Barack Obama recently baffled Republicans by devoting a prime-time speaking event in Asia to climate change. Not button-hot topics like the Paris attacks, Syria’s unraveling or refugees, but one many U.S. lawmakers deride as a cynical hoax cooked by anti-capitalists.
But it was the perfect call by the U.S. president in the perfect place. Manila is one of the Asian megacities that may be completely underwater within a couple of decades if we don’t act boldly to reduce the carbon emissions raising sea levels, wreaking havoc with weather patterns and blackening skies.
Asia no longer needs scientific reports — looking out the window will suffice. What unsafe air in Beijing and New Delhi, haze blanketing Malaysia and Singapore and droughts in Australia suggest is that humankind is at environmental inflection point. New York’s own brush with developing-nation status amid 2012’s Hurricane Sandy will look like a light spring rain in this part of the world by 2030.
According to the Asian Development Bank, this region is four times more vulnerable to natural disasters than Africa and 25 times more than America. Along with imperiling hundreds of millions of lives, climate change could devastate the fastest-growing economic zone, one on which executives from New York to Perth are betting for future profits. The increasing frequency and severity of storms will cap growth rates, set back poverty reduction effects and wreck roads, ports, airports and power grids faster than ADB or Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank can rebuild them.
China alone might have Charles Dickens reaching for a gasmask and rewriting his now-passe descriptions of London’s dirty air. Earlier this year, Chai Jing enraged Beijing with her “Under the Dome” documentary that’d make disaster-film producer Jerry Bruckheimer lose sleep. Unfortunately, China often seems more determined to scrub snarky references to its capital city as “Greyjing” and “Beige-jing” from the Internet than scrub the darkening skies.
It’s time that stopped. And it’s time Asia stopped taking a back seat in a climate change process from which it has the most to lose — and gain. The United Nations’ COP21 climate summit, which started in Paris on Monday, is the perfect opportunity to horn in on environmental leadership before it’s too late.
There’s a well-founded view that any effort by 190 disparate nations to limit greenhouse-gas emissions will end in farce. It doesn’t help that the global economy is in a funk. Or that past save-our-planet frameworks like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol devolved into acrimony. There’s ample room for cynicism over a recent call by 10 of the world’s biggest oil companies for “effective” action in Paris. Or Obama trying to convince corporate chieftains that environmental progress is good for business.
But in Asia’s case, it is. There are two huge incentives for Asia to take the lead and ensure that COP21 doesn’t descend into shallow talkfest infamy. One, it’s about to choke on its growth. Two, it’s where the money is heading over the next 20 years, so let’s front run things.
At present, Paris is an 88-page grab bag of divergent priorities and options. Asia must step up to catalyze wealthier nations to do the same. Consider the shockwaves in Washington in September when Beijing pledged to introduce a “cap and trade” system. It obliterated the Republican Party view that the U.S. shouldn’t address carbon emissions until the No. 1 polluter does. Checkmate, President Xi Jinping.
China needs to go much further, of course, and move much faster. By some estimates, pollution kills more than 1 million of Xi’s people each year. Fury over toxic rivers and lakes is now a bigger threat to social stability in the most populous nation than corruption or land grabs.
But so must Asia as climate-cleaning and alternative-energy innovation morphs into arguably the biggest business opportunity in history. As unfair as it sounds, China, India and the rest of Asia can’t pollute the way the West did. As Jared Diamond so graphically explained in his 2005 book “Collapse,” our planet just can’t handle it. Along with disincentivizing the use of fossil fuels, governments should invest massively in renewable energy. Not just in hardware to harness wind, sunlight, tides, rain and geothermal heat, but in new energy-creating technologies. Why let Silicon Valley and European labs corner a market that could be Asia’s?
This may sound like a reach for a region known more for smokestacks and peat fires. India and Indonesia, major polluters, are struggling to clean up their politics, never mind the air. And China, pledges to Obama aside, seems to be building as many new coal-fired power stations as windmill farms. But why not craft renewable-energy development plans and hit up the World Bank, ADB and the private sector for funding? The eventual rewards would dwarf those of new iPhone and Toyota factories.
Japan, Singapore and South Korea are perfectly positioned to lead Asia’s energy-innovation boom. The future of Japan and South Korea isn’t making cars and ships, but focusing highly-educated workforces on energy pursuits. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for example, is desperate to raise Japan’s clout. What better way than inventing and selling technologies to keep Asia from choking on growth? South Korean President Park Geun-hye covets a more “creative” economy; well, here’s her chance.
The Philippines offers its own examples. Alibaba founder Jack Ma got the headlines from Obama’s climate-change chat in Manila. But Asia could learn much more from Aisa Mijeno, the Filipina engineer whose invention — a lamp powered by saltwater — prompted the White House to invite her to join Obama on stage. The “eureka” moment by one 30 year-old who doesn’t yet have her own Wikipedia page will arguably change more lives for the better than Ma’s e-commerce juggernaut.
There’s something truly poetic about a small startup in a city that could be Asia’s biggest aquarium in 20 years finding energy solutions — and creating wealth — tapping the power of the seas. The Philippines sits with Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Thailand on the front lines of a crisis that dwarfs terrorism in the long run. Asian leaders should take Mijeno’s example to Paris and beyond to forge a greener and more prosperous future.
William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, is based in Tokyo and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com
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