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World Attention Turns to Asia’s Carbon Emissions

Michael Richardson, SCMP – Updated on Jun 03, 2009

Officials from China and other countries are meeting in Bonn, Germany, until June 12 for more negotiations on a new set of global arrangements to prevent runaway climate change. The deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2012, is supposed to be clinched at a climate summit convened by the United Nations in Copenhagen in December.

Concluding an effective agreement by then will be tough. But even as they defend national interests, negotiators need to bear in mind the latest evidence of the continuing build-up of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere despite the economic slump, and the projections for a further massive rise as growth resumes, particularly in Asia.

The top US energy forecaster reported last week that, without new national policies and a binding international agreement to cut global-warming pollution, world carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels will rise, from 29 billion tonnes in 2006 to 33 billion tonnes in 2015 and 40.4 billion tonnes in 2030.

To put this into perspective, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of scientists and officials advising the UN said – in its most recent report to policymakers two years ago – that nearly 57 per cent of the 49 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere in 2004 came from fossil fuels.

The UN and the Kyoto Protocol seek to control six greenhouse gases. But just two of them, carbon dioxide and methane (the main component of natural gas) are responsible for 91 per cent of the global warming attributed to the six gases.

Earlier this year, researchers from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measured an extra 16.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and 12.2 billion tonnes of methane in the atmosphere in 2008 – despite the economic downturn in the second half of the year and the decrease in a wide range of activities that depend on fossil fuel use.

The forecast last week by the US Energy Information Administration said that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions from the 30 member-states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – most of which are among the richest and most advanced economies in the world – were declining relative to those of non-OECD developing nations.

Asia, which in 2006 emitted 9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and gas, will release 17 billion tonnes in 2030, making the region by far the world’s leading polluter over the period.

Much of the pollution will come from coal, the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels. In 2030, carbon dioxide emissions from China and India combined are projected to account for 34 per cent of total global emissions, with China alone responsible for 29 per cent.

These projections underline the need for developed countries to reach a deal with developing nations on a new framework for limiting global warming gases.

Without it, the world will be like a binge-drinker whose excesses produce a nasty hangover.

Scientists say that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and cutting forests is accumulating in the atmosphere twice as fast as it can be absorbed by oceans and plants.

Once released, carbon dioxide also persists for a long time.

The IPCC says about 50 per cent of a carbon dioxide increase will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, and a further 30 per cent will be removed within a few centuries.

But the remaining 20 per cent may stay for many thousands of years.

The question is whether the evidence can convince political leaders preoccupied with short-term problems, like reviving economic growth, that the costs of taking action now to safeguard future generations is a worthwhile investment.


Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

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