Asia’s hard-won development gains are at risk of being reversed by the effects of climate change, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). However, the news is not all bad for the region, with new energy investments expected to cement its leadership in the “clean industrial revolution.”
The warning on climate change follows U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the world’s second-biggest emitter from the Paris Agreement, even while the rest of the Group of 20, including the world’s largest emitter, China, have vowed to press ahead with emissions reductions.
Released Friday at the bank’s headquarters in Manila, the report produced by the ADB and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) makes for grim reading, should the predictions eventuate. Under a “business as usual” scenario, a 6 degree Celsius temperature rise is projected over the Asian landmass by the end of the century, with an increase as high as 8 degrees C forecasted in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and northwest China.
“These increases in temperature would lead to drastic changes in the region’s weather system, agriculture and fisheries sectors, land and marine biodiversity, domestic and regional security, trade, urban development, migration, and health. Such a scenario may even pose an existential threat to some countries in the region and crush any hope of achieving sustainable and inclusive development,” the report said.
Among the predicted effects are more intense tropical cyclones and typhoons, with coastal and low-lying areas at increased risk of flooding. Global flood losses are expected to reach $52 billion a year by 2050 compared to $6 billion in 2005.
Thirteen of the top 20 cities seen suffering the largest growth in flood losses are located in the Asia-Pacific, comprising Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Zhanjiang, and Xiamen in China; Chennai-Madras, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Surat in India; Jakarta, Indonesia; Nagoya, Japan; Bangkok, Thailand; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Yet while annual precipitation is expected to increase by up to 50 percent over most land areas in Asia, countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan could see a decline in rainfall by 20 to 50 percent, the ADB said.
Food production will suffer as a result, with production costs also rising. In some Southeast Asian nations, rice yields could decline by up to 50 percent by 2100 “if no adaptation efforts are made,” while almost all crops in Uzbekistan could see a 20 to 50 percent decline even under a 2 degree Celsius temperature rise.
Food shortages could increase the number of malnourished children in South Asia by 7 million, as food import costs surge to $15 billion a year by 2050 compared to $2 billion.
Major disruptions to current farming communities could prompt mass migration to the cities, fueling overcrowding and overwhelming social services.
Energy security could also be threatened, due to the reduced capacities of thermal power plants from a scarcity of cooling water and the potentially intermittent performance of hydropower. This could fuel conflicts as countries compete for limited energy supply, the report warned.
Meanwhile, marine ecosystems such as coral reefs will be in serious danger. In the Western Pacific, all coral reef systems will suffer mass coral bleaching if global warming increases by 4 degree Celsius, yet even a 1.5 degree C temperature rise would cause serious bleaching to 89 percent of coral reefs, damaging reef-related fisheries and tourism.
These losses could amount to billions of dollars, judging by a recent estimate that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is worth A$56 billion ($44 billion) in tourism and other economic benefits, or the equivalent of 12 Sydney Opera Houses.
Climate change would also cause damaging health effects, with heat-related deaths among the elderly expected to increase by 52,000 by 2050, according to World Health Organization data. Deaths related to diseases such as malaria and dengue could also rise, adding to the death toll from outdoor air pollution, which is already causing 3.3 million deaths each year globally, led by China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Asia is already experiencing the effects of climate change, accounting for nearly 30 percent of total global economic losses caused by extreme weather between 2000 and 2008, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s has also suggested that Cambodia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh are the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, based on factors including agricultural output and adaptive capacity.
However, Asia’s response to climate change provides it with an economic opportunity too, as noted by PIK director Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.
“On the one hand, Asian greenhouse-gas emissions have to be reduced in a way that the global community can limit planetary warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, as agreed in Paris 2015. Yet even adapting to 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise is a major task,” he said.
“So, on the other hand, Asian countries have to find strategies for ensuring prosperity and security under unavoidable climate change within a healthy global development. But note that leading the clean industrial revolution will provide Asia with unprecedented economic opportunities. And exploring the best strategies to absorb the shocks of environmental change will make Asia a crucial actor in 21st-century multilateralism.”
Asia has already become a world leader in clean energy investment, led by China, which plans to spend 2.5 trillion yuan ($369 billion) on renewable power generation by 2020. Both China and India are seen attracting $4 trillion worth of clean energy investment by 2040, helping to decouple economic growth from emissions, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
The ADB has backed such efforts with a record $3.7 billion in climate financing in 2016, which it has committed to reaching $6 billion by 2020. Rival Beijing-led lender, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, has also pledged to support investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency as part of the Paris Agreement, noting that more than 1 billion people in Asia still lack access to secure and clean electricity.
The ADB considers the coming decade as crucial in implementing mitigation measures, since the “business as usual” scenario projected under the Paris accord would render any adaptation efforts ineffective.
Despite a 10-fold rise in per capita incomes over the past 25 years, Asia still remains home to two-thirds of the world’s poor, risking even deeper poverty and disaster should mitigation and adaptation efforts fail.
Fortunately for the world’s most economically dynamic region, Asia still has “both the capacity and weight of influence to move toward sustainable development pathways, curb global emissions, and promote adaptation,” the report concluded.
The message could not be any clearer for Asia’s policymakers, should they wish to sustain the region’s stunning economic success.