, England. The second writer is chairman of the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India.