As the leaders of Asia and the Pacific prepare to head to Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), they can be sure that our region will be in the spotlight: many of the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change are located here; the seven Group of 20 (G20) members from this region are responsible for over half of global GHG emissions; and five of the 10 top countries with the greatest historic responsibility for emissions since the beginning of the twentieth century are from Asia.
An urgent need to raise ambitions
The starting point is not encouraging, however. A joint study by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and UN Women shows that the Asia-Pacific region is falling even further behind in its efforts: greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase by 34 per cent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.
Getting the 30 Asian and Pacific countries that have so far updated their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to drastically raise ambitions and securing adequate NDCs from the other 19 who have yet to submit will determine if the region – indeed the world – can maintain any hope of keeping the temperature increase well below two degrees.
Momentum for climate action is building
There is some reason for hope. Leaders have been lining up to make their carbon neutrality pledges, shrinking the gap from commitment to action across the sectors that drive the region’s development. With major players moving away from foreign investments in coal, momentum is building for a transition to cleaner energy sources.
There is a growing share of renewables in the energy mix, and going forward we should support increasing subregional and regional energy connectivity to enable the integration of higher shares of renewable energy. However, more support to exporters is needed to wean them off lucrative coal and fossil fuel reserves, supported by long-term low emissions development strategies (LT-LEDS).
The shift to sustainable transport has been slow but the electric vehicle (EV)-mobility is growing. Countries are also emphasising low-carbon mobility in a new regional action plan under negotiation ahead of a ministerial conference on transport later this year. Local government commitments to carbon neutrality also support the greening of our cities.
The ESCAP Climate-smart Trade and Investment Index (SMARTII) and carbon-border adjustment mechanisms shows that Asian and Pacific economies have significant room to make their trade and investment more climate-smart.
A growing number of countries include climate and environment-related provisions in trade agreements. More are requiring energy efficiency labelling and standards on imports. Digitalisation of existing trade processes also helps reduce CO2 emissions per transaction and should be accelerated, including through the regional UN treaty on cross-border paperless trade facilitation.
The ESCAP Sustainable Business Network is crafting an Asia-Pacific Green Business Deal in pursuit of a “green” competitive advantage, while companies are responding to greater shareholder and consumer pressure for science-based targets that align businesses with climate aspirations. Entrepreneurs, SMEs and large industries in the region could adopt this new paradigm, which would also enable countries to meet their commitments for sustainable development.
Supporting ambition with the power of finance
Such ambitious climate action will require a realignment of finance and investment towards the green industries and jobs of tomorrow. Innovative financial instruments and the implementation of debt-for-climate swaps can help to mobilise this additional funding. Putting a price on carbon and applying carbon pricing instruments will create liquidity to drive economic activity up and emissions down. Mandatory climate-related financial disclosure will help investors direct their investments towards climate action solutions that will help manage risks associated with climate-related problems.
People-centred action, focusing on groups in vulnerable situations
It is clear from the science and the frequency of disasters in the region that time is not on our side. The combination of disasters, pandemic and climate change is expanding the number of people in vulnerable situations and raising the “riskscape”.
Countries are ill-prepared for complex overlapping crises; the intersection of Covid-19 with natural hazards and climate change remains poorly understood and gives rise to hotspots of emerging and intensifying risks. Building resilience must combine climate mitigation efforts and investments in nature-based climate solutions.
Moreover, it also requires increasing investments in universal social protection systems that provide adequate benefits over the lifecycle to people and households. The active engagement of women and girls is critical to ensuring inclusive climate action and sustainable outcomes.
The Way Forward
Without concerted action, carbon neutrality is not within the reach of the Asia-Pacific region by 2050. All stakeholders need to collaborate and build a strong case for decisive climate action. Our leaders simply cannot afford to go to Glasgow with insufficient ambition and return empty-handed.
Since it was founded nearly 75 years ago, ESCAP has supported the formation of strategic alliances that have lifted millions out of poverty and guided the region to enabling a better standard of life. The time is right for such an alliance of governments, the private sector and financial institutions to help turn the full power of the region’s ingenuity and dynamism into the net zero development pathway that our future depends on.
Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is UN under-secretary-general and executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)