Rich West 'must set example' to protect Asian development from climate change catastrophe

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The Independent Online

Asia will be hit especially hard by climate change, from China and India to tiny Pacific islands, and decades of human development across the continent will be pushed into reverse, a powerful coalition of aid and green groups reports today.

With more than 60 per cent of the world's population, Asia is where the human drama of global warming will be played out, according to the report from the alliance of 23 of Britain's leading poverty and environmental campaigning groups, from Oxfam to Friends of the Earth.

It has social and environmental characteristics that will make it especially vulnerable, they say. These range from the fact that more than half of the population lives near the coast, and so is directly vulnerable to sea-level rise driven by the warming climate, to the fact that the continent is home to 87 per cent of the world's 400 million small farms, dependent on regular and reliable rainfall – which cannot be guaranteed in the future. China may be at greatly increased risk from extreme weather events, such as major floods, landslides and tropical storms, while India may be threatened by a weakening of the monsoon on which so much Indian agriculture depends. Many of the Pacific islands will be directly threatened by rising seas.

Across the continent, there may be substantial migration of peoples if conditions become untenable, the report predicts, calling for these to be facilitated by the countries in the region and the international community. The report, Up in Smoke? Asia and thePacific is the fourth in a series from the coalition, which is officially The Working Group on Climate and Development. Their first report in 2004 broke ground in recognising for the first time that climate change was the most serious problem facing the world's poor.

Before that, much of the development movement had seen environmental concerns, such as the climate, as a side issue, compared with the immediate task of relieving mass poverty around the world.

But the 2004 report formally acknowledged that global warming had the potential to damage the poor of the world more than any other factor. Today's Asian study, which looks at the projected impacts of global warming both by social and economic sector, and by country, paints a dire picture of the future.

It also addresses sensitively the difficult paradox that as far as climate change is concerned, Asia will increasingly be not just a major victim, but a major part of the problem.

Rapidly industrialising China is overtaking the US as the world's biggest greenhouse gas-emitter with its vast programme of building coal-fired power stations, and India is likely to follow suit – while Indonesia is the world's third- biggest CO2 emitter, after the US and China, because of the amount of deforestation taking place.

Only leadership by example from the rich countries of the industrialised West, such as Britain and the US, which put most of the CO2 into the atmosphere in the first place, will be able to persuade the Asian giants to follow a different path, which is the report's key recommendation.

"Asia is at a critical juncture as home to almost two-thirds of humanity," said the report's co-author, Andrew Simms of the new economics foundation (nef). "It has made real advances in reducing poverty, but lies on the front line of impacts from climate change. "Now, if it follows a fossil-fuelled Western economic development path, it will set in train an reversible course of events that will guarantee a great reversal in its own progress....

"To prevent catastrophic global warming, the only feasible alternative is for wealthy countries to dramatically reduce their 'luxury' greenhouse gas emissions, so that the 'survival' emissions of people in poor countries do not cause disaster. How else will we free up the environmental space necessary for Asia to develop?"

The report calls for the urgent development of a second, post-2012 phase of the Kyoto protocol, the international climate change treaty. Representatives from nearly 200 countries will meet to discuss this next month in Bali, Indonesia.

It also gives a special and pointed warning about the rush to develop biofuels, in Indonesia especially, where huge areas of rainforest are being cut down for oil palm plantations, to make the palm oil that is an essential feedstock for biodiesel. It says that the "silver bullet of biofuels" could turn into a rush for fool's gold, with severe social and environmental consequences.