David Fogarty, Assistant Foreign Editor

Getting everyone on same page to avert global warming

The narrative around climate change is often one of gloom, filled with terrible threats to humanity and economies. It needn't be.

There is another narrative increasingly taking hold. One of opportunity.

Look past the destructive bickering that has long marred the climate debate and you see a world embracing renewable energy, efficient homes and cars, and steps to conserve rainforests.

Taking strong steps to fight climate change can transform economies and improve people's livelihoods. In Lima, Peru, nations have a chance to capture this ambition. Thousands of delegates are attending the two-week United Nations climate talks to figure out how to compile and measure national efforts to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

The UN hopes the Dec 1 to 12 Lima talks will end, no doubt after much drama, with a draft outline of a new global climate agreement that nations will sign up to at a summit in Paris at end-2015.

The Paris agreement will set out what countries will do to cut emissions and, for the most vulnerable, how they need to adapt to climate change impacts, using funds from wealthier nations.

These national pledges, rather blandly called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, will be the building blocks of the new pact and show the collective will to fight climate change.

If the Lima talks succeed, the climate change narrative will switch to what we can do, instead of what we can't do.

And much needs to be done. The UN's weather agency says 2014 is on track to be the warmest since records began.

In Asia, many countries have adopted green growth strategies, focusing on clean energy, energy efficiency targets and less polluting agriculture. But there are also plans to invest heavily in new power stations fuelled by coal and gas to connect millions of people without electricity.

Large corporations can help lead the way and many firms see the value in reducing energy use and their environmental impacts, particularly as customers become far more aware of the damage many corporations are causing. Leading energy and IT firms, for instance, now have internal carbon pricing to measure climate regulatory risk to operations and investments.

Renewable energy, particularly wind and solar, is growing rapidly as costs tumble. China has become the world leader in building renewable energy capacity, installing 380 gigawatts by the end of last year, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, led by hydro power. That is more than double the renewable energy capacity of the United States, the agency wrote in a recent report.

China's clean energy investments will keep growing. Last month's China-US climate pact included a pledge from President Xi Jinping to increase the non-fossil fuel share of all energy to around 20 per cent by 2030.

China is doing this to improve its energy security and to curb severe air pollution that has caused serious social unrest. The result will ultimately be the decline in polluting coal's dominant share in China's total energy mix.

Lower pollution means reduced health costs, further enhancing the attractiveness of renewable energy. Indonesia is under pressure to do much more to protect its dwindling rainforests, a vital part of the global climate fight.

About 75 per cent of Indonesia's greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation, draining of peat swamps and forest fires. Deforestation also removes the livelihoods of millions of indigenous and local communities dependent on forests, increasing poverty and social unrest. In short, protecting forests is an easy climate win.

President Joko Widodo, on a recent visit to fire-prone Riau province, threatened to terminate the licences of agricultural corporations that destroy peat swamp forests and ordered a licence review for bad companies. This is important and strong follow-through will be good for Indonesia, its people and the global climate and will improve the country's natural resource management.

India is looking to dramatically ramp up its renewable energy investments to reduce costly and volatile oil, gas and coal imports and connect 300 million people, about the population of the US, to the grid. But the government is also looking to double domestic coal production to about one billion tonnes, increasing pressure on New Delhi to match Beijing in committing to a tougher climate goal for the 2015 climate pact.

Asian nations have plenty of opportunity to choose ambitious climate policies that best suit them and put their economies on a more sustainable path. That is the focus on the 2015 climate pact and the Lima talks.

Failure to do so increases the risks to all nations. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development last month released a report saying South-east Asia's current growth path is unsustainable. The report found that climate change, fossil fuel-related pollution and an over-dependence on natural resources will hurt growth, prosperity and health in the long run.

The point of the current UN climate talks is to get everyone on the same page with their climate commitments and ramp up ambition from there to ensure the planet avoids overheating.

And you don't have to put a climate change label on every action. Many steps just make good economic, social and environmental sense.

dfogarty@sph.com.sg