Despite growing awareness about the risk of climate change in Asia, there is great variation regarding how well-equipped countries are to tackle climate change in the region. The Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which countries are obliged to monitor and submit to the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) every five years under the Paris Agreement, reveals the difference in the stage of social and economic development across the region.
Major economies in Asia respond
China, the largest generator of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the world, intends to map out the long-term path to a low carbon economy. Although its mitigation commitment of peaking carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions before 2030 remains almost the same since the first NDC was submitted in 2016, it set a new national long-term goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2060 in September 2021. The recent 14th Five-Year Plan (2020-2025) set the carbon intensity target. The plan also suggested to adopt more strict control—such as the carbon emissions cap—although the details are yet to be announced. President Xi Jinping committed that, “China will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects, and strictly limit the increase in coal consumption over the 14th Five-Year Plan period and phase it down in the 15th Five-Year Plan period”, on the occasion of the US-led Leaders Summit on Climate in April 2021.
Exhibit 1: 10 highest emitters of CO2 from fuel combustion
Japan is already on a downward trend of GHG emissions and hence in a better position to lead mitigation in the region. Although Japan first set an explicit reduction target of GHGs emission among major emitters in Asia, the subsequent drastic change in the target has not been seen in the long-term strategy submitted to UNFCC in June 2019 or in the NDC submitted in March 2020. Nevertheless, the declaration of ‘carbon neutral by 2050’ in October 2020 and recently announced mitigation target—a 46% reduction of GHG emissions below 2013 levels by 2030—marks a significant acceleration from its existing 26% reduction goal. This clearly showcases Japan’s ambition to take leadership on the climate agenda.
South Korea dramatically turned its position in 2020—from previously showing reluctance to reduce GHG emissions by 2030—to presenting an ambitious reduction policy to achieve its long-term target of carbon neutrality by 2050 in October 2020. The new NDC sets a 24.4% reduction from the total national GHG emissions below 2017 levels by 2030.
A green transition
Amid a growing momentum to drive green transition in leading economies of Asia, India is at an early stage. It is struggling to reconcile economic growth and green transition. India’s commitment at this stage is about reducing its carbon footprint on its growth parameters and accelerating the roll-out of renewable energy. India also calls for international cooperation to fill the gap in climate finance, technology resources and knowledge to enhance climate actions in its NDC. The country has not foreseen the clear timing to turn the tide of increasing emissions yet. Having said that, it is noteworthy that India is the only country among G20 nations, which was rated ‘2°C compatible’, meaning on track to its NDC’s commitment, by Climate Transparency Report 2020. The same evaluation implies the extraordinary efforts required for China, Japan and South Korea to fulfil their commitments – particularly for Japan and South Korea who raised their targets despite not being on track to meet even previous commitments.
Exhibit 2: Mitigation target of China, India, Japan and South Korea
Five ASEAN countries—Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam—have adopted a two-fold approach to meet their emissions goals through a combination of unconditional and conditional targets. The five countries insist that they can achieve these ambitious targets so long as there is international support including finance, technology transfer and capacity-building.
Exhibit 3: Mitigation target of five ASEAN countries
The message is clear. In addition to extra efforts to achieve enhanced commitments by individual countries, international support is key to plug the gap between domestic available resources and necessary resources to pursue the green investments. Also, regional cooperation is essential to achieve the climate goal as a region.
Collaboration and cooperation are vital
On the climate agenda, ASEAN has recently strengthened collective efforts to tackle climate change. In June 2019, ASEAN adopted the ASEAN Leaders’ Vision Statement on Partnership for Sustainability and established the ASEAN Centre for Sustainable Development Studies and Dialogue in Thailand in November 2019. More importantly, ASEAN collectively set an energy action plan under the ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation 2016-2025, including a renewable energy target of 23% by 2025. ASEAN Power Grid Initiative—where 10 ASEAN member states are aiming to integrate their respective power grids through cross-border transmission lines—is one such mega project that ASEAN is developing collectively. An IEA report evaluates that this cross-border interconnection enhances the flexibility of the ASEAN power sector to accommodate an increasing share of renewables, particularly solar and wind. ASEAN also seeks to bolster ASEAN-led frameworks such as ASEAN+3 and the East Asia Summit (EAS). If effective cooperation can be obtained through regional blocs, ASEAN’s collective approach can help enhance climate action and eventually push individual counties to reach higher conditional commitments.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) covers a much wider region and hence has more impact on the future trajectory of a low carbon economy across the region. One analysis concluded that if the 126 countries involved in the BRI, excluding China, follow the most carbon-intensive growth path observed in history, this could result in a 2.7°C temperature increase above pre-industrial levels, even if the rest of the world adheres to the 2 °C path agreed under the Paris Agreement. Although China states the ‘need to pursue green cooperation’ and ‘make green investment and provide green financing’ and financial institutions have been developing ‘The GREEN Investment Principles for the BRI’, it is still unclear how the BRI can drive the transition to a low carbon economy.
The momentum of international cooperation was further invigorated by the proactive green diplomacy of the Biden administration. New bilateral and multilateral cooperation such as the Japan-US Climate Partnership on Ambition, Decarbonization, and Clean Energy, The Quad Climate Working Group (Australia-India-Japan-the US), US-China Climate Dialogue , US-India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership, the EU-India High-Level Dialogue on Climate Change, China-Germany-France Climate Summit all provide great hope. Regardless of geopolitical implications, Asia must capitalise on this momentum to accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy without adversely impacting economic growth.
Hiroki Sekine has been a visiting fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House since January 2020. He has also been a non-resident visiting fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm since February 2020. He was director of the policy and strategy office for financial operations at the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) from July 2016 until June 2019, and then served as a senior adviser to the corporate planning department at JBIC until December 2020. Between 2018 and 2019, Hiroki served as adjunct professor at Kyoto University, responsible for project finance.