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News 17 Oct 07
Climate Change and ASEAN: A new consciousness dawns
By Barry Desker
CLIMATE change is emerging as a critical issue on the security agenda of states worldwide. Traditional security perspectives had focused on the military and strategic dimensions. But security in this day and age can no longer be confined to military issues alone, nor can it be ensured only by focusing on military and strategic policies.
With the end of the Cold War, security is more broad-based, covering non-military challenges such as economic degradation and resource scarcity, energy security, irregular migration, pandemics and transnational crimes that increasingly threaten the survival and well-being of societies.
Climate change has not only become a topic of common interest at the regional and multilateral levels, but is also a key challenge in the spectrum of non-traditional security challenges.
World leaders meeting at the UN General Assembly last month agreed that climate change is now a global problem. This focus is shown by the award of this year's Nobel Peace Prize to former US vice-president Al Gore and the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 'for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such changes'.
In December, UN members will meet in Bali to consider the post-Kyoto Protocol framework. It is time for Asean to act, especially as global warming threatens coastal communities in our region.
The IPCC, comprising technical experts and set up by the World Meteorological Organisation and the UN Environment Programme, says the populations in the Mekong and Chao Phraya deltas are at greatest risk, while island communities are also threatened by rising sea levels. Also, deforestation threatens food-gathering hill tribes in mainland South-east Asia and has already led to conflicts in Kalimantan.
The global consensus on the grave non-traditional security challenges posed by climate change, however, is not matched by a consensus on how best to address this problem.
The differing political responses and contentious negotiations taking place in the world community are aptly described by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She said that the 'one-size-fits-all approach would not work...(T)here must be room for each nation to tackle the problem through medium-term programmes that reflected its own needs and did not require it to put aside economic growth for the sake of the environmental health'.
Although there is agreement on the need for a new global framework to observe the key principles put forward by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Unfccc), to be adopted at the Bali meeting, particularly on the reduction of carbon emissions, the divergence of views between developed and developing countries on how to proceed remains a serious obstacle in mitigating the impact of climate change.
There is now widespread appreciation of the severe consequences of climate change on the security of mankind (especially in the developing world), and the need to prevent the negative effects of global warming.
In a recent report by the CNA Corporation entitled National Security And The Threat Of Climate Change, retired US military generals noted that climate change serves as 'a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions in the world'.
It is imperative that Asian states address climate change because not only does it threaten their environmental security but it would also have repercussions on their energy, economic, health and social security.
Concrete action on climate change is essential as the region contributes a substantial amount of carbon emissions that precipitate climate change.
According to the United States Department of Energy's Earth Policy Institute, China, India and South Korea are among the world's top 10 carbon emitting countries, due to their burning of fossil fuels.
But Wetlands International suggests that if carbon emissions from human activities, such as the burning of peat land for plantations, are included, Indonesia, with an average of two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted each year, would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world - after the US and China.
The annual haze alerts in Singapore and Malaysia over the past decade are a reminder that the burning of peat land and forests is an issue that concerns us all. It is often claimed that such burning is the work of small farmers on the move. However, the correlation between 'hot spots' on satellite imagery and the expansion of palm oil plantations and other renewable crops indicates that major commercial enterprises, not marginalised peasants, are the cause of these fires.
The problem will be worse in the next decade as the building of bio-fuel plants will raise the demand for palm oil and other renewable crops. Indicative of this trend is the building of some of the world's largest bio-diesel plants in Sumatra.
But this development highlights the contradictory consequences of well- meaning actions. The increased use of bio-fuels arises from initiatives to promote its use. Under the Kyoto Protocol, 38 industrialised states pledged to lower greenhouse gas emissions in 2008-2012 to levels that are 5.2 per cent below those in 1990.
These countries have encouraged the use of fuel sources that emit less greenhouse gases. The European Union Commission's action plan, for example, lays down a minimum target for the replacement of fossil fuels by bio-fuels in all member states. This has led to higher demand for bio-diesel and subsequently, the clearance of peat land and forests in Indonesia.
These developments form the backdrop for the initiatives emerging from Asia on the climate change issue.
Singapore will host the 13th Asean Summit, the Asean Plus Three forum and the 3rd East Asian Summit next month. Their common key theme is Energy, Environment, Climate Change And Sustainable Development.
In line with this, Asean hopes to sign a declaration on environmental sustainability at the Asean Summit.
The bloc is also proposing a Singapore declaration on the environment at the East Asian Summit. The Asean- EU summit will also have climate change high up on its agenda.
The Kyoto approach of prescriptive binding obligations will be resisted in East Asia. An approach which emphasises changing the norms, exerting influence on major carbon emitters and obtaining consensual agreements is much more likely to succeed.
Asean should take this approach. It is critical that measures be adopted that would not lead to environmental disasters in other areas as a result of the new policy orientation. It would mark a shift away from the Kyoto model and bring on board China, Indonesia and the US in the deal to be concluded at the Unfccc meeting in Bali.
The writer is dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
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