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From Crisis to Sustainability

Updated On: Dec 09, 2008

The fight for climate change has lost its impetus, but the planet’s needs are no less pressing now

This article appeared in TODAY Weekend, Dec 6-7 2008


A YEAR is a long time in global politics.

Late last year, global warming was, pardon the pun, the hot topic. Mr Al Gore and the International Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace prize. The world’s ministers met in Bali and agreed on a two-year road map to negotiate new commitments to curb climate change.

Half that time has gone. Ministers began their meetings this week in Poznan, Poland. Yet while the meeting is on schedule, there is something of an impasse and, worse, a lack of urgency. The world’s attention has shifted to issues that seem more pressing than climate change. The global financial crisis and looming recession threaten economies and jobs. Terrible events in Mumbai remind us that terrorism is by no means solved or confined to fringe, faraway places.

Another factor is the fall in oil prices. Not so long ago, oil was past US$120 per barrel and predictions were that it would reach US$200. This expectation combined with predictions of climate change catastrophe to fuel interest in alternative energy that would not just be affordable, but also less carbon-intensive.

Now, with oil prices down and credit dried up, some high-profile projects in wind turbines and other alternative energies have slowed or stopped.

A third factor has been the United States’ position of staying out of the Kyoto Protocol. So long as President George W Bush says no, there is little reason for developing countries like China, India and Indonesia to accept binding obligations to cap their growing emissions.

The world has been held to a kind of prisoner’s dilemma among these large emitters, pointing fingers to blame each other. It is a sad game, with no one taking a long-term view of the global common good.

Poznan is unlikely to achieve much. Yet Asians would be wrong to ignore climate change.

Why climate change matters First, combating climate change is not a luxury. It threatens the fundamentals of human existence. Along with the economy and the wars, it’s the third crisis we face, just one of a different nature.

When a hurricane hits, as Katrina did in New Orleans, people recognise the kind of consequences that unchecked climate change can bring. But otherwise, effects like rising sea levels are harder to see. Yet by the time the impact is felt, it may well be too late to find a solution. To deal with climate change, we need to recognise the difference between the urgent and the important.

Secondly, expect oil prices in the middle- to longterm to steady and then rise. The present low prices are like a balloon that has been deflated. Once the hype of the US$200 barrel gave way, speculators exited their positions, sending prices sharply down. Energy use may not grow much in the next year with the recession and lower industrial demand.

Looking ahead, however, fundamentals remain to drive prices back up from the present. The long-term predictions still point to diminishing oil reserves, while energy demand will rise, especially from Asia.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, expect America to change its position on climate change. President-elect Barack Obama campaigned with detailed plans on the issue. He is, moreover, not alone.

While Mr Bush was in denial, many leading American companies, cities and states have been pushing for ways to deal with climate change. Once Mr Obama is in office, there will be a new impetus for change in the US.

One major effort will likely be tied to America’s economic stimulus package against the recession. Some anticipate that the Obama administration will use some of the funds to boost investments in green infrastructure. This would spur America’s middle- to long-term recovery and transformation to a carbon-lite economy.

As the US takes its own steps forward, they will need other countries to come on board, especially those with large emissions. A Bill introduced in the US Senate already threatens to impose heavy taxes on imports from countries that do not have a price for carbon, like China and India.

It will be a loss if the green cause is used to cover up bully-boy tactics and protectionism. The better outcome would be a global system to foster the exchange of technology and provide funds to effectively help developing countries cut emissions without killing off their economies.

What’s in it for Asia? How should Asians respond? At present, India is on record that it will not act, since its emissions per capita are so much lower than America’s. China has taken on national energy efficiency plans, but refused any international obligations.

They would be right to reject any plan to deal with climate change that fails to equitably recognise their need for development. They are also right to be wary of American pressure and protectionism. But there are, nevertheless, reasons for Asians to act.

Some countries and cities in Asia are extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Many also are concerned with energy security in the long run, as oil reserves dwindle.

If they properly recognise these twin vulnerabilities, Asians can and should invest in avoiding climate change and embrace alternatives that can power their economies forward without more carbon. They, too, should invest in a carbon-light economy and infrastructure for the future.

Asians can change the game for themselves, and in tandem with America under Mr Obama. The world can and needs to move from crisis to sustainability. If not at Poznan, then soon.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and an editor of the new publication, Climate Change Negotiations: Can Asia Change the Game?

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