[Viewpoint] Asia, Europe share low carbon challenge

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[Viewpoint] Asia, Europe share low carbon challenge

It’s no secret: international efforts to curb global warming continue to divide Asia and Europe.

European and Asian governments did not agree at the climate change summit in Copenhagen last December, and as preparations intensify for another international meeting on global warming at the end of the year, prospects for a credible and enforceable agreement are elusive.

Europeans are demanding a legally binding global deal on curbing carbon dioxide emissions while key Asian nations, including China and India, oppose any move that they fear could slow down economic growth and development.

Curbing greenhouse emissions is arguably the world’s key global governance challenge. And the results of the Copenhagen summit, namely a voluntary goal of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and a pledge from rich countries to give about 25 billion euros ($31 billion) in aid from 2010-2012, are clearly not ambitious enough.

For all their differences and public spats, however, Asian and European governments face a shared challenge: keeping carbon emissions as low as possible to prevent further environmental damage while, at the same time, creating the growth necessary to raise living standards.

It is imperative to shift the focus from confrontation on achieving climate change targets to developing a low-carbon economy. Such collaboration could be based on crafting new economic, technological and social systems of production and consumption, which allow for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining the momentum toward economic and social development.

The question will figure high on the agenda of the eighth ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) summit in Brussels on October 4-5. As Andris Piebalgs, European commissioner responsible for development, pointed out at a recent ASEM Development Conference held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia: “Green growth holds great potential for Asia and the EU - it is the only way to reduce poverty in a sustainable manner.”

Finding common ground within ASEM on the development and implementation of low-carbon growth strategies is not difficult. After all, both regions are tackling climate change and have made significant commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

EU governments are committed to a 20 percent reduction in 1990 greenhouse gas levels by 2020 and have said they are willing to move to 30 percent as part of an international agreement.

China has said it will try to voluntarily reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of economic growth - a measure known as “carbon intensity” - by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. India has set a domestic emissions intensity reduction target of 20 to 25 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels, excluding its agricultural sector. It has also set ambitious targets for solar energy. Meanwhile, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines have adopted important forest conservation measures.

Despite their different development levels, Asia and Europe share a common challenge of dealing with various facets of developing a low-carbon economy: managing urbanization, creating so-called “green jobs,” protecting forests, raising public awareness, investing in research and development as well as training experts in green growth.

This requires coordination among states as well as a sharing of information and technology. In fact, since low-carbon development is a new concept for both regions and there is no pre-established path toward achieving this goal, there is space for cooperation, joint learning and collective Asia-Europe action.

Both Asia and Europe stand to gain: For European governments, green growth will help fight unemployment, provide new export opportunities and also help meet reduced emission targets. For their part, Asian countries, struggling to combine high-growth, poverty reduction and low carbon development, will have an opportunity to leapfrog technology and avoid high-carbon consumption patterns, for example through more widespread use of low emission cars.

Asia, with its rapidly growing mega-cities and urban population expected to double to 3 billion people during the next two decades, has a special interest in ensuring that the further expansion of urban infrastructure is low carbon based.

Pathways to a low-carbon economy require action on four fronts: improving the energy efficiency of buildings, vehicles and industrial equipment; intensifying the use of low-carbon energy supply (wind, hydro power, solar, carbon capture sequestration and nuclear); halting deforestation and changing agricultural practices; and finally, encouraging behavioral change including food consumption, mobility, housing and tourism.

There will be tough decisions since the fossil energy sector will initially lose jobs. However, additional employment will be created in sustainable energy generation and energy efficient products and services.

Policy makers will also have to underline that energy savings generated by low carbon solutions can translate into lower production costs and hence increase the competitiveness of countries on a low-carbon development path. In addition, investments in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies could pull the global economy out of its economic slowdown over the next couple of years.

China has already set aside an important percentage of its economic stimulus package on the development of new green technologies. Whatever critics may say about Beijing’s resistance to carbon caps, it is clear that Chinese authorities want to highlight their own efforts to reduce emissions and spread the message to their society’s grassroots.

There are also examples of Asia-Europe cooperation to encourage low-carbon growth. For instance, the Switch-Asia program, launched in 2007 with a 90 million euro financing by the EU over a period 2007-2010, is working to spur a systematic change toward environment and climate friendly consumption and production practices. The program works on the ground with producers and consumers and at the policy-making level by supporting the formulation and implementation of policies.

A total of 30 projects in 15 Asian countries have been funded so far in areas such as green public procurement, cleaner production and eco-labelling, and more schemes are likely to be financed in the future. In China, a Switch project aims at increasing market demand for energy-efficient electric motors. Another scheme, builds on a Chinese initiative to foster green public procurement by giving priority to products accredited with the China Environmental Label.

These initiatives need to be encouraged and replicated. The second decade of the 21st Century will undoubtedly be decisive for accelerating low-carbon development. Discussions and cooperation within ASEM could foster the transition toward a low carbon future, with an ASEM partnership working across all areas of cooperation.

As Dirk Messner, director of the German Development Institute, stressed at the ASEM conference in Yogyakarta, “if ASEM countries would go for low-carbon development, they could transform the global economy.”

*The writer is a Brussels-based journalist specializing in EU-Asia relations.

By Shada Islam
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