Turning up the heat for deal on climate

This year is the hottest for 4,000 years, scientists tell us. But what is more important is what this says about the urgent need for a global climate deal at a multi-country ministerial summit in Paris starting at the end of the month.

Seven out of nine months this year have registered the highest global average temperatures ever recorded, and the first nine months were the hottest since 1880. The average surface temperature for September was at least 0.9 deg C warmer than that throughout the 20th century.

These alarming numbers highlight how important it is that a deal be reached when countries gather for the Conference of Parties (COP21) meeting in the French capital to forge a global agreement to limit climate change.

But whatever happens in Paris, Asia's governments, businesses and local communities need to proactively address climate change if the newly minted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - adopted at a United Nations summit two months ago - are to be achieved at all, let alone by the 2030 deadline. The SDGs are a long-term global development framework with a set of 17 goals, covering areas such as poverty elimination, water and sanitation and climate change.

At stake is the future sustainability of the region's economies and environment, as well as the health of its citizens.

It has been a relentlessly warm year across the Asia-Pacific. Heatwaves have claimed more than 3,000 lives in India, as well as livestock. This was coupled with a sharp drop in rainfall in areas covered by the south-west monsoon, which was 14 per cent weaker than last year.

Sheep grazing in a parched padi field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in India. Heatwaves this year have claimed more than 3,000 lives in the country, as well as livestock. Some parts of India have also received less than half the expected rainfall, wi
Sheep grazing in a parched padi field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in India. Heatwaves this year have claimed more than 3,000 lives in the country, as well as livestock. Some parts of India have also received less than half the expected rainfall, with grave implications for food and water security. PHOTO: REUTERS

Some parts of India received less than half the expected rainfall, with grave implications for food and water security. For example, a temperature rise of 1 deg C can reduce rice yield by 10 per cent. Likewise, a 5 per cent deficit in rainfall can drag down India's gross domestic product (GDP) by 1.75 per cent. In Vietnam, water levels in reservoirs were down by 67 per cent, causing alarm among farmers. Other South-east Asian countries have suffered similarly.

This year has also been among the worst for haze from forest fires in parts of Indonesia, including Sumatra and Kalimantan. High temperatures and dry weather intensified air pollution, affecting the health of more than 50 million people in the country as well as in Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand and the Philippines.

The World Resources Institute has suggested that Indonesia's forest fires this year released about 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, which is nearly equal to Brazil's annual emissions.

There were also several extreme weather events, such as Typhoon Koppu in the Philippines.

EL NINOS COULD BE MORE EXTREME

What is causing this disruption? The culprit is perhaps an unusually strong El Nino current that is warming the Pacific Ocean, where the surface temperature has increased by up to 2.4 deg C above average. El Nino is not new, but it has been aggravated by climate change due to rising greenhouse gas emissions, which means extreme weather will become even more frequent.

Models predict that climate change could double the number of extreme El Ninos. Recent records suggest that the intensity of El Nino episodes climbed by 20 per cent during the 20th century, and the trend is likely to continue. Scientists project that this year's El Nino could be one of the four strongest since 1950, a sobering thought given that the latest El Nino in the late 1990s cost nearly US$40 billion (S$56 billion).

Climate negotiators have been working hard for the past three years to develop a legally binding, universal agreement to keep global warming below 2 deg C. The last batch of formal meetings concluded with a 51-page draft for discussion in Paris. Boiling it down to a manageable size is a daunting task.

Over 150 governments submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to address climate change. The INDCs target reductions in global average emissions per capita of up to 9 per cent by 2030. However, preliminary analyses show that these will not go anywhere near the 2 deg C goal, let alone the 1.5 deg C target demanded by the most vulnerable countries, including many Pacific island nations.

Current pledges, even if fully realised, will lead to a global temperature rise of at least 2.7 deg C to 3.5 deg C above the pre-industrial average by 2100. This will surely compound the difficulties of meeting the post-2015 SDGs in the Asia-Pacific.

It will hurt economies, too. A recent study in Nature magazine stated that rising temperatures due to unmitigated climate change would reduce global GDP per capita by 23 per cent by 2100.

A multi-pronged approach to climate change and disaster risk reduction measures at all levels of development planning and operations is required. Investments in climate services and information systems must be ramped up to steer adaptation efforts in the region.

Use of stress-tolerant crops and livestock, community-based water conservation schemes, risk-sharing instruments like crop insurance, and climate-resilient infrastructure must be preferentially supported.

Efforts to reduce growth in greenhouse gas emissions from the region must be accelerated by energy-efficiency measures, increased use of renewable energy, sustainable land use, and environmentally sustainable transport and waste-management practices.

Without redoubling our efforts on climate, the 21st century will not be Asia's century and the SDGs may never be realised.

  • The writer is principal climate change specialist at the Asian Development Bank's South-east Asia department
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2015, with the headline 'Turning up the heat for deal on climate'. Print Edition | Subscribe