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Champa Patel

Asia Spotlight Series: Exploring positive climate action across Asia-Pacific

5 June 2023, 8:37 UTC 5 min read

Champa Patel, Executive Director, Governments and Policy

What do you see as the specific climate challenges in Asia?

Each region has its own challenges and Asia is no different. However, the scale of these issues, and the role the region can play in global climate action, can’t be understated.

Countries across Asia-Pacific are impacted by floods, drought, heatwaves and extreme rainfall with some of the poorest countries in the region, like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, highly vulnerable to climate change. But the impacts of climate change go much wider, affecting important economic centres such as Japan and China as well. Meanwhile island nations such as Indonesia - and many other coastal communities - are also vulnerable to sea level rises.

Yet the region is also a major contributor of greenhouse gases. Asia and the Pacific account for more than half of the world’s energy consumption and most of that demand is being met by fossil fuels: a demand that is set to increase by as much as 80% by 2040. It’s estimated that, without action, the region will exhaust the remaining global carbon budget the world has to remain under 1.5 degrees by 2040.

Economic growth is critical to eradicating poverty, providing decent and secure work and meeting sustainable development and climate goals, but this often comes at the expense of the natural world, with most of Asia's energy generated by non-renewable sources. It’s clear this can’t continue and so we urgently need to scale up new sources of renewable energy to meet demand while reducing emissions at the same time. 

What are the opportunities for positive climate action here?

The importance of increased climate action in India and China has already been covered by my colleagues Divya and Yuming. But there are also wider opportunities for other countries in the region. As Asia-Pacific accounts for 45% of all global emissions, there is tremendous scope to make a big difference in a short amount of time by, for example, decarbonising energy, steel, cement and transport.

To seize these opportunities, we need to remove policy barriers that are favouring business-as-usual approaches to fossil fuels, especially coal. Monopoly power companies need to quickly move away from these harmful fuels, avoid leap-frogging bridging fuels like gas and move straight to renewables. This will support not only decarbonisation of electricity systems, but the development of green steel, increased uptake of electric vehicles and more.

It’s important that any opportunities for ambitious climate action also have a just transition at their core. Many countries in the region will rightly argue that they are suffering from the effects of climate change despite having done little to contribute to the problem. So, it’s important our work focuses on ways to make a difference without leaving anyone behind or worse off. 

What sort of policies do we need to see a pivot towards more sustainable industries in Asia-Pacific, alongside a move away from fossil fuels? 

The first thing we need is political will from governments across Asia to act on climate change. We’ve been talking about the climate crisis for years now and the solutions are obvious – we’re just not implementing them. A first step towards real progress would be governments deciding that they’ll stop using fossil fuels and invest in sustainable industry. The Under2 Coalition’s Asia-Pacific co-chair, Chungnam Province (South Korea), has long been an advocate of moving past coal and, in 2019, was the first East Asian local government to declare a climate emergency – setting the standard for other subnational governments. 

Governments and businesses also need adaptation strategies that assess risk, build resilience and protect people and communities from the worst impacts of climate change. For example, Maharashtra’s Mangrove Cell saw an increase in mangrove cover from 186 sq. km in 2013 to 320 sq. km in 2019, protecting coastlines and their communities from ever-increasing extreme weather events.

To do this work, increased climate finance is essential. The Asian Development Bank estimates that the region requires $1.7 trillion a year invested in infrastructure by 2030 to support growth, address poverty and respond to climate change. Governments can generate climate revenue through local taxation or green bonds and use that money to fund climate action plans. They can also develop green budgets and implement green public procurement and work to address policy or regulatory barriers - opening up more space for businesses and governments to work closer together.

And this isn’t just a climate argument: it’s an economic one. Research published by Deloitte in 2021 shows that unchecked climate change will reduce Southeast Asia’s economic growth by 7.5% a year through to 2070. The consequences of this on livelihoods, poverty and security would be immense. There is a risk we will sleepwalk into such scenarios unless we speed up climate action now.

There has been global attention on energy production and consumption over the past year. How are states and regions in Asia-Pacific finding new ways of meeting their renewable energy targets? 

The impact of the Ukraine conflict on energy supplies has affected many countries in Asia, with a worrying intensification of the use of coal in places such as in Indonesia and China to meet energy demands. This is not without negative impact. As countries in the region, and worldwide, rushed to meet their energy needs through coal, gas and oil, greenhouse gases rose close to an all-time high.  

This is a worrying development. The idea that we can continue to rely on fossil fuels, even in the short term, while accelerating investment in renewables is not compatible with the Paris Agreement and the goal of staying within 2 degrees of change.

However, many state and regional governments are demonstrating what is possible with political will and commitment. In April, Tripura in India hosted a G20 Summit event on “Clean Energy for a Green Future”. Discussions considered whether bamboo, a common crop in the state, could be used as a biomass resource to generate energy. Tripura alone grows 21 varieties of bamboo, which not only grows fast, but produces fewer pollutants than wood or petroleum – so it’s a good source of energy for remote communities.  

Meanwhile South Australia has long been leading the way on clean energy, with a target of 100% renewable energy generation by 2030. It’s already well on track to reach this goal as well, having gone from 1% renewable energy generation in 2007 to 68% in just over 15 years. These are some of the examples we can learn from in terms of marrying up energy security with clean energy.

What message would you like to give to delegates coming to Climate Group’s Asia Action Summit? 

Think big! So often the scale of the climate challenge can feel overwhelming, but we do have the ideas and solutions at hand to turn the tide. We need to work together to go further and faster in the fight against climate change - but we can make the difference.