A complex plan to ensure all nations play their part in combating climate change has been agreed after two weeks of tough negotiations in Poland. As Duncan Bartlett reports, Asian nations helped set the agenda at the meeting and must now take responsibility to ensure its recommendations are carried out
Grim reminders of the impact of climate change are common in Asia. Many regions have been affected by cyclones, droughts and floods. The World Bank warns that millions of people in South Asia could soon become climate migrants, with whole communities fleeing the lands of their ancestors in search of safety.
Asia was well represented at the huge United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – known as COP24 – which was held at Katowice in Poland in December. Many Asian delegates pressed the conference to try and limit global warming to significantly less than two degrees. However, reaching consensus on how to achieve that target proved an enormous challenge.
The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged the scale of the difficulty in his keynote speech but urged the meeting to seek a workable solution. He warned that ‘to waste the opportunity in Katowice would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal’.
India sought to position itself as a representative of developing countries. Its official statement said: ‘Most importantly, we must stand with the poor, marginalised and vulnerable communities who would be most impacted by climate change to show that we care.’
China’s position, communicated by its representative Xie Zhehua, also advocated a multilateral effort. In rhetoric which drew on Communist ideology, China expressed its hope that climate change would be tackled through ‘global governance’ and ‘building a community of common destiny with mankind’.
Many Chinese cities suffer from choking pollution caused by rapid industrialisation and the government has responded by promising stringent measures to clean the air. Yet as the energy consultant Professor Michael Lynch from Vienna University notes, China still uses 20 times as much coal as solar power, while India generates about 100 times more power from coal than from the sun.
Can Taiwan help?
Because the conference in Poland was held under the auspices of the United Nations, Taiwan was not invited, at the insistence of the People’s Republic of China, which regards the state as a breakaway province. Nevertheless, trams in Katowice were decorated with the slogan ‘Taiwan Can Help’ during the event – a reminder of the Taiwan’s wish to join the discussion.
Taiwan’s Environment Minister, Hung-Teh Tsai, says it was frustrating to be excluded from the decision-making process. He nevertheless held bilateral talks with friendly countries, at which he advocated the use of new technology and traffic monitoring techniques to cut pollution.
Taiwan is debating the future of its nuclear power plants, which currently produce about 8 percent of the island’s energy. Following the disaster at Fukushima in Japan in 2011, Taiwan pledged to shut all its nuclear power stations by 2025. However, that plan was challenged by the public in a recent referendum, prompting a further review of the policy.
Minister Tsai remains committed to denuclearisation over the long term. ‘We have a lot of earthquakes on Taiwan,’ he said. ‘The economic cost of a disaster at a nuclear power station would be incalculable.’
Like many other Asian countries, Taiwanis dependent for energy on imported fossil fuels, buying most of its coal from Australia. It has set the goal of increasing the share of energy produced from renewables such as solar power and offshore wind generators to 20 percent by 2025 – up from about 5 percent now.
However, it will have some way to go to catch up with the United States, which already generates 11 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Despite that achievement, many delegates at the conference see the US as the enemy of progress. Some campaigners even staged an angry protest outside an event organised by the US government to promote its coal industry.
The human factor
Another sticking point between the Asians and Americans is how much value to place upon scientific reports which attribute climate change to human action. One such study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that global temperatures are moving towards a catastrophic three centigrade rise during this century. It encourages ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ to reduce the increase. Such wording was prevented from being accepted unilaterally by the meeting in Poland, on the insistence of the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Professor Lynch is concerned. ‘Despite all the promises made over the last two decades, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, and coal use is a primary culprit,’ he said.
In the end, the conference agreed on a set of measures to endorse the Paris Treaty, effectively producing a rule book to govern the accord and verify policy. Reaching a consensus in detail proved difficult. Yet the UN Secretary General praised the enthusiasm of the delegates: ‘People have come here to find solutions to climate change,’ said Guterres. ‘They are inspired, engaged and they want us to deliver. They want us to finish the job.’
His thoughts were echoed by Yuhei Tsukamoto, a young activist from a climate action group known as Kiko Network Japan. ‘In 2018, Japan suffered torrential rain and temperatures soared to more than 40 degreesCelcius. We know from climatologists that global warming has become a serious problem for Japan and for Asia,’ he said.
Yuhei’s view is that radical action is needed. ‘We cannot adequately protect people’s lives, livelihoods and industries only by responding after the occurrence of climate disasters. We need to take concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s going to require countries to work together for a solution, not just in Asia but throughout the world.’