Climate change is the greatest known threat to economic growth and well-being. To confront this peril, world leaders, especially of the large economies, must commit to much stronger cuts in carbon emissions than currently envisaged at the United Nations conference starting Monday in Paris. But the challenge is bigger. To bring about lasting change, countries will need to reform the way their economies generate growth.
What makes this difficult is political leaders’ differing beliefs about what generates growth. After all, carbon-intensive production created wealth in the past. So many still see a change in this recipe as inimical to expansion. Yet the reality is just the opposite. In the face of mounting disasters linked to human-made global warming, a low-carbon path is the only way to progress.
To appreciate why, note that the current growth path within a quarter century will push carbon concentrations in the atmosphere to the critical 450 parts per million. Beyond this threshold, temperatures will rise above 2 degrees from preindustrial levels, with catastrophic impact: Just released data warn that we are already halfway to that dreaded mark. The 10 hottest years on record occurred after 1997, and 2015 has surpassed 2014 as the hottest. Asia is on the front line of climate-related disasters.
To dodge this dangerous scenario, energy-related emissions alone need to fall by 40 to 70 percent below 2010 levels by 2050. With energy accounting for two-thirds of emissions today, the required shift from reliance on fossil fuels is huge. Currently, two-thirds to four-fifths of electricity relies on fossil fuels in China, Japan, the United States and Russia. China and India continue to ramp up coal-fired power stations.
Industrial countries were far and away the main cause of past carbon buildup. But developing Asia is now the origin of some 37 percent of global emissions. Some countries like Canada generate a relatively low total but high per capita emissions, while others like India generate a relatively high total but low in per capita terms. Among those at the high end in total, Japan is moderate in per capita terms.
Regardless of the historical and current sources, what is clear is that business as usual will sink everyone. We need an economic transformation that is not only in the global interest but also in a country’s own interest.
First, renewable energy sources — solar, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal and biomass — need to expand vastly, supported by research and development and exchange of knowledge. Battery storage, smart grids and demand measures have to improve. Demand for renewable energy can be augmented by a carbon tax that reduces demand for dirty fossil fuels. Cap and trade schemes can also help, as China plans for 2017. There is a heightened policy debate in Japan about raising the ratio of electricity from renewable and other nonpolluting energy, including the role of nuclear plants.
Second, countries need to move much more quickly out of polluting fossil fuels. Fossil fuel subsidies (amounting to some $550 billion globally) have to be slashed, as India and Indonesia have started to do. Washington’s decision to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 is positive. Japan is trying to encourage cleaner energy, including via hybrid and electric engines, and promoting export of cleaner technology.
Third, dealing with local pollution also helps climate mitigation. Abatement of air pollution is urgent in Delhi and Beijing. Some 3 million people die a year from outdoor air pollution. Urban congestion needs intelligent transport systems as in Seoul. Corruption and greed damage developed countries too: Volkswagen’s cheating on automobile emissions for example is a colossal scandal.
Fourth, to withstand destruction from global warming, we need to strengthen roads and embankments, build in safer areas and invest in rain harvesting, drainage and early warning, as Japan has been doing. Countries can tap new financing such as the Green Climate Fund, as Fiji just did. It received a $31 million GCF grant for a project supported by the Asian Development Bank.
Fifth, we need to protect coastal zones, agricultural land and forests. In Indonesia, haze from slash-and-burn agriculture to clear areas for palm oil every year spreads through Southeast Asia, ruining people’s health, biodiversity and economic activities. It is ironic that even as the Paris meetings approach, these fires, on the worst days, emit more carbon than the U.S. economy.
Economists have been slow to send this message, but the Paris summit is one final chance. It is only with a swift response to climate change that countries can sustain economic growth and well-being. As a major contributor to the issue and one that is most impacted, Asia should be the strongest voice for action.
Vinod Thomas is director general of independent evaluation at the Asian Development Bank.