Regional governments are entering 2021 with a strong slate of policy initiatives and actions meant to tackle climate change issues
Analysts see recent ‘net zero’ pledges by China, South Korea and Japan as adding to momentum on global shift in thinking, with the US getting back on board
Asia-Pacific governments have for years felt the heat for being laggards on
, but as 2020 winds down – all things considered, amid the turmoil of
– the region is entering the new year having sent strong signals about addressing emissions and embracing renewable energy.
Central to the buoyant year-end mood is the pledge in October by the triumvirate of major regional carbon-dioxide emitters – China, South Korea and Japan – to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions by the middle of this century, according to analysts. With these additions, 110 countries have joined the informal “net zero by 2050” coalition, although the pledge by China – the world’s largest source of annual emissions – is effective in 2060.
At the southern tip of the Asia-Pacific,
– which has also made the pledge – has gone one step further. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this past week declared a “climate emergency” and promised that the country’s governmental sector would become carbon neutral by 2025, well ahead of the 2050 target.
Also getting the thumbs up from observers are recent indications by the Philippines, Bangladesh and Vietnam, among developing countries once seen as intransigent about coal use, that they are willing to make the shift towards cleaner energy.
These national-level developments, alongside the expected lift in global climate governance that the incoming administration of United States President-elect
is expected to offer – with former top diplomat John Kerry as climate tsar – bodes well for climate action in Asia even as the region’s emission levels remain alarming, the analysts and observers say.
Li Shuo, a climate adviser with environmental group Greenpeace, told
the net-zero announcements from the so-called “East Asia Three” were of particular significance because they marked the “first time major Asian economies are willing to embrace not only what is politically possible, but what is necessary”.
The research coalition Climate Action Tracker, which monitors countries’ carbon-cutting pledges, this week said the new national pledges, including by China, put the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement within reach. The pledges would, among other things, mean that global temperatures will rise by up to 2.1 degrees Celsius, just off the multilateral pact’s objective of a rise “well below” 2.0 degrees Celsius. Without interventions, temperatures could rise by more than three degrees by the year 2100, an outcome that could imperil humanity.
Li said the East Asian pledges served as important signals to Southeast Asia, which is “generally endowed with renewable energy, but at the same time is an emerging market for coal power plants”.
Lauri Myllyvirta, the lead analyst with Helsinki’s Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, said it was important to note that the recent moves by Asian governments were preliminary and likely to face domestic opposition.
“So solidifying them into actual commitments and mobilising financing for clean energy for those countries that need it would be key,” he said.
Nonetheless, these countries’ net-zero pledges alongside similar commitments by the European Union – made last December – and by the Biden administration “could create the much-needed momentum and encourage other countries to step up, much like the China-US climate deal did in the run-up to the Paris agreement”, Myllyvirta said.
He and other analysts also pointed to developments surrounding certain Asian countries’ plans to revisit blueprints for new coal-fired power plants as reasons for some cheer in 2020.
Vietnam’s communist rulers, for example, while expected to continue relying on coal-fired power for decades to come, have offered some signals that the country could be ready to rein in new projects.
Bangladesh, similarly reliant on coal, is also seeking to move towards use of cleaner liquefied natural gas (LNG) power – going by senior officials’ comments this year on reviewing earlier proposals for new coal plants.
The Philippines has also put a moratorium on new coal power proposals, though projects in the works or those for which blueprints have already been submitted will be allowed to continue.
Myllyvirta said it was crucial these countries had access to financing for clean energy generation, with the likes of Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia all having “growing power needs” that would require new plants.
On the global front, analysts said Asian countries should expect the incoming Biden administration to put climate action “front and centre” of its engagement with the region.
Biden has pledged to immediately bring the US back to the Paris Agreement, reversing its formal exit on November 4 – an action that had been initiated by outgoing
The new administration is then expected to play a key role, along with China and other major powers, in negotiations on fresh emissions-cutting pledges to take place in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Edinburgh next year.
A key task for Kerry, who will be the country’s first ever climate tsar, will be to “re-establish US legitimacy in the international climate arena”, said Jackson Ewing, a senior adviser for sustainability at the Asia Society Policy Institute, adding that such a charm offensive must “come prior to any efforts to compel other countries to increase their ambition”.
Myllvirta said any such climate diplomacy effort on the part of the Biden administration would not be easy given that “the world has moved on and many other countries, cities and corporations have stepped up in the leadership vacuum left by Trump‘s desertion from the climate fight”.
That said, American influence could be crucial in cajoling countries towards adhering to their Paris Agreement goals.
“China’s current plan allows for almost another decade of rising emissions, and few industrialised countries are cutting emissions fast enough,” Myllvirta said. “So bringing the US influence to bear in the negotiations, and turning different countries’ aspiration into solid, measurable commitments is the challenge.”
Other analysts said there was good reason to be sceptical about the effect, if any, Biden and his climate tsar would have given the fact that they do not stand have firm national backing – referencing the climate change denialists among the ranks of the Republican Party.
An Asia-based analyst who asked not to be named said she “could not see how political or diplomatic moves will amount to anything more than increasing the number of countries, personalities and institutions making pronouncements or declaring commitments or pledges for carbon neutrality”.
“It may work, and it may be a good start. But for it to translate to real action in other countries is less clear,” she said. “Unless the US is prepared to put real and sufficient money, or some other concrete plans, behind its diplomatic move, it is hard to see how this can be effective in the short run.”