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Climate change and security

Updated On: Oct 23, 2007

Climate change and its various inter-related issues have been very much in the limelight and were given further prominence as world leaders meeting at the 2007 UN General Assembly reiterated the need for urgent actions to slow global warming. 

The world’s environmental cause is given a tremendous boost by the award of this year's Nobel Peace Prize to former US vice-president Al Gore and the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The world is also focusing its eyes on Southeast Asia. The IPCC, comprising technical experts and set up by the World Meteorological Organisation and the UN Environment Programme, says the population in the Mekong and Chao Phraya deltas are at greatest risk, while island communities are also threatened by rising sea levels. Deforestation also threatens food-gathering hill tribes in mainland South-east Asia and has already led to conflicts in Kalimantan.

Southeast Asia also faces the annual menace of haze alerts due to the forest and peat fires in Indonesia.  The problem will worsen in the next decade with the building of bio-fuel plants, especially the world's largest bio-diesel plants in Sumatra. Southeast Asia may not only be a haze affected area but also the world’s largest biofuel processing factory to fuel growth in developed countries, China and India.

'The use of food as a source of fuel may have serious implications for the demand for food if the expansion of biofuels continues,' the International Monetary Fund said. The IMF warns that the growing use of biofuels could create imbalances. 'One country's policy to promote biofuels while protecting its farmers could increase another (likely poorer) country's import bills for food and pose additional risks to inflation or growth,' the agency said. Malaysia and Indonesia, which together account for more than 85 percent of global palm oil production, have invested heavily in expanding their palm oil-based biofuel industries in recent years with the Malaysian government had granted 92 licenses to set up biodiesel plants at end July, while the Indonesian government has allocated some 5-6 million hectares of plantation land for biofuel projects.

In response to surging biofuel development, the world’s richest nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has called on governments to cut their subsidies for biofuel and instead encourage research into technologies that would avoid competing for land use with food production. OECD warned that biofuels may 'offer a cure that is worse than the disease they seek to heal' noting that the ‘current push to expand the use of biofuels is creating unsustainable tensions that will disrupt markets without generating significant environmental benefits’. 'When acidification, fertilizer use, biodiversity loss and toxicity of agricultural pesticides are taken into account, the overall environmental impacts of ethanol and biodiesel can very easily exceed those of petrol and mineral diesel,' the OECD said.

Adding to natural environmental problems are manmade environmental concerns in Southeast Asia with the rush for nuclear power. Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand said after the meeting chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Kosit Panpiemras that the Nuclear Power Plant Development Office would from 2008 to 2010 conduct in-depth studies and plans for generating techniques, locations and expenses. "Then, the draft law should be completed in the third year. If the government agrees to proceed with the development, the draft can be pushed for implementation," Piyasvasti said.

There are some Southeast Asian nations that have already reached crisis levels in terms of basic environmental provisions. Indonesia will struggle to provide adequate sanitation and clean water to 72.5 percent of its population by 2015. Nugroho Tri Utomo from the National Development Planning Board said that although half the allocated timeframe to reach the MDGs by 2015 had passed, Indonesia's achievements in this area were not on target. The latest survey into the country's social and economic conditions conducted by the Central Statistics Agency indicates that only 55 percent of the population currently has access to adequate sanitation facilities.

If Indonesia were to be on track to achieve its MDGs target, the figure would need to be considerably higher, Nugroho said. "We are not yet on track to meet our basic sanitation target as part of our commitment to ensuring environmental sustainability under the MDGs," he said. "The problem is that sanitation is not yet the government's top priority, despite the fact poor sanitation can lead to the decreasing quality of human resources," he said. It is currently estimated that 50 out of every 1,000 children aged below five years in Indonesia die of diarrhea as a result of poor sanitation.

Another basic environmental problem in Indonesia is deforestation. The Indonesian government has pointed to rampant illegal logging as being the major cause of deforestation in the country and between 1985 and 1997, the deforestation rate was 1.8 million hectares per year. The rate rose to 2.8 million hectares per year until 2000, and between 2000 to 2006 the rate fell to 1.08 million hectares per year. Emissions caused by changes in forest and land use represent about one-fifth of the world's total emissions.

Scientists also warned that many parts of Asia could literally disappear if environmental problems worsen. For example, if sea levels rise just 6m as a consequence of global warming, 93 million Chinese will be displaced and many more millions of environmental refugees would be created by the loss of land mass expected around the world - in India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and the Arabian Gulf.

While there is consensus about the need to address issues of global warming and climate change, opinions are still divided on the solutions and the approaches to be taken.  The world’s only superpower,America, is promoting different approaches to solving the problem. The differing political responses and contentious negotiations taking place in the world community are aptly described by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She said that the 'one-size-fits-all approach would not work...(T)here must be room for each nation to tackle the problem through medium-term programmes that reflected its own needs and did not require it to put aside economic growth for the sake of the environmental health'.

The other great power promoting this is ChinaChina believes that the international community should follow the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility" and make greater efforts to transfer technologies to the developing countries so as to help them improve their capacity for dealing with climate change. In this connection, "we strongly call on the bank (World Bank) to expand its energy assistance to Sub-Sahara Africa in a more vigorous way," said Li Yong, China's vice finance minister. "We encourage the bank to explore new financing mechanisms to mobilize sufficient financial resources and compensate for the developing countries' incremental cost of emission reduction," he said.

China supports the establishment of a long-term and reliable clean energy policy framework which reflects the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility." Also, "we urge the bank to utilize its comparative advantages and explore the possibility of creating an international technology cooperation fund to help improve the access of developing countries to affordable and advanced environment-friendly technologies," Li said. China is committed to its cooperation with developing countries under the framework of South-South cooperation and improve jointly their capacity for dealing with climate change, Li said.

While these are good developments that seem to be other contradictory developments in the opposite directions as some countries scramble to stamp their mark on vast disputed “ice lands” of the world. After the recent interest and scramble for a piece of action in the Arctic seabed, attention is now turned to the Antarctic.  Britain has been gathering data, and preparing for a submission to the United Nations for the sovereign right over more than 1 million square km of seabed, which could extend British oil, gas and mineral exploitation rights up to 560 km offshore into the Southern Ocean, said The Guardian, quoting sources from the Foreign Office.

The claim is likely to signal a quickening of the race for territory around the south pole, the world's least explored continent.  It also reflects Britain's efforts to secure resources for the future as oil and natural gas reserves gradually decrease over the coming decades. According to the report, it would be in defiance of the spirit of the 1959 Antarctic treaty, to which Britain is a signatory. The treaty, drawn up to prevent territorial disputes, specifically states that no new claims shall be asserted on the continent.

Last month, The Guardian also revealed that Britain is working on three other undersea claims in the Atlantic: around South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, surrounding Ascension Island and in the Hatton/Rockall basin, west of ScotlandBritain has already lodged a joint claim at the UN -- with FranceIreland and Spain -- for a large area of seabed in the Bay of Biscay.

The Foreign Office said in a statement Tuesday that Britain was working to extend sovereign territory into new areas. "There are five claims in total that the UK is hoping to put forward," the statement said. "They are in the Bay of Biscay, around Ascension, off the British Antarctic Territory, around the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and in the Hatton/Rockall basin," it said. "We believe these five meet the geological conditions required. The claims are based on article 76 of the UN convention of the law of the sea," added the statement. (22 October 2007)

Sources:

US military planners target climate change  (Straits Times, 20 October 2007)

Global warming may displace millions of people: Reports  (Straits Times, 20 October 2007)

China calls for efforts to help developing countries deal with climate change (People’s Daily, 20 October 2007)

Indonesia not on target for development goals (Jakarta Post, 20 October 2007)

Govt aims to ease requirement to trade carbon in forestry (Jakarta Post, 20 October 2007)

Indonesia 'should stop deforestation' before seeking forestry funds (Jakarta Post, 20 October 2007)

High oil prices are here to stay (Straits Times, 19 October 2007)

Record oil price boosts demand for biofuels but critics question the cost (Forbes, 19 October 2007)

Nuclear power scheme backed (Nation, 19 October 2007)

Report: Britain to claim sovereignty over vast area of Antarctica (People’s Daily, 18 October 2007)

A new consciousness dawns (Straits Times, 17 October 2007)