ASEAN Must Face an Inconvenient Truth

Updated On: Nov 16, 2006

Former US vice-president Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has reached Singapore, bringing with it the frightening spectre of submerging land masses.

Recent scientific findings on global warming appear to coalesce with economic impact studies on climate change to achieve greater resonance among state, corporate and civil society.

Britain's Stern Review, released two weeks ago, projected that a failure to act within the next decade to reduce global carbon emissions by 2050 to 60 to 80 per cent below the 1990 level would incur five to 20 times the annual costs of present palliative efforts.

How are governments and investors around the world responding to the issue of climate change? And where is South-east Asia on climate- change research and policy? Truth be told, while the warming up of policy efforts towards climate change is generally felt around the world, much less is heard of or heeded by state action in South-east Asia as a whole.

Recent findings by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia's main research agency, noted the severe risk of climate-change effects on Asian economies. For example, sea levels rising by up to 16cm by 2030 and up to 50cm by 2070 would displace millions living in low-lying coastal communities in BangladeshVietnamChina and many Pacific islands.

Dr Kansri Boonprakob, vice-chair of Working Group 1 of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has noted how Thailand suffered economic losses of over 70 billion baht (S$3 billion) due to floods, storms and droughts from 1989 to 2002. Crop yields are particularly hard hit and affect the country's status as the world's largest rice exporter, he added.

Yet despite the sombre prognosis, Asian countries remain ill-informed and ill-prepared to deal with climate change. Can South-east Asia finally recognise the urgent need to act? To be sure, Asean member states have ratified the Kyoto Protocol over the past four years, with Singapore the latest signatory.

For Singapore's part, the Kyoto ratification has led to a flurry of activities, with the launch of the National Climate Change Strategy and the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore to promote carbon trading and other energy initiatives. Also begun is two-year research project on the impact of climate change on the island state.

Yet these and other efforts in the region need to be scaled up to form linkages rather than bypassing the process to access international opportunities such as the global emissions-trading market. Climate change needs to be a priority agenda for Asean - much like the action to tackle the recent haze - to establish a mitigation strategy together with economic development goals, such as a regional agreement towards energy decarbonisation and carbon sequestration.

Elsewhere, an Asean fund can be introduced to develop proper infrastructure to encourage consumption of natural gas - less carbon-intensive than traditional fossil fuels - which can leverage on the region's current LNG, or liquefied natural gas, investment drive. Complemented with market instruments such as the Clean Development Mechanism - an arrangement under the Kyoto Protocol allowing industrialised countries with a greenhouse gas reduction commitment to invest in emission-reducing projects in developing countries - industry would be driven by the incentives to act on the opportunities. With South-east Asia's proven gas reserves, this initiative could clear the way for reducing dependence on high-carbon fuels.

The efforts listed above can also foster greater international cooperation among other regional groupings, such as the European Union and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, to promote the development, transfer and deployment of low-carbon technology to developing Asean countries.

Finally, a climate mitigation research institute, much like the Beijing Climate Centre and the Korean Climate Research Laboratory, but on a regional level, can be set up. This could focus on research that is not being conducted in the West.

We are now confronted with a climate system that has inertia, as vulnerability continues to increase with imbalances in the biophysical greenhouse gas cycles. But Asean governments need not be caught up in the same ill-fated circuit if they choose to confront the inconvenient truth that calls for an adequate regional response to mitigate the effects of climate change.



Gavin Chua Hearn Yuit is a Researcher with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Noraidah Omar is the Director of Research and Resources at the Climate Change Organisation, Singapore