When the Heat is On - at the East Asia Summit
Michael Richardson (Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore)
Formed just over a year ago with considerable fanfare, the East Asia Summit still seems to be searching for a role. It could find one when the leaders of China and 15 other countries gather in the Philippines on Monday for their annual meeting - by adopting climate change as a priority issue.
Among issues on which the heads of government could usefully focus, climate change stands out as a challenge already adversely affecting every country in the group. They include 10 Southeast Asian nations plus Australia, New Zealand, India, South Korea, Japan and China.
While the environment directorate of the European Commission recently prepared the first comprehensive study of the effects of global warming on the continent, no such scientific survey is under way for the Asia-Pacific region. The region needs a similar assessment to help find how best to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, hopefully without undermining economic growth, job creation and poverty reduction. The EU study forecasts that by 2071, climate change will cause droughts and floods that will wreak havoc in Europe. As temperatures increase, sea levels could rise by up to a metre. Meanwhile the oceans will acidify, hitting fish stocks.
Such changes will also be felt in Asia and the Pacific. The region is probably the most vulnerable to rising sea levels because it has many millions of people living on low-lying islands, coastal zones and river deltas.
The Pearl River Delta is one such area. Like Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, it may have the wealth and resources to build sea walls and other defences, but how will the less well equipped but densely populated coastlines and deltas of Bangladesh, India and Vietnam cope?
Official mainland media forecast last month that as temperatures rise in coming decades, weather will become more extreme, water shortages will worsen and food production will fall. They were citing some of the conclusions of the government's first national assessment of global warming and its impact. The full survey is due to be published by the middle of the year.
Meanwhile, other mainland scientists report that the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, representing a quarter of the nation's area and the source of many big rivers in Asia, is under increasing stress. Glaciers are shrinking, the snow line is rising, wetlands and lakes are dwindling and the upland desert is spreading.
China, now the second-biggest energy user, aims to cut consumption per unit of national income by 20 per cent by 2010. But with coal-fired plants providing 75 per cent of electricity, China is on course to overtake the United States in two years as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the main gas warming the planet.
India, too, is a big and increasing coal user. Australia and Indonesia are major coal exporters. Of those at the summit, Japan has by far the best record of energy efficiency.
By taking up the challenge and commissioning a scientific report on expected impact on the region, the summit leaders could draw on an impressive range of expertise. Top-level political backing would signal to the rest of the world that the region treats global warming seriously and is ready to work with others to mitigate its effects.
(Originally appeared in the January 12, 2007 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)