Sustainable Asia
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Sustainable Asia

Pledges and cautious optimism at COP26 in first week of talks

10 November 2021 By Chermaine Lee and Khoa Tran

Talks at COP26 have finally begun. Here’s catchup on what has been discussed so far, including important takes for Asia.

photo credit by Andy Revkin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Are countries walking the talk? Will we really be able to effectively fight climate change?

Nearly everyone in the world pitched in. Greta Thunberg called out leaders for not doing enough, chanting “you can shove the climate crisis up your arse” outside COP26 in Glasgow. Even celebrities such as Leonardo DiCarprio, Ellen DeGeneres, Pitbull and Cher called on leaders to accelerate climate efforts. While some lauded DiCaprio’s dedication to fly to Glasgow for the occasion, others questioned the irony of emitting flight carbon to attend a conference on climate change.

Already, amidst the slew of speeches and negotiation sessions, about 100 countries have signed on a global pledge to cut methane emissions by 30% of 2020 levels by 2030. Still, there is much more work to be done as the second week of the talks begins.

China’s grand climate goals and its domestic reality

Let’s first focus on the world’s largest carbon emitter, China. President Xi Jinping’s issued statement at COP26 said that countries need to uphold multilateral consensus and work together. He also stressed setting realistic targets and visions, and speeding up the green transition. China said it did its job by releasing two directives that outline an action plan for slashing carbon dioxide before 2030. The plans cover coal, electricity, iron and steel, as well as support measures in terms of tech, carbon sink, fiscal and taxation and financial incentives. Beijing reached a deal with 40 other countries including the UK, US and India to achieve a “near-zero” emission steel production by 2030, and to end deforestation by then.

The country’s top climate negotiator also said a broad deal on carbon markets between the U.S. and China is possible despite ongoing tensions. It sounds great and all, but that doesn’t sound like there are any new pledges in that speech. This comes at a time when the Global Carbon Project, a group of climate scientists, estimated that China’s carbon emissions will go up by 4 per cent compared to last year, since it is now emitting 5.5 per cent above pre-pandemic levels. Last year, China was responsible for nearly one-third of the world’s fossil fuel carbon.

Although experts don’t expect China to maintain the growth of coal, some say China’s efforts in switching to renewables and slashing industrial activities aren’t enough to offset already high levels of emissions from its economic growth. A separate study, published in Nature Communications, revealed something even more alarming: in 2010, out of all G20 countries, China had the highest number of people dying earlier than the average life expectancy from diseases related to air pollution. For every 20 people, one will suffer from a premature death.

The study linked deaths and consumption patterns in G20 countries. It showed that in 2010, China’s production-based emissions caused the death of over 1 million people in China, and 185,000 in other countries. Production-based emissions are emissions from all oil, coal and gas consumed in a country. This means China, as the “world’s factory,” emits lots of carbon which, as a result, also claims the most lives domestically.

Japan’s financial commitment

Its neighbor Japan has vowed $10 billion over the next five years in climate-related assistance in an effort to decarbonize countries in Asia. The new prime minister Fumio Kishida said, in his speech at COP26, that this amount will go toward fulfilling the COP15 commitment in 2009 to provide developing countries with an annual total of $100 billion by 2020.

Tokyo said it will encourage switching to renewable energy through development assistance and investing in private sectors. Kishida added that converting the existing thermal power plants to zero emission power generation is necessary. The country earlier started a project worth $100 million to switch from burning fossil fuels to using ammonia and hydrogen — -a process that generates non-toxic and non-greenhouse gases.

India breaks its silence

India, another prominent emitter whose government has criticized the West for polluting their way into becoming developed, has promised to slash its carbon emissions to net zero by 2070 — — it is two decades later than the global target of 2050, and a decade after China, but a good start for a the developing nation. India did also pledge to generate half of its electricity from renewables by 2030, which is still ambitious, considering the country ranks fourth in emitting carbon after China, the US and the EU.

The Koreas: politically divided but united in climate goals?

South Korea also made a new pledge at COP26. President Moon Jae-in said the country will cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from 2018 levels by 2030 — a dramatic step up from its previous target by 26.3%. This will require raising its current annual generation of renewables from 7% in 2020 to 30% in 2030. Experts said South Korea will also need to boost its offshore wind power plants, which are expected to offer 12 gigawatts to the country’s grid.

Moon added that his government will work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the entire Korean Peninsula through forestry cooperation between the South and North. But how exactly that will happen comes into question. This joint-effort in forestry was actually one of the key commitments made in the 2018 inter-Korea summit in Pyongyang. Since then however, the situation between the two countries has become more tense. Pyongyong blew up an inter-Korea liaison office last year in retaliation to joint military drills between Seoul and Washington, and is constantly testing missiles in threatening ways.

Political tensions aside, and looking strictly at the environment of North Korea, deforestation is actually a serious issue there. Over 70% of the country’s terrain is mountains and forests, and about one-third of that is believed to be deforested. In the 1990s, people cut down trees for fuel or to cultivate cropland during an extreme food crisis. The excessive logging did not stop for decades, while the country still suffered from severe floods each year, dampening hope on tree-planting campaigns. The country said it will cut emissions by 8 per cent by 2060, but can bump that up drastically to over 40% if international support is provided to build nuclear power plants and use renewable energy.

Bangladesh reminds developed nations to support climate vulnerable ones

At the same time, developing nations like Bangladesh called on wealthy countries to fulfill their promises to cut emissions and offer financial aid. The effects of global warming from cyclones and floods might force 30 million people to be displaced from the country’s coastal regions. The country’s leader said that although they contribute only a tiny fraction of global warming, they are taking the brunt of it — the 1.2 billion population in these climate-vulnerable nations emit only 5% of global emissions, but are projected to suffer some of the worst impacts of climate change.

Bangladesh plans to generate 30% of its energy from renewables by the end of the decade, and the country seems eager to carry out its green plans to boost the economy and create more jobs for its people. Top officials believe that the country can add up to 7% of its GDP and create over four million new jobs under the plan. It will develop wind farms along its coast to revitalise the mangrove forests that might be the shield against storms and flooding.

Listen to our podcast episode for more green updates for the week! GreenBites will return on a bi-weekly basis after this episode. Subscribe to GreenBites and our other podcasts at www.sustainableasia.co. And don’t forget to follow our social media @SustainableAsia so we can keep you up-to-date on green news.

Sustainable Asia’s podcast “GreenBites’’ is hosted by Chermaine Lee, Khoa Tran, Avery Choi and Stella Chen. Producer: Bonnie Au and Executive Producer: Marcy Trent Long Associate Producer: Rachel Li

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