Climate change gets left out in the cold

Nov 8th, 2011 | By | Category: Adaptation, Advocacy, Carbon, China, Development and Climate Change, Disaster and Emergency, Disasters and Climate Change, Energy, Environment, Flood, Glaciers, Government Policies, Green House Gas Emissions, Health and Climate Change, Lessons, Migration, News, Pollution, Research, Technologies, Urbanization, Waste

Sunday Morning Herald: Amid the bullishness about Asia’s economic future, and the potential for Australia to benefit, there’s a nasty downside risk that can’t be ignored – climate change.

With more than half the world’s population, Asia has more at stake than any other region.

It has become the largest contributor to the global increase in greenhouse gas emissions even though more than half a billion people in the region, mostly south Asia, don’t have access to electricity.

Asia’s per capita emissions are still relatively low, but there will be no effective response to global warming without a contribution from its big economies, especially China and India. Because of Asia’s population and geography, the social and economic cost of global warming is likely to be significant.

The growing incidence of extreme weather events, such as droughts, storms and floods, is already taking a disproportionate toll. The countries of south Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan – have experienced the largest number of climate-related natural disasters in recent years with an average of almost six per country.

This year’s Human Development Report, released last week by the United Nations Development Program, warned that economic progress in many countries could be halted or even reversed by mid-century unless bold steps are taken now to slow climate change.

It published figures showing more than 100 million people in south Asia, east Asia and the Pacific would be affected by a 50-centimetre rise in sea levels by 2050.

The Asian Development Bank has called for ”increasing energy efficiency and reducing reliance on fossil fuels; adopting a new approach to urbanisation by building more compact and eco-friendly cities; relying much more on mass transit for urban dwellers and railways for long-distance transport; and changing lifestyles to alleviate pressures on finite natural resources”.

Clean energy has become one of the bank’s ”highest priorities” with 27 per cent of the total approved loans in 2008 supporting projects with clean energy components. It plans to have more than $2 billion invested in clean energy by 2013.

But public awareness of climate change in Asia is limited. The Gallup World Poll, a survey carried out regularly in almost 150 countries since 2007, has found that nearly four in 10 people in east Asia and the Pacific are unaware of climate change and only 28 per cent think it is a serious threat.

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, climate change has not registered in the mainstream political debate anything like it has in Australia and other Western nations.

Yet several factors largely independent of climate change are motivating the adoption of alternative energy sources. One is air pollution. In China, high sulphur-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants are contributing to smog and acid rain with alarming consequences for public health.

Pollution is blamed for 300,000 deaths and 20 million cases of respiratory illness a year, with estimated health costs of about 3 per cent of gross domestic product a year. Big cities across the Indian subcontinent also have some of the world’s highest levels of urban air pollution.

Worries about securing the energy needed for the fast-growing Asian economies have also created an incentive to adopt alternatives to fossil fuels, including renewables.

Both China and India have become highly dependent on energy imports, especially oil and coal. As their economies expand, there is growing concern about the sea lanes that provide their energy needs.

The paranoia over energy supplies has allowed the climate change responses to be sold as a national security issue. Both China and India have committed to reduce the emissions intensity of their economic output.

The debate about climate change here often dwells on the direct effects of global warming on our natural and cultural heritage, along with the damage it will cause to agriculture and tourism. But given the growing economic dependence on Asia, we are also very exposed to how climate change affects our giant neighbours to the north.

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