Asia-Pacific is large, diverse and growing fast. It contains more than half of humanity, and 30 per cent of the global land mass. It has made great progress in reducing poverty. Yet, with two-thirds of the world’s poor, this region faces vulnerabilities on all fronts. In particular, it has many of the world’s most climate-exposed territories. Climate change also threatens further progress in poverty reduction and hard-won human development gains could be unsustainable.
People here are four times more likely to be affected by natural disasters than those living in Africa, and 25 times more likely than those in Europe or North America. The very survival of many of its major island states — including Maldives, Kiribati and Tuvalu — is at risk due to rising sea levels. And in parts of the region, a sea-level rise of one-half to two metres over this century could displace anywhere from 53 to 125 million people. The melting of Himalayan glaciers, the loss of mangroves, stress on coral reefs and desertification pose serious challenges to people living in vulnerable coastal and mountain regions. An estimated 140 million people in mountain communities are vulnerable to food insecurity.
In order to reduce poverty and vulnerability, countries in the region need more economic growth. But the traditional development paradigm requires more natural resources and energy, potentially increasing emissions. A new UNDP Asia-Pacific Human Development Report, One Planet to Share, argues that the developing countries of this region are much less locked into the old, carbon-intensive ways of growth. It underlines that countries in the region need to build the resilience of the poorest and most vulnerable people today, while addressing climate change and protecting the choices available to future generations.
Following a human development perspective, this report analyses the impact of climate change from the vantage point of people’s lives and livelihoods rather than focusing on countries. Greater vulnerability of the poor to climate change is often because of the places they have to live — in coastal regions, on river banks, in uplands and remote locations. Asia-Pacific has at least 240 million indigenous and tribal people and more than 500 ethnic communities who depend upon ecosystem-based livelihoods, many of which are highly vulnerable to changes in the environment and the climate. Finding solutions to the impact of climate change on these livelihoods is a major focus of the report.
The report argues that the region has the opportunity to manage development differently — by moving to greener, more resilient, lower-emission options that not only sustain the environment but also offer opportunities to the poor for employment and income.
The important principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognises the historical differences in the contributions of developed and developing countries to the earth's environmental problems, as well as the differences in their capacities to respond effectively. This implies that those with greater capacity and greater historical responsibility have a greater obligation to act in responding to climate change. For developing countries in the region, growth needs to continue and become far more inclusive, but with much lower emissions intensity; while developed countries need to lower emissions. Some steps have already been taken. China, for example, is committed to lower its carbon intensity of GDP by 40-45 per cent by 2020 compared to the 2005 level. India is also committed to reduce emissions intensity of GDP by 20-25 per cent by 2020 compared to the 2005 level.
More concerted efforts through international collaboration on access to climate technology and finance can strengthen the response to climate change.
Asia-Pacific has become the world’s dynamo of economic growth and a vast consumer market, if a very unequal one. The region is home to the major share of the world’s population that lacks electricity and modern fuels for cooking. An estimated 675 million live in it without electricity, 400 million in India alone. Some people consume too little. This under-consumption of basics, such as adequate food, water, shelter, transport and energy services, needs to be high on the region’s development agenda — not only to improve their living standards but increase people’s resilience to withstand the additional challenges that climate change brings. In particular, increasing access to energy services is vital.
Expanding access to energy through prevailing technologies could potentially increase carbon emissions. But in developing Asia-Pacific, emissions per capita on average remain relatively small, at just four million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) compared to 16 MtCO2e for OECD countries — mainly as a consequence of their relatively low industrial development, and low access to energy by large shares of their populations.
The challenge is clear: reduce poverty, increase prosperity but leave a smaller carbon footprint. Keeping emissions in check by changing the ways goods are made, food is grown and energy is generated will mean using more renewable energy and low-carbon technologies while reducing the use of fossil fuels. This would involve a paradigm shift. Existing intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes, however, have tools such as patents that can be restrictive and result in high costs for technology access. Only five countries account for almost 80 per cent of all claimed priority patents in clean energy technologies (CETs) worldwide. International mechanisms governing IPRs and technology transfer will need to take into account the public good of environmental sustainability, as against solely commercial gains, in order to provide broader access to such technologies.
If raising energy-use efficiency across sectors and expanding renewable energy are critical for cutting emissions, there is a need for much greater finance than is available today. Existing international finance options such as the Clean Development Mechanism aim to benefit developing countries in the region by transferring cleaner technology from developed countries. However, action on the ground has progressed slowly. The green climate fund currently being negotiated holds great promise and needs to be adequately funded. While this is an important step, more options need to be explored to meet the needs of developing countries. These should support the creation of public infrastructure and strengthen the resilience of the poor, especially those who depend on nature for their livelihoods.
Enhancing the resilience of the most vulnerable populations while at the same time pursuing low-carbon growth can provide us the opportunity to reinvent development for a more equitable and sustainable future.
The writer is UN Assistant Secretary General and UNDP’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific