By Murray Hiebert
Much of the focus at the Paris climate summit that began on November 30 will be on the delegations from the United States, China, and India, and the pledges of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters to limit emissions, protect forests, and launch rigorous renewable energy projects. Countries in Southeast Asia, several of which are among the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change, are watching closely to see if the nearly 200 participating countries put forward action plans robust enough to pull the world away from its trajectory toward perilous levels of global warming.
Whether a deal to curtail greenhouse gases is achieved depends at least in part on overcoming differences about funding. Many developing countries, led by India and including Indonesia, Malaysia, and others, say that developed nations that have emitted the lion’s share of carbon dioxide on their march to industrialization must do more to support the switch to more green energy and assist poorer nations in coping with the impact of climate change.
The Philippines, which is ranked in a 2011 report by the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security as the third most-at-risk nation from climate change, is committed at the summit to press for stronger global cooperation to limit the destructive effects of climate change. Philippine negotiators will highlight the country’s experiences with extreme weather disturbances such as Typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged the Philippines two years ago, to demonstrate the effects of climate change on vulnerable nations. Due to climate change, tropical storms that slam the country up to 10 times a year are expected to increase in intensity.
The Paris summit will seek to cobble together an international climate accord that will aim to limit global warming to about 2 degrees Celsius. The Philippines and other nations that already face the harshest impact of climate change are pushing for a more ambitious and legally binding agreement that will impose a 1.5-degree ceiling. The Philippine government said it aims to cut its carbon emissions by as much as 70 percent by 2030 if it can receive adequate financial and technical assistance.
Indonesia, currently the world’s fourth-largest emitter due to its conversion of forest and carbon-rich peat land into agricultural fields, has said it will reduce its emissions by 28 percent by 2030 using its own resources, which would require a sharp reduction in deforestation and forest fires. But Jakarta adds that it would increase this reduction to 41 percent with international assistance. The government also rolled out new regulations banning further exploitation of peat land ahead of the Paris summit. The peat fires that have burned in Indonesia for the past few months have discharged so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that Indonesia this year went from the world’s sixth- to the world’s fourth-largest emitter in the span of six weeks, according to data released in October by the Washington-based World Resources Institute. Deforestation, mostly to create palm oil plantations that produce vegetable oil, causes more pollution than the country’s power plants and cars combined.
Vietnam, one of the most densely populated countries in Southeast Asia, is among the world’s 11 countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, especially floods, droughts, and sea-level increases, according to a UN Environment Program report. Weather-related disasters are estimated to cost around 1.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) each year. Rising sea levels are expected to have a devastating impact on Vietnam’s rice basket in the fertile Mekong Delta.
Vietnam has pledged to cut its greenhouse emissions by 8 percent by 2030 using domestic resources and up to 25 percent with international help. Under the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation Program (REDD) program, which Vietnam joined in 2011, it aims to reduce total emissions in the agricultural sector by 20 percent and increase the national level of forest cover to about 45 percent by 2020.
Myanmar was identified as the country most affected by climate change during the 20-year period ending in 2013, according to the UN Risk Model. Cyclone Nargis in 2008 caused at least 140,000 deaths in the Irrawaddy Delta, Myanmar’s rice bowl. Myanmar is being deforested at an alarming rate, having lost about 18 percent of its forests between 1990 and 2005 due to commercial logging and expansion of farmland, according to the UN-REDD program.
The long-isolated country, which launched reforms toward free market principles and a transition to democracy in 2011, actually sequesters more greenhouse gases than it emits, but this is expected to change rapidly as the country sets up more power and manufacturing plants and imports more vehicles. Myanmar pledged to the global summit to calculate a reliable estimate for how much it can reduce emissions, and to increase its primary forested area to 30 percent by 2030, up from 10 percent at present.
Thailand is one of 16 countries at “extreme risk” from climate change due to its long coastline. Thailand blames climate change for serious droughts and for the disruptive 2011 floods, which caused an estimated 0.52 percent drop in GDP. Bangkok has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2030 on its own and by an additional 5 percent with increased access to technology transfers and financing from richer nations.
As the summit opened in Paris, it was clear that some big obstacles have to be overcome before a deal can be struck. For starters, the agreement must be accepted unanimously by the almost-200 countries participating before it can be legally binding. One of the biggest challenges could come from the developing nations’ grouping, which has insisted that their countries should not be pressed to curtail economic growth to repair a problem that was caused mostly by developed countries. They insist that emissions cuts must be accompanied by billions of dollars of investment to assist developing nations in their shift from fossil fuel to cleaner energy options.
Negotiators were joined in Paris by a group of billionaires, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who announced major donations to help reduce emissions, develop alternative sources of energy, and aid developing countries that will be most affected by climate change. Conference organizers hope that commitment from the business community, coupled with the pledge by 20 countries, including the United States, to double their investments in new energy technology to $20 billion over the next five years, will convince developing countries that they will get critical assistance in moving their economies away from carbon dependence.
Southeast Asian leaders hope that by the time the summit winds up on December 11, negotiators will have hammered out a deal to curb greenhouse gases and put together an aid package to help the most vulnerable countries in the region cope with the effects of climate change.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.