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Asia

What the Paris climate deal means for Southeast Asia

Countries in Southeast Asia are among the most vulnerable to global warming. Now that a landmark global climate deal has been reached, DW examines how this may impact both the environment and the regional economy.

Given its heavily populated coastlines, Southeast Asia is particularly susceptible to extreme weather events brought about by climate change.

The main threat facing the region is sea-level rise and the increased intensity of tropical cyclones. The combination of these two could have detrimental economic and development costs, said Bill Hare, Director of Germany-based Climate Analytics, a non-profit climate science institute.

"We are already seeing an increased intensity of storms such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines two years ago which killed at least 6,300 people, left 11 million homeless and destroyed the economy and infrastructure across a large swath of the island archipelago," Murray Hiebert, the deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told DW.

Key livelihood sectors along the Mekong River - including agriculture, fisheries, aquaculture and livestock - are most at risk during severe weather, while economies such as Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, collectively risk $16 billion (14.8 billion euro) annually due to the impacts of climate change, according to a report released this year by USAID.

And the impact of freak weather patterns - such as typhoons, droughts, destructive storms and intense precipitation - may be even worse than initially thought. While representatives from over 190 nations were negotiating a global climate deal in Paris, the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) issued a report warning that economic losses from climate change-related incidents in Southeast Asia could be 60 percent higher than previously estimated.

A view of the devastated city of Tacloban in Leyte province, Philippines after super typhoon Haiyan swept through.

Southeast Asia is considered to be particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events such as typhoons and droughts brought about by climate change

The ADB paper points out that the five countries that collectively account for 90 percent of regional greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam - may lose up to 11 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) by the year 2100, compared to their 2009 projection of seven percent.

"As we learn more about the specific impacts of climate change, we are realizing just how vulnerable Southeast Asia is," David Livingston, an associate at the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told DW.

"Record temperature levels seen in the warmer months of 2015 throughout the region will exacerbate in the decades ahead, with some countries, including Singapore and Indonesia, becoming virtually uninhabitable for certain days of the year by the end of the century," Livingston added.

The deal offers hope

One of the main goals of the landmark climate deal, reached on December 12 in the French capital, is to pursue efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

By highlighting this target, the agreement addresses the concerns of low-lying, vulnerable countries and also seeks to prevent or minimize potential damage due to extreme weather.

But even if warming is kept below 2.0 degree Celsius by 2100, that would commit Southeast Asia to a sea-level rise of about 75 centimeters, said environmental analyst Hare. "More dramatically, if countries were not meeting their emissions pledges, in a business-as-usual scenario, sea-level in the region could rise as high as above 100 centimeters," the expert warned.

Another important element of the Paris accord is a pledge by developed nations to muster billions of dollars per year, starting in 2020, to help poorer countries cope with the effects of climate change.

"Given the fact that developed countries have pledged to support developing countries to the tune of $100 billion (92.3 billion euro) annually from 2020 on, the Paris climate deal has created an expectation in Southeast Asia that national efforts to curb global warming will, indeed, be financially supported," Moritz Kleine-Brockhoff, project director of the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Indonesia, told DW.

Although critics of the Paris climate accord have been quick to point out the non-binding nature of the financial support pledges, Livingston said that there is still reason for hope.

"Countries will come together every five years, starting in 2020, to review their pledged commitments and consider amendments or extensions to these commitments. Because the process is intended to be transparent, methodologically sound, and visible, there is the potential for international pressure to lead to more ambitious commitments from many countries in the years ahead than would otherwise be the case," Livingston said.

Tackling deforestation

The vast sums of international financial support, although not immediately available, would be hugely beneficial to the developing Southeast Asian countries who have less financial capacity to reduce carbon emissions and develop energy efficient technology.

The ADB report points out that although climate stabilization might involve substantial initial costs, the benefits it brings would greatly impact the region in the long run and far outweigh the original financial investment.

As for concrete steps to reduce emissions in Southeast Asia, scaling down the rate of deforestation in Indonesia - one the world's top five emitters of carbon dioxide - is among the most urgent issues which needs to be addressed.

"Deforestation, the conversion of peat lands into palm oil plantations, as well as forest fires in Indonesia are the main sources of GHG emissions in Southeast Asia," asserts Brockhoff. "Indonesia's President Joko Widodo has promised to save remaining rainforest. But it remains to be seen whether this promise will be followed by action."

The destruction caused by deforestation and forest fires is also poorly publicized and has not received the attention it deserves, analyst Livingston noted.

"The tropical peat lands and forest fires ablaze throughout Indonesia resulted in the emission of nearly a gigaton of GHG emissions in just a few weeks - more than the entire annual emissions of Germany," Livingston said. "This was truly a full-scale environmental disaster that much of the world didn't notice. It's the worst such fire in Indonesia since 1997."

Haze in Singapore brought by Indonesia's forest fire

The deteriorating air quality is one of the major climate-related challenges facing Southeast Asian countries

Regional cooperation needed

Besides combating deforestation, analyst Hiebert said, the region, as a whole, needs to switch from inefficient coal-fired power plants to cleaner forms of energy such as gas and possibly nuclear, solar and wind energy.

Furthermore, Carnegie's Livingston added, governments in the region have to take measures to tackle pollution caused by oil production.

"Southeast Asia is also an area with extensive oil refining capacity and is home to various crude oil resources ranging from light, low-sulfur oils to heavy, sulfurous crude oil grades. These countries may wish to incorporate policies to ensure that the carbon intensity and local pollution associated with oil production and use declines over time," he explained.

Moreover, experts say more regional cooperation is required to tackle climate-related problems in Southeast Asia such as deteriorating air quality. Since regional air circulation means that pollution in one country would easily be transmitted to its neighbors, wealthier countries like Singapore, which experienced an intense haze for several days due to the forest fires in Indonesia, might be more motivated to help its neighboring countries.

"For a city-state that aspires to attract global capital and human talent, Singapore has an overriding interest in improving the level of environmental governance in neighbors such as Indonesia," Livingston added.

Climate expert Hare believes the most prominent measure to reduce emissions in the region is the removal of fossil fuel subsidies, which in 2014 totaled around $36 billion.

"These subsidies entail a major fiscal burden for many governments. Therefore removing them would reduce GHG emissions without affecting future GDP growth, in addition to giving some leeway to implement additional low-carbon policies," he argued.

Another relevant measure, he said, is the introduction of fuel standards in the transport sector. "This measure will provide significant co-benefits in terms of air quality improvement, and reduced fuel consumption."