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  • Asia–Pacific Analysis: Pushing for a strong climate change policy

Although the region is not a big polluter, the threat of climate change means it should lead the way on cuts, argues Crispin Maslog.

The category 5 super typhoon Bopha, which wreaked havoc in southern and central Philippines in the first week of December 2012, was the world's second deadliest disaster last year.

It wiped out villages, leaving around 1,900 people dead or missing and resulting in losses of more than US$1 billion. Bopha also caused damage worth US$20 million to the Pacific island nation of Palau before it hit the Philippines.

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Only Hurricane Sandy was deadlier than Bopha. Sandy ravaged the United States' east coast in November, causing destruction of about US$62 billion. It also hit the Caribbean and the Bahamas as well as Canada, causing further damage of US$2.5 billion.

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, a powerful storm dumped huge amounts of rain on the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia at the close of 2012 and start of this year, forcing thousands of people from their homes. This year also saw unprecedented rains and widespread flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia, affecting around 250,000 people. 

It brought to mind the deluge that hit Thailand in 2011, its worst in half a century. This inundated 65 of the country's 77 provinces, drowned more than 800 people and unsettled more than 12 million others.

In Australia, firefighters have been struggling since the start of the year to control hundreds of wildfires that broke out across the whole of the southeast due to soaring temperatures and dry, windy conditions, while in eastern areas rescuers have to deal with raging floodwaters.

The climate change challenge

Experts agree that extreme events of this type are expected to become more frequent as a result of changes to the world's climate linked to global warming.

Last year was the world's tenth warmest since records began in 1880, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center. This is the 36th consecutive year that the yearly global temperature was above average. [1]

Climate change is linked to a greater risk of extreme weather events such as super typhoons, long-term droughts, brutal heat waves, melting glaciers, warming oceans, rising sea levels and changed seasons.

The Doha Climate Change Conference, Qatar, which ended last month, extended the 1997 Kyoto Protocol by eight years to 2020. The original treaty required some 35 industrialised countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2 per cent from 1990 levels by the end of 2012. [2] Instead, global greenhouse gases have risen around 58 per cent over that period.

Industrial giants, such as Japan, the United States and countries in the European Union, continue to spew carbon into the atmosphere. China and India have also joined the club of big environmental polluters.

South-East Asia's role

But how can they be held accountable for the damage they are causing to the global environment? What can countries in South-East Asia and the Pacific do in the fight against climate change?

Idealistic as it may sound, how about starting in our own backyard before taking on the big polluters?

It is true that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been dutifully endorsing climate change declarations, more recently after the 2007 Bali and 2009 Copenhagen UN conferences on climate change.

"The ASEAN Heads of State/Government have proactively led ASEAN's efforts to address climate change issues in the region and beyond … ASEAN is addressing climate change, not just through a policy on climate change, but through the framework of ASEAN community building … to play its role in taking voluntary and appropriate mitigation actions," according to Raman Letchumanan, head of the environment division, ASEAN Secretariat. [3]

The key words in this statement are "policy" and "voluntary". ASEAN has been urging voluntary implementation of policy. No hint of urgency. I propose a more aggressive policy and agenda for action, not just among ASEAN countries but also by linking up with Pacific states that will also bear the brunt of climate change impacts.

How about an ASEAN-Pacific summit to make specific and concrete commitments to reduce the region's own carbon emissions? The region should put climate change at the top of its agenda immediately.

Changing attitudes

While the region's efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions may not have a huge impact on global reductions, they can change the attitudes of our giant neighbours: China, India and Japan.

They will also give ASEAN and the Pacific nations the moral clout to mobilise public opinion worldwide — especially in the United States and EU. US President Barack Obama has indicated that he is ready to move forward on the climate change issue in his second term.

Whether or not an ASEAN-Pacific bloc can make a major difference on climate change is debatable. But it can still try.

Eventually the United States, China and India must compromise on their carbon emissions. Their leadership can encourage the whole of Asia to make deep cuts in their emissions. ASEAN and the Pacific nations can mediate this process.

According to the head of the Philippine delegation to the Doha conference, Naderev Saño, commissioner of the Philippine Climate Change Commission: "I appeal to all … Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around". [4]

He said it all. The tragedy is a lack of political will among world leaders.
 

Crispin Maslog

Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia and Pacific desk.

References

[1] National Climatic Data Center State of the Climate: Global Analysis Annual 2012 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012)
[2] Reuters Factbox: Key decisions at Doha talks on climate change (Reuters, 8 December 2012)
[3] Letchumanan, R. Is there an ASEAN policy on climate change? (London School of Economics, January 2010)
[4] Casiple, R. Gaia's wrath, Doha's climate debacle (Parallaxis, Yahoo! News, Philippines, 11 December 2012)

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