The global battle against climate change may be won or lost in Asia.
In April this year, a world record was broken with little fanfare: the global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the main driver of climate change, was above 400 parts per million (ppm) for an entire month for the first time in recorded history.
With Asia accounting for a growing share of greenhouse gas emissions, it is clear that the global battle against climate change may be won or lost in the region. Global warming will hit Asia the hardest, with flooding, famine and rising sea levels putting hundreds of millions at risk.
The people of Asia and the Pacific don’t need to look at the record books or wait for the latest global panels to issue a report to know something profound is happening. Most at risk are poor people living in the low-lying river deltas of Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, and China as well as the small island states of the Pacific and Indian Ocean.
The economic costs of climate change are being borne by the people and countries of our region with increasingly intense storms. The production of rice, maize and wheat has declined in many parts of Asia over the last few decades due to increasing water stress due to rising temperatures, increasing frequency of El Nino and a reduction in the number of rainy days.
Eleven of the world’s most polluted cities are in Asia. There are over 5 million premature deaths in the Asia Pacific due to indoor and outdoor air pollution, caused by dirty cook stoves, inefficient diesel cars and trucks and the burning of forests.
Climate change and environmental degradation are emerging as the pre-eminent development issues in the region. Simply put, countries will not be able to address their development and poverty reduction priorities unless they reduce pollution, increase resilience to disasters, promote cleaner energy, better manage forests and natural capital, create liveable cities and increase food security.
Overall, climate change could seriously hinder the region’s efforts to reduce poverty, which is the core of the debate on the world’s new post-2015 development goal posts, the Sustainable Development Goals. This is at the centre of debate during the first ever United Nations Environment Assembly of UNEP later this month in Nairobi.
Governments in the Asia Pacific region need to run faster in this race to avert the consequences of climate change. Action will pay dividends both now and in the future and will be less costly.
Investment in renewables like hydropower, wind and solar energy production is crucial. Equally important is cutting back on the energy we use: making buildings more energy efficient can pay back quickly and deliver returns for decades.
Meanwhile, greater investment in public transport can swiftly cut vehicle emissions and make cities more liveable, which is why the Asian Development Bank has committed to providing $30 billion of investment between 2012 and 2021. The region can move away from the industries of yesterday and resource-inefficient growth, and bring sustainable growth and wealth for its people.
Asia-Pacific countries need to lead the charge by turning the region’s fast-paced economic growth to boosting clean and green economies. Business as usual is just too risky.
Nessim J Ahmad is Director of the Environment and Safeguard Division at the Asian Development Bank.
Kaveh Zahedi is Regional Director of the United Nations Environment Programme Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
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