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Asia century a lot of hot air

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Rising energy consumption in Asia is likely to have grave consequences for the planet, writes Michael Richardson

A coal-burning power station in central Beijing.

A coal-burning power station in central Beijing.

A recent report on the humdrum subject of plans to build new coal-burning plants to generate electricity helps to explain why Asia - led by its rising economic giants, China and India - is at the epicentre of concern about global warming and climate change.

Policy makers from nearly all of the world's countries meet this week and next in Doha, Qatar, for annual UN climate negotiations and researchers have been issuing fresh calls on the need for action to reduce the relentless rise in greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, which are heating the world.

They do so as the Kyoto Protocol, the existing plan for curbing these emissions, is due to expire at the end of the year. The protocol has been ineffective because it is limited to developed nations, which no longer produce the bulk of emissions - the United States, although it signed the UN pact, refused to ratify it.

Canada, which has greatly exceeded its emission limits, withdrew from the protocol in December, while several other protocol members, including Japan, Russia and New Zealand, have indicated that they are not prepared to join a second commitment period.

Nearly 200 nations at the last UN climate conference in Durban, South Africa, nearly a year ago agreed to try to negotiate a global treaty by 2015 to limit emissions. But even if they succeed in Doha, it will not take effect until 2020.

Meanwhile, the World Bank has just issued a report warning that without further commitments and action to reduce emissions of long-lasting carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases that act like a heat-trapping blanket around Earth, the average temperature is likely to rise more than 3 degrees above the pre-industrial climate.

This may not seem like much. But Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, a respected climate monitoring body, notes that it took little more than 4 degrees of cooling to cause the latest Ice Age when much of central Europe and the northern US was under ice several kilometres thick.

''So imagine the havoc 4 degrees of warming would create,'' he says.

The World Bank put it in stark terms: ''A 4 degree Celsius world would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on ecosystems and associated services.''

Basing its projections on latest scientific research, the report commissioned by the World Bank concludes that if current pledges to cut greenhouse emissions are not met, a warming of 4 degrees could occur as early as the 2060s.

''Such a warming level and associated sea-level rise of 0.5 to one metre, or more, by 2100 would not be the end point: a further warming to levels over 6 degrees, with several metres of sea-level rise, would likely occur over the following centuries.''

With many cities, millions of people and major farming and other economic activities in low-lying coastal areas, Asia could be crippled by such developments. The World Bank says that India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam all have cities that are ''highly vulnerable'' to sea level rise.

The UN climate change negotiators agreed two years ago that the average global temperature should not be allowed to rise by more than 2 degrees. It has already risen by about 0.8 degrees since 1750, mainly as a result of burning coal, oil and natural gas to drive economic growth, and clearing forests to expand agriculture and cities.

In its annual report on global warming, the World Meteorological Organisation, a UN agency, said last week that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2011.

It also said that the warming effect of CO2 and other gases had increased by 30 per cent between 1990 and 2011.

CO2 is the main greenhouse gas. It is responsible for 85 per cent of the warming effect on Earth's climate over the past decade.

This is where coal-burning and Asia come in and where Australia, as the world's top coal exporter, is involved.

Coal is responsible for about 40 per cent of the world's CO2 emissions. But because coal is the cheapest financially available fuel for many countries in the Asia-Pacific region and some other fast-growing parts of the world, it provides about a quarter of global energy needs and generates almost 40 per cent of the electricity.

A recent WRI research report found that of almost 2000 new coal-fired plants being proposed worldwide, just over three-quarters were in China and India.

Of course, not all these plants may actually be built. But the International Energy Agency says that CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) for electricity generation, transport and industry hit a record level last year, despite the rapid expansion of renewable energy.

The IEA predicts that total energy-related emissions will rise by more than 20 per cent by 2035.

The climate change consequences of a dangerously warmer world would be particularly severe for the tropics, with higher rates of disease and crop damage expected, according to the World Bank.

Even though absolute warming would be largest in high latitudes, the heating that would occur in the tropics would be relatively bigger when compared with the historical range of temperature and extremes to which human and natural ecosystems have adapted and coped.

The World Bank report says that sea level rise is likely to be 15 to 20 per cent higher in the tropics than the global mean, cyclones disproportionately intense, and aridity and drought likely to increase substantially in many developing country regions in tropical and subtropical zones.

Asia-Pacific policymakers attending the latest UN climate negotiations in Doha can't say they haven't been warned.

The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

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