Asia’s climate goals “virtually impossible” without cooperation

The hard work of implementing national climate plans will begin after a global deal is finalised this weekend. Experts say that for Asia, cooperation across the region among governments, businesses and civil society will be the key to the success of these plans.

As negotiations to finalise the most ambitious climate change agreement in history enter their final stretch, sustainability and civic society analysts in Asia have singled out cooperation as the missing element in the region’s efforts to translate climate ambition into reality.

Speaking at a panel discussion on Asia’s climate change strategy on the sidelines of the United Nations climate change talks in Paris, experts said that in order to implement the low-carbon plans set out by countries under the agreement,  all levels of society – government, businesses, civil society – will have to be mobilised.

Representatives from 196 nations have gathered in Paris since 30 November to ink a treaty that will cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid dangerous climate change.

The agreement, expected to be finalised by late Saturday, includes country pledges known as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs).

Asia is an important region in this global effort as it is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, with China the top and India the fourth polluter globally, according to the World Resources Institute. China alone accounts for 22 per cent of global emissions.

The region is also home to 60 per cent of the global population and is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. The United Nations said in a report last year that hundreds of millions of people are likely to lose their homes in the next 30 years as flooding, famine and rising sea levels sweep the region.

It is therefore crucial for Asia to collectively address the issue of climate change and cooperate across all segments of society – from government to cities, from non-profit groups to consumers, said Suh-Yong Chung, associate dean, Korea University.

“Asia accounts for a large amount of greenhouse gases, while making up a large number of developing countries,” Chung said. “Unless we as a region collectively work to cut global emissions, it will be virtually impossible for not only Asia but the world to meet its (climate) objectives.”

Policy and money

Panellists said that first and foremost, Asian governments have to deepen cooperation. But the lack of uniform governance standards and cross-border institutions - that regions such as the EU have - remain an obstacle, they said.

“We don’t have the institutions nor a common voice like the EU,” Chung said. “We also have very different legal systems and structures which may be a hurdle to achieving our post-2020 goals.”

The Paris agreement will come into effect in 2020 when the existing Kyoto Protocol expires, committing all 196 signatory nations to achieve the national plans they had put forward ahead of the Paris talks. The agreement also includes clauses that will bind them to verify, measure and report on the progress they have made.

Zhang Haibin, director of the Peking University’s Center for International Organisation Studies and a member of the expert team on trade and environment for China’s Ministry of Commerce, said a key way for Asia to meet these goals is to expand the current cross-border initiatives.

China already has various environmental projects with neighbours in East Asia. Examples are the Acid Deposition Monitoring Network in East Asia, Malé Declaration on Control and Prevention of Air Pollution and its Likely Transboundary Effects for South Asia, and the Tripartite Environment Ministers Meeting among Japan, China and Korea (TEMM), mainly addressing transboundary air pollution.

But initiatives directly aimed at tackling climate change are sorely lacking, Zhang said. 

“We need to establish a permanent dialogue at the ministerial level with Japan and South Korea, strengthen cooperation in renewable energy and learn from the best practices of our cities that have done well in this regard,” he added.

China has signed bilateral climate agreements with the United States, EU, India and UK over the past few years to exchange knowledge and technology, as well as work jointly on projects that will help them make the transition to green, low-carbon growth.

These documents could become the basis of cooperation in East Asia, or even across Asia, Zhang said.

At the city level, for instance, South Korea’s Seoul and Japan’s Tokyo are part of a University of Delaware study which explores how urban centres can mobilise their rooftop real estate and private-sector money to maximise adoption of renewable energy.

John Byrne, professor, Energy and Climate Policy Center for Energy & Environmental Policy, University of Delaware, said the idea is to examine the most attractive financial models for investors and scale them across cities around the world, especially those in Asia that have many hours of sunlight all year round.

“The rooftop real estate in many cities are severely under-used. There is therefore a lot of scope for cities to work together to raise cross-border funds to build these (solar) projects….and seriously cut down on their emissions,” Byrne said.

Civil society, academia join hands

Academics across the region also have an important role to play in translating policy into initiatives, said Oliver Lah, project coordinator of German think tank Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.

He is involved in the Sustain EU-ASEAN initiative, which aims at enabling cooperation in research and innovation between the EU and the ASEAN regions in the areas of climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials.

Members include Freie Universität Berlin (Germany), Zentrum für soziale Innovation (Austria), Asian Institute of Technology (Thailand), National Agency for Science and Technology Information (Vietnam), University of York (United Kingdom), the Laos Ministry of Science and Technology (Lao PDR), Clean Air Asia (The Philippines) and United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Thailand).  

“We try to bridge that gap between research and implementation and this is really picking up,” Lah said. “One of the motivations for Europe is not just to share their knowledge but to take what they learn from cities in Asia, so it’s a two-way street.”

One example is a water and waste management project in Dai Lam village, Bac Ninh province, Vietnam. Wastewater from the production of rice wine is currently being drained untreated into the surrounding rice fields. A consortium of European universities is building a plant to treat the wastewater and the waste products from producing wine.

“We hope to do more projects across the region and reduce our carbon impact,” Lah said, adding that the EU-Sustain initiative is always looking for like-minded partners to work with. “The spirit of cooperation is really necessary to do things on a large-scale.”

Richie Ahuja, regional director, Asia, of non-profit group Environmental Defense Fund, said that it is collaborating with other groups in India to help farmers reduce their environmental impact and energy use as well as increase yields and income.

They will then replicate the models to other countries like China and those in Southeast Asia, with modifications to suit local conditions.

“Cooperation is essential if you want to distribute both the costs and benefits of any project,” he said. “If we don’t co-operate and change the way we do things, the big problems are here to stay.”  

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