Compared to China, Asean is behind the curve. The region needs to map out the dangers it faces from climate change, fully evaluate the costs it might suffer and consider what it can do to adapt and also contribute to a global solution. Asean must be prepared to address climate change collectively if it is to be taken seriously as a community.
[photo right] Taken in October, this photograph shows the remains of a devastated peatlands forest in Indonesia's Pangkalan Bunut, in the Riau province. Locking in carbon by conserving forests is a key area in which Asean could pool its resources to combat climate change - a move that could alleviate the long-standing problem of the country's haze-causing forest fires. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
IT IS only days before the Copenhagen meeting on climate change begins and developments have been as changeable as, well, the weather.
Expectations of the meeting's outcome have swung from early optimism to pessimism - and may be swinging back again to guarded optimism after a recent flurry of events.
How did we get here? Where do we go next? Despite the uncertainties and variables involved, Singapore and others in region must grapple with them. New constants have emerged.
For more than a year now, European governments and many scientists have been calling for urgent action but rich and poor countries alike have continued to argue about how the responsibilities for, and costs of taking action to reverse climate change, should be assigned. The conviction grew that Copenhagen would not produce any binding commitments.
In part, this was because of the United States. While personally committed, President Barack Obama remained hamstrung by the failure of the US Congress to act. Other concerns like health care and Afghanistan occupied Washington's attention.
However, just as Copenhagen is about to begin, the US has sent a strong signal. Not only will Mr Obama attend the conference with a high-powered US delegation, he has outlined the commitments he will back.
The US is expected to set a 17 per cent reduction in carbon emissions below the 2005 level as its first target. Further ahead, Mr Obama will urge a 30 per cent reduction below the 2005 level by 2025 and work towards a 83 per cent reduction by 2050.
This may prove to be a crucial step in achieving a global deal - if not immediately, then soon. The precise US commitment is not fixed and Congress has still to approve the necessary legislation. But compared to the eight years of denial under the previous Bush administration, what is clear now is that US will act. That is the first new constant.
The Obama administration will try to show that economic recovery and environmental protection are compatible. Over US$80 billion (S$111 billion) has been pledged to double the generation of clean renewable energy like wind and solar in the US. Energy efficiency is also being pushed on many fronts. New standards have been set for motor vehicles and household appliances, such as dishwashers and light bulbs.
The link between combating global warming and encouraging the growth of 'green' businesses is the second constant. Expect technology to receive a big boost from governments. Asians should try to latch on to these business opportunities and share technology with the US and other leading countries.
As the US moves, it will insist on others taking similar steps. The Group of 20 has discussed climate change, in addition to its focus on the economic crisis. Another step was taken at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Singapore, when President Obama raised the issue with his Asian counterparts.
What will the US do if these Asian countries do not come along? Beyond persuasion and promoting technology, the proposed US legislation will have penalties. Uncooperative countries will face additional taxes on the goods they export to America. The Europeans have threatened similar border taxes.
The excuse is that such additional taxes will make up for the 'unfair' competitive advantages that countries that fail to commit themselves to lower emissions enjoy. But this can easily become a pretext for Europe and the US to protect their own domestic producers.
It is a proposal that threatens free trade. And yet these threats are the third new constant.
How should Asians shape their policies in response to these three new constants in climate change policy - US participation, the new green business opportunities, the threat to tax the exports of carbon polluters?
In many ways, China has shown the best way to respond. Its leaders understand China's vulnerabilities - not just the rise in sea levels but the impact of climate change on water, food and energy security.
One day after Washington announced its proposed cuts, Beijing announced its own pledge. It proposes to cut by 40-45 per cent the amount of carbon it emits per unit of national income by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. This goal aims to intensify energy use and be more efficient; it doesn't constitute an absolute limit. But it is a step forward, nevertheless, especially since China still has many poor people and needs to develop further.
Moreover, China has ramped up green technology and businesses. Given its proven ability to manufacture products that are of good quality at low prices, China is betting that it can become the world's leading green manufacturer. Sustainability is becoming central to the emerging Chinese economy.
Compared to China, Asean is behind the curve. The region needs to map out the dangers it faces from climate change, fully evaluate the costs it might suffer and consider what it can do to adapt and also contribute to a global solution.
Asean must be prepared to address climate change collectively if it is to be taken seriously as a community. At Copenhagen, Asean representatives should confer and push a common agenda. Assistance from developed economies for technology transfers and for adaptation will be needed.
One key area would be for Asean to seek assistance to develop a regional energy infrastructure. Recent studies indicate that energy demand in Asean will increase by almost 80 per cent by 2030 - and this will likely increase carbon emissions. But regional grids could be more efficient and also tap into renewables like hydro power to share across the region.
Another priority is to lock in carbon by conserving forests. Indonesia has been pushing this but sticky issues remain. Mechanisms need to be found to ensure that if funds are made available to conserve forests, the forests will indeed be conserved. If this could be done, the forest fires that have caused the haze for so many years might be alleviated.
Resources will still be needed but those that are certified to be green or climate friendly will have the edge. This provides opportunities not just for Indonesia but for all countries in Asean.
Singapore can benefit. Yes, costs may go up but Singapore has already moved beyond competing on cheap prices. It is well-placed to be a hub for green businesses and technology. Not taking action on climate change will affect its credibility as a sustainable city. Moreover, if climate change is severe, the cost of inaction will be great.
The road to Copenhagen has been difficult and uncertain. There may be more bumps ahead. The rules are changing and new constants are emerging to which Singapore and others in Asia must adapt and respond actively.