Asia is imperiled by COP21’s climate cop-out


Special To The Japan Times

The nations of the world gathered at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) last month to come to an agreement on the urgent mission of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, all they produced was an attractive vision statement that is more sham than solution.

It is imperative that the world invests significantly and quickly in climate mitigation strategies to reduce the human and economic cost of climate change, which is where COP21 fell short. The vague wording of the final declaration gives too much wiggle room for nations to avoid painful choices.

“This agreement is a great escape for the big polluters, and a poisoned chalice for the poor,” concludes Asad Rehman from the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice. “We’ve got some warm words about temperature levels, but no concrete action.”

Thus the Paris summit on climate change ended without a meaningful climate pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol, a failure of will that places inordinate faith in voluntary compliance.

It is alarming that more was not accomplished, because climate change is having devastating consequences in the Asia-Pacific region, where nations comprised of vast archipelagoes and small islands are especially vulnerable. Rising sea levels imperil coastal communities and constitute an existential threat to such nations. Recent years have seen more devastating and extreme weather events related to global warming, while air pollution is a major health hazard in many Asian cities.

Economic growth in Asia is having a huge impact on global warming as lifestyles become more energy-intensive. Asia’s two giants, China and India — with a combined population of about 2.5 billion — have become polluting superpowers. Beijing and New Delhi are in the unenviable position of leading the world’s capitals in PM2.5, a hazardous form of air pollution that can be absorbed by the lungs and lead to diseases such as asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer. Panasonic announced in 2014 that it would pay a pollution premium to its expatriate employees in China, a form of hazard pay that highlights why Beijing is a major growth market for Japanese air purifiers and even bottled air.

Asia’s environmental problems will worsen before they get better. China is the world’s leading producer of carbon emissions, having overtaken the United States in 2006, while India is in third place with Japan (5), South Korea (7) and Indonesia (11) further highlighting Asia’s major dilemma.

As hundreds of millions more Chinese embrace more affluent, energy-intensive lifestyles and start driving cars, the challenges are immense. India, which like China relies extensively on coal as a source of energy, is also in the early stages of escalating pollution; currently less than half of India’s 1.2 billion population is connected to the electricity grid, and as this figure rises, so will carbon emissions. Global warming is thus strongly influenced by the story of a rising Asia, and the countries of the region are reaping what they sow with increased risks from devastating storms and environmental degradation.

Indonesia is also in the process of increasing harmful emissions and pollutants as it develops. Anyone visiting the main cities on the island of Java will come away convinced that Indonesia is zooming toward environmental disaster, while its destruction of rainforest through the deliberate setting of fires to clear land in Sumatra and Kalimantan for palm oil plantations is devastating the environment and subjecting citizens of Singapore and Malaysia to high levels of unhealthy smoke. Indonesia already emits more carbon dioxide per capita than India.

Japan and South Korea complain about toxic smog drifting over from China and blame that country’s industrialization for increasing acid rain and disrupting regional weather patterns. Trilateral efforts to tackle this problem carry the potential for greater regional cooperation, but have had little impact. This is unfortunate because Japan has a lot of experience in coping with environmental degradation and boasts cutting-edge technologies aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

Environmental protests have skyrocketed in China in recent years as local residents try to shut down or prevent the building of factories that pollute the environment. Beijing’s smog problems have grown so intense that critics have coined the term “airpocalypse” for especially nasty days. In 2014 the government began publishing data on polluting factories, while in December 2015 a hazardous air “red alert” was declared in the capital just as COP21 was underway in Paris.

China has become the world’s largest producer of renewable energy, as part of an effort to enhance energy security and cut carbon emissions, but the red alert underscores how far it still needs to go, considering many of its cities have some of the world’s worst air pollution. Can the bilateral climate deal reached with the U.S. in 2014 have a significant impact or is it empty political grandstanding?

COP21 doesn’t provide for adequate financing mechanisms for climate mitigation programs and is vague about which nations are obliged to disburse what amount to which governments, substituting platitudes for action plans. Developing nations are thus left to bear the consequences of what developed nations have wrought. This abnegation of developed nations’ responsibilities to planet Earth is myopic, spreading misery and instigating escalating flows of environmental refugees.

In an article titled “Ground Zero of Climate Change” in the Asia-Pacific Journal, Tarique Niazi points out that coastal and island nations in the Asia-Pacific, including Bangladesh, the Maldives, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, have contributed among the least to climate change but are already suffering the worst of its global consequences. Extreme weather has also rendered flooding chronic in Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Thailand and China.

According to Niazi, Asia is experiencing cyclones and typhoons of higher intensity and greater frequency as a result of climate change. In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated the delta region of southern Myanmar, causing as many as 140,000 deaths. In 2013 the Philippines suffered enormous damage from Typhoon Haiyan, with losses estimated at 6,000 deaths and $15 billion, about 5 percent of the nation’s GDP; some 600,000 people remain homeless.

Alas, global inaction on climate change means that Asia faces more such tragedies, and the cop-out in Paris means they will have to rely on their own actions and resources to cope with the ramifications. Shame on COP21.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.