The mega-cities of Asia will be the toughest test for climate-change policy as a rising middle class begins to consume goods at rates only previously seen in the west.
A new report released by the United Nations Development Program in mega-city Jakarta today has a tough message: Asian cities “can't afford to grow first and clean up later”.
Regional director Ajay Chhibber told Fairfax that these countries have a moral obligation to grow fast economically because, without it, 900 million people living in absolute poverty in the region will not be able to afford decent lives.
“Asian growth is reducing global inequality … but we have to give people choices which allow them to live healthy, long life without necessarily aping the consumption patterns of the western world,” Mr Chhibber said.
The challenge was to make sure these countries could grow and reduce emissions at the same time.
While consumption is growing fast in the Asia-Pacific, the report, One Planet to Share, said that 10 per cent of people still suffer from “chronic underconsumption” with minimum dietary intake, and a quarter have no electricity.
Even so, they already use 80 per cent of the world's coal for industrial production.
And people are moving to cities at a fast rate. By 2026, more than half of Asia-Pacific's population will live in a city. Cities occupy just 2 per cent of the land in Asia but contribute more than two-thirds of greenhouse gases, particularly from transport and electricity.
Jakarta has 130 shopping malls, more than any other city on the planet. Its lack of a reliable public transport system means car and motorbike ownership is rising by 20 to 30 per cent a year, all using heavily subsidised petrol, which produces congestion and air pollution and costs the Indonesian government more than it spends on health and education combined.
More than half of the country's economic growth is fuelled by consumer spending, which also drives greenhouse gas emissions.
Growing richer increases people's appetite for meat and dairy, the desire for power to run air-conditioners, and their preference for private vehicles. It also produces more rubbish from packaging, which in Asian countries is often still burned or thrown in waterways.
The world's rich emit more than 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, compared to 0.28 tonnes for the poorest people, the report found.
Despite the growth of wealth in Indonesia, the potential for more growth is enormous. Still only 11 per cent of people live in cities, and in rural areas only 3.4 per cent own a car.
“We're not saying consume less, that Asia shouldn't have a middle class,” Mr Chhibber said.
“But it's how you plan your cities in terms of transport development, greener buildings, the shift to gas [for electricity] against other forms of fuel [such as coal], and much greater options on transportation.”
The report says half the world's mega-cities are in Asia, and all of them are in low-lying coastal zones. This means they are not only the engines of future climate change, but also its most likely victims.
“Within Asia we are already seeing if not the full impact of climate change, but of climate variability,” Mr Chibber said.
Poor people in cities have limited ability to adapt to a changing climate, and city administrators “have little understanding of climate change”, and few “appreciate its full implications”.
At the national level, however, Mr Chhibber says, there is room for optimism.
“Until five years ago, many Asian countries were of the view that climate change was a problem for the developed world. There's a growing realisation at least among many of the Asian leaders that this is not good enough.”
Reports from meetings in Europe this week suggest that realisation has hit home among negotiators too. China, India and Indonesia have all made commitments to reduce how much carbon dioxide they produce per unit of economic development, and are likely to make more at future negotiations.
“Ten years ago, all anyone said was all we want in Asia is growth, growth, growth,” Mr Chhibber said.
“Now … the mental road blocks that people have are beginning to drop. With every flood, every shock, people are beginning to see that Asia is vulnerable ... and so we have to make these changes themselves.
“That big mindset change that gives us great hope.”