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Asia's Race Against Climate Change
Syed Nazakat | 01 Apr 2008

Floods. Droughts. Melting ice caps. Disappearing coastlines and deadly heat waves. Are all the bizarre weather extremes Asia has been having normal fluctuations in the planet's atmospheric system? Or are they signs of climatic upheavals that can be expected from global warming caused by the continued build-up of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases?

Scientists are still not sure. But one thing is quite clear: Asia, home to 60 per cent of the world's population, will bear the brunt of global warming as more extreme climatic changes will take place within the region.

Dr Yukihiro Nojiri, manager of the Greenhouse Gas Inventory Office in Japan, says global warming would make Southeast Asia more vulnerable to food shortages, natural resource depletion, decline in human health standards and land degradation in this century.

"We are going to have more trouble in the days ahead," says Dr Nojiri.

The United Nations which is organising a world summit on global warming from Dec 3-14 in Bali has also stressed that Asia must take serious steps to face the challenge of global warming—with clear targets and timetables for preventing further environmental damage.

"Asia is responsible for 34 per cent of global warming gas emissions and its share is expected to rise in the coming years. While Asia's share of responsibility is increasing, the region is expected to suffer most from the impacts of climate change," said Dr Han SeungSoo, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the United Nations on Climate Change at Asia's Emerging Response to Climate Change conference held in Bangkok on 23 Nov.

Rich countries may be largely to blame for adding climate change to Asia's litany of problems, but the continent is also responsible for the drastic climate change in its own region. China's booming economy has propelled it past the United States as the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the atmospheric pollutant that is primarily responsible for global warming. India's annual emissions are relatively modest—at about 1.1 tonnes of carbon per Indian, one-quarter of the global average. But with its vast population, India is already the fifth-biggest carbon emitter, after Russia and Japan.

"The developing nations may have a point that they're not responsible for the vast majority of carbon dioxide hanging around in the atmosphere..."

Like China, India also argues that it has the right to develop its economy to alleviate the woes of its impoverished people, free of carbon-cutting constraints.

"Of course, India has less moral responsibility to cut carbon emissions than the rich, temperate countries of the West. But, arguably, it has more reason to do so," Dr Brahma Chellaney told Asia News Network on the sidelines of the conference. Dr Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and is also the author of On the Frontline of Climate Change, which examines how climate change will impact on national and international security.

The problem is getting worse in Southeast Asia. Malaysia's carbon emissions have increased by 221 per cent since 1990, the highest growth rate among the world's top polluters, according to the United Nations Development Report. Indonesia, a country of 245 million, is the third biggest carbon emitter in the world today after the United Stats and China. But as in other developing countries, the Indonesian government says it needs to focus on economic growth to raise its people out of poverty—and that likely means that trees will be cut, cars will be clogging roads and carbon emissions will only go up.

"The overall responses in Asia to climate change, both in terms of reducing rates of emission growth and adapting to climate change, are likely to exacerbate or distract from addressing existing social injustices," said Louis Lebel, director of the Unit for Social and Environmental Research, Chiang Mai University, Thailand.

The impacts of climate change, said Lebel, will be distributed very unequally as a result of entrenched unfairness in how societies in Asia are developing today.

"By realities of everyday life in current cultures: if water becomes harder to get, if the drinking wells nearby go dry because of over-use, it is the women who will have to walk further," says Lebel.

But while the technological path to climate change action is clear, politics is getting more complicated. The developing nations may have a point that they're not responsible for the vast majority of carbon dioxide hanging around in the atmosphere, which was put there by Western countries during their own development over the past 150 years. They argue that their own per capita emissions rates are still far lower than those of the West, therefore, climate change isn't their responsibility.

"Climate change is not a matter of science," says Chellaney. "It is a matter of geo-politics. So we need a strong political will to deal with the challenge of climate change".