Asia – Climate Change Battleground

People riding a boat to cross a river in Bangladesh.
People riding a boat to cross a river in Bangladesh.

By Preety Bhandari

With the region producing  an ever greater share of global carbon emissions, what can it do to protect its people—and the world—from the effects of climate change?

Asia and the Pacific is exceptionally vulnerable to climate risks, yet it is also fast becoming the world’s biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, and this is the climate paradox of a region where the global fight against climate change will ultimately be won or lost.

Eight of the top 10 countries in the world with the largest number of people living in low-lying areas are in Asia. Bangladesh, with a growing population of about 156 million and more than 47,000 km2 of coastal zones, will face increasing storm surges and a sea level rise that will increasingly engulf large areas of productive, densely populated land.

Asia’s population is expected to expand by more than 30% to over 5.4 billion by 2050, putting pressure on space and all other resources. The region is already home to two-thirds of the world’s poor, who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change since they often live in low-lying areas prone to sea level rise or floods, and lack the financial resources to fall back on in times of crisis.

Agriculture is still the main source of livelihood for over 60% of Asians, but farmers face declining harvests caused by higher temperatures and changing weather patterns. Meanwhile, damage to marine habitats from extreme weather, rising sea temperatures or increased ocean acidity could damage fisheries and fish catches. Food security is thus a serious concern.

The costs from natural hazards are high. When Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines in 2013, the cost of damages was estimated at more than $10 billion. Earlier this year, Cyclone Pam destroyed 90% of the infrastructure in Vanuatu. Between 2005 and 2014, developing Asia lost some 403,000 lives and suffered economic losses totaling $436 billion due to natural disasters.

At the same time, the region’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions has risen to almost 40%. This is largely due to rapid economic growth in the People’s Republic China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Viet Nam. Increased demand in future will likely be met mainly by fossil fuels, as these are cheaper and more readily available than renewables. If this trend is confirmed, Asia will be responsible for almost half of global carbon emissions by 2030.

So what is the region doing to address its climate paradox?

Recent studies demonstrate that it is possible to address climate issues while still enjoying strong economic growth. Asian countries need to shift away from fossil fuels, and consider incentives like feed-in tariffs to help develop renewable energy. Mandates and subsidies to increase energy efficiency must also be in place, as well as policies to enhance urban resilience to climate risks.

ADB is doing its part, by helping India develop new plants powered by solar and wind energy, encouraging public–private-partnerships for geothermal plants in Indonesia and waste-to-energy power plants in the People's Republic of China (PRC), designing sustainable urban transport systems in the capitals of Bangladesh and Viet Nam, and promoting sustainable forestry and land management to protect biodiversity in the Greater Mekong Subregion.

Another challenge is financing. By 2030, mitigation efforts will cost developing countries an average of $160 billion per country per year, and adaptation costs could rise to $70-100 billion by 2050. Innovative financing approaches and market instruments are needed to leverage finance from both public and private sources.

But money alone is not enough. Asia also needs regional-specific research and data, so countries can learn from each other and share climate knowledge via initiatives such as the Regional Climate Projections Consortium and Data Facility. ADB is also working with the UN Environment Program for its pilot Asia-Pacific Climate Technology Finance Center, aimed at promoting low-carbon technology transfer in the region.

Despite the huge challenges, Asia is demonstrating that it is willing to do its part.

Going into this year’s COP21 negotiations in Paris, there are reasons to be hopeful. Pacific countries have pledged to reduce fossil fuel dependence, with Fiji declaring it will only use renewable energy by 2030. Asia’s economic giants are also acting. In tandem with the United States, the PRC has committed to peak emissions by 2030, targeting cuts of about a quarter below 2005 levels by 2025; and India is cooperating on a number of low-carbon initiatives, including clean energy and the development of smart cities.

Such actions and joint efforts show that Asia is ready and willing to tackle climate change. That is more than half the battle won.

This blog is an edited version of an article originally featured in the United Nations Association - United Kingdom report “Climate 2020: Facing the Future.”