In East Asia, spring comes with cherry blossoms. The white and pink flowers usually give people joy and hope. However, this year, it also gave East Asian citizens another alarming signal, because the bloom was too early. Kyoto in Japan recorded its earliest cherry blossom bloom in 1,200 years. Seoul in South Korea also saw its earliest bloom, on March 24, since observation started in 1922. Climate scientists said that due to global warming, the last spring frosts were occurring earlier and consequently flowering was occurring sooner.
The effects of climate change are unfortunately not limited to the early blooming of flowers. Climate change influences the biological life cycles of many crops, vegetables, fruits, and plants, causing critical problems for food security and the livelihood of farmers. In recent years, the food supplies in East Africa were significantly affected by crop failures, droughts, and locust swarms. Scientists and experts warn that climate change could be way more devastating than COVID-19 – just think of how the world and our lives would look if we had a global food crisis in addition to a global pandemic.
The scientific solution to avoid global climate change is crystal-clear. We need to hold the rise in global average temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. To do that, global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide need to be reduced by half by 2030 and to “net zero” around 2050. However, the Initial NDC Synthesis Report of the UNFCCC in February 2021 analyzed the Nationally Determine Contributions (NDCs) submitted by 75 parties, representing 30 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and concluded that “their combined impact puts them on a path to achieve a less than 1 per cent reduction by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.”
The conclusion shows the stark reality of how governments are failing in climate action. In particular, Japan and South Korea, together with Brazil, Russia, and a few others, were criticized due to their submission of insufficient and not-updated targets. However, the two biggest emitters, China and the U.S., were not included in the analysis. Since the G2 countries emit more than 40 percent of the total global emissions, it is critical for them to cooperate and show leadership.
In this context, the much enhanced GHGs reduction commitments of the world’s major carbon emitters, including the U.K., U.S., Japan and Canada, at the Leaders Summit on Climate on the 51st anniversary of Earth Day provided more hope for the climate action we need now. However, we need still more ambitious goals and plans and we do not have time to waste.
Although it is still not sufficient to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius goal, Japan made an effort to upgrade its 2030 target to a 46 percent reduction from 2013 levels (up from the previous goal of a 26 percent drop). South Korea and China need to also boost their emission reduction targets to keep their pledges to be carbon neutral by 2050 and 2060 respectively.
The roles and responsibilities of the three major economies in East Asia – China, Japan, and South Korea – in global climate action cannot be overstated. According to Our World in Data, the total annual carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and cement production in these three East Asian countries in 2019 was almost equivalent to those of the 27 EU countries, North America, South America, Africa, and Oceania put together. One might think that is simply because of China, and it mainly is. However, the sum of the emissions of Japan and South Korea is also significant; it is equivalent to around 60 percent of the total emissions of the 27 EU countries.
The three countries are also the last major villains not only increasing their domestic coal-fired power plants but also investing in overseas ones, especially in South and Southeast Asia. In a welcome change, South Korea announced it would not further finance new coal power projects overseas from its public financing institutions at the Leaders Summit on Climate. Although South Korea did not cancel recently started coal projects in Indonesia and Vietnam, the pledge was one step forward in avoiding global climate crisis. Japan and China should also join the coal divestment trend.
Now it is time for the three major East Asian economies to invest more in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. The Boom and Bust 2021 report underscored that in South and Southeast Asia lower power demand coupled with tightened financing for coal plants and decreasing costs for renewable energies are shutting out coal in the regions.
In the story of the Three Kingdoms, beloved by the people in East Asia, three rival nations fought to death to get power. However, in the battle of climate change, China, Japan and South Korea need to cooperate with each other to survive and prosper. Zhuge Liang in the Three Kingdoms says, “The wise win before they fight, while the ignorant fight to win.” Leaders in East Asia need to get ready to win before we fight against climate catastrophe.