‘No excuse’ for Asia Pacific inaction on climate change

Dried river bed in Sri Lanka
A dried river bed in Sri Lanka. IPCC warns that the Asia Pacific region could experience more intense adverse weather events if critical thresholds are surpassed. Copyright: Bioversity International/S.Landersz, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). This image has been cropped.

Speed read

  • Asia Pacific countries are among the most vulnerable to climate change
  • The UN’s latest warnings on rising temperatures are dire for Asia Pacific
  • Asia Pacific countries need the funds pledged at the Paris climate agreement

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Given the IPCC’s warnings about temperature rise, Asia Pacific countries must act now, says Jose Galang.

After paying little attention to global warming that steadily intensified in severity over the past decades, Asia-Pacific countries now need to scramble to prevent a further worsening of conditions to a level that could be difficult to reverse.

Scientists convened by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warn of a sustained increase in global surface temperature until the year 2050. Unless “deep reductions” are made in carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, they predict global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and two degrees by the end of this century.

If those critical thresholds are surpassed, the region could experience fiercer tropical cyclones, more intense heatwaves and droughts, heavier rains and rising sea levels.

These grim scenarios are at the heart of the IPCC’s latest assessment report released in early August. The report was emphatic that human activities have exacerbated climate change in recent decades and that breaching the two degrees Celsius marker will likely bring about irreversible changes.

For much of the Asia-Pacific, such an increase in temperature can only mean great instabilities in not just the weather but in economic activities, food production, and human settlements as well. Fiercer cyclones and more searing heatwaves will make life difficult for people in the region.

Despite their vulnerability to potentially catastrophic events, Asia-Pacific nations have largely met the IPCC warnings with silence. Perhaps the leaders and policymakers are too preoccupied with the fast-spreading variants of the COVID-19 virus or domestic politics and economic decline. But these are not excuses for failing to take action now.


Slow regional progress

A research group, Climate Action Tracker, has been monitoring the performance of a number of countries towards achieving set targets for 2030, ahead of the 2050 world goal. It has looked at Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia, among countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

In the case of Indonesia, the tracker suggests that there is “significant room for improvement” in the government’s processes for policy development, implementation and review. “The government has not defined a Paris-compatible decarbonisation pathway and lacks comprehensive climate mitigation legislation,” it said.

Further, the tracker noted that Indonesia’s ambitious climate policy is “at risk of being undermined by the close ties between the government and the coal industry as well as the palm oil sector”. More work is needed to engage the public in climate action, it added.

Land cleared for an oil palm plantation in Jambi, Indonesia. Image credit: CIFOR (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The Philippines, according to the tracker, suffers from a “significant strain” from several typhoons and COVID-19 which made economic rescue a national priority. The group’s review of the Philippine Energy Plan “provides a chance for the government to accelerate decarbonisation”.

Flooding in Manila, Philippines. Image credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (CC BY 2.0).

Take action now

While current trends point to global climate change heading to a point of no return, scientists on the IPCC panel believe that there are still measures that nations can take to avert that. But they stress that these moves must be made now, on a rapid and wide scale, and on a sustained basis.

The recent decades’ increase in the Earth’s surface temperature has been “unequivocally” traced by the IPCC report to human activities that resulted in greater emissions of carbon and greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

The first task is therefore for leaders to implement programmes, some of them gathering dust on shelves, to at least reduce emissions. But because the levels now detected in the atmosphere are great, mitigation measures must also now be accompanied by a reduction in these emissions.

“The first task is therefore for leaders to implement programmes, some of them gathering dust on shelves, to at least reduce emissions”

Jose Galang

That will be a tough and costly task, and beyond the capacity of most Asia-Pacific governments. However, sustained emission reductions and pollution control are tagged as important factors to keeping a lid on warming, so these are worthwhile investments.

In 2015, as part of their commitments under the Paris climate agreement that set the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit for climate rise, the world’s big economies pledged to extend US$100 billion a year to developing nations that need help in adapting to global warming. The developing countries are still waiting for those funds.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres told a meeting of the rich nations recently that their pledge now matters most for developing countries to cope with adaptation measures related to climate change on top of mitigation and emissions reduction.

Confronting climate change now requires a unified strategy among all nations of the world, and the Asia-Pacific must lose no time in adopting strong and sustainable measures. After all, the region regularly takes a beating from severe weather aberrations.

Jose Galang is a veteran business and economics journalist who has written for the Far Eastern Economic Review and Financial Times of London, and served as editor-in-chief of a number of Philippine newspapers. He is a former business and finance journalism professor.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.