Climate change and Negative emission technologies ~ a Southeast Asia perspective
Updated: Dec 11, 2018
Professor of Tropical Environmental Change
National University of Singapore
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report (IPCC 2018) makes stark reading and raises potentially serious concerns, particularly for those living in the tropics, including the ten Southeast Asian countries forming the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
On 12 December 2015 the Paris-based 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN FCCC) reached agreement on the need for a global response to climate change from 2020, or the post-Kyoto Protocol (KP) commitment period. Restricting warming to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and ideally to no more than 1.5 °C, by mid-century is at the core of the Paris Agreement (PA). In accordance with a principle of common but differentiated responsibilities for a balanced carbon budget globally, each country that signed the PA has committed to a self-determined contribution to emission reductions, outlined in their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) reports. Promised contributions will be assessed every five years, as part of a global stocktaking of emissions and atmospheric concentrations of GHGs, and ratcheted-up, beginning in 2020. The PA came into force on 4 November 2016 and, as of November 2018, had been ratified by 184 Parties ~ including all 10 ASEAN countries, accounting for almost 90% of global GHG emissions.
Parties at COP 21 also invited the IPCC to report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related GHG emission pathways. One of the key conclusions of IPCC (2018) is the high probability that global warming will, by mid-century, overshoot the targeted 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. In fact, warming is well on its way to hitting 3 °C above pre-industrial levels by century end. These projections are based on the output of a multitude of Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) that in some cases include commitments to GHG emission reductions in excess of those contained in the current NDC reports. “[R]obust differences” in regional climates compared with present are to be expected (IPCC 2018).
Annual global average CO2 concentration at Earth’s surface was 405.0 ± 0.1 ppm in 2017, the highest on record, in fact higher than any concentrations determined from around 800,000 years of ice core records, and way above the pre-industrial level of around 280 ppm (Blunden et al. 2018). Last year was also the warmest non-El Niño year recorded, with the period 2014-2017 accounting for the warmest four years on record. Globally warmer conditions translated at a regional level in Asia to extreme heat waves, powerful tropical storms, flooding, landslides and drought. The oceans around Southeast Asia continued to show the highest rates of sea level rise globally since satellite-based altimeter measurements began in 1993 (averaging between 3 and 7mm year-1), while mass bleaching resulted in over 90% mortality for some coral reefs. The costs of climate change impacts are potentially huge; just the economic costs to the United States could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of this century, exceeding the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many states in the country (US GCRP 2018).
What does all this mean for ASEAN member states and their populations? ASEAN countries combined accounted for less that 5% of global GHG emissions at the time the PA was signed, roughly equivalent to the total emissions of Russia, although the latter has less than 25% of ASEAN’s population. Asia, including ASEAN, is projected to become the world’s most energy-hungry region over the next 20 years, however, with a large part of the additional demand being met through coal (IEA 2018). Projected emissions from the increased combustion of coal in Southeast Asia could result in around 70,000 excess deaths per year by 2030 (Koplitz et al. 2017) in a region that is already amongst the most vulnerable, globally, to climate change. Excluding Singapore, all ASEAN states are ranked in the top 50 countries in terms of severity of extreme weather-related impacts during the period 1997-2016, with four (Myanmar, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand) in the top 10 (Eckstein et al. 2018). These impacts are likely to become even more severe in coming years, owing to links between global warming and some extreme weather events (IPCC 2014).
Under a business as usual scenario and if PA ambitions are to be met the world may only have around five years before every tonne of CO2 equivalent emissions would have to be compensated for by negative emissions (Minx et al. 2018). Negative emission technologies (NETs) are intended to remove on a long-term basis, or sequester, CO2 from the atmosphere, and are increasingly seen as a critical part of managing the global carbon budget. The majority of IAMs that include a stabilisation of CO2 in the atmosphere at levels commensurate with warming <1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels incorporate a substantial NETs component. Although there are several possible NETs (Figure 1), only two are seen as currently ready for deployment at the scale required; afforestation and reforestation (AR) and bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
The distribution of NETs around the world is unlikely to be equal, with a disproportionate share located in the tropics. This is because of political expediency (in economically advantaged nations), cost and climate change mitigation effectiveness. The latter is particularly the case for AR because the low albedo of forest cover at high latitudes renders increased tree cover less effective as a climate change mitigation measure than its counterpart at low latitude, and can even enhance warming (Fuss et al. 2018). NETs might, through carbon trading, provide a useful income generator for many economically disadvantaged tropical countries and provide an incentive for biodiversity conservation. But equally a greater reliance on NETs could add to the demand for biofuel crops such as oil palm, driving further deforestation and wetland drainage in Southeast Asia and more broadly. Their extensive roll-out also carries significant risks for resource governance, however, while at the same time threatening livelihoods, food security, biodiversity and environmental quality (Smith et al. 2016) in parts of the world that are already highly vulnerable to climate change.
A second major climate change-related puzzle may thus lay ahead for ASEAN and other tropical countries, and one that has to date received relatively little attention; how to accommodate pressure to mitigate global warming through land covers that could end up competing with other critical land-based resources?
All ten ASEAN nations have committed to reducing GHG emissions/emissions intensities (emissions per unit GDP) as per their NDCs (Table 1). Seven indicate that part of their own emission reductions will come through expansions of the proportion of land allocated to forestry (i.e. AR). Decarbonisation of economies is also planned through expansions of less carbon intensive sources of power; five and four countries mention in their respective NDCs increased reliance on, respectively, biofuel/bioenergy and hydropower. Eight ASEAN states identify a proportion of their reduction commitments that are conditional on support from the international community (including financing), and six (Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Philippines, Vietnam) specifically refer to Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries, or REDD+.
REDD+ was used by several industrialised nations under the KP as a way of off-setting their carbon emissions through financial support for forest-based carbon sequestration projects in developing countries. Developing countries have been able to acquire funds either directly or through trading carbon credits by hosting REDD+ projects. Although more than 500 REDD+ and REDD projects have been initiated, a large number have fallen short of their original targets, stalled or been abandoned (Fletcher et al. 2016). Part of the problem has been ensuring continued financial support. However, many REDD+ projects have also encountered major problems over governance (e.g. Osborne 2015; Heine et al. 2018), and failed to meet even basic sustainable development goals.
Although not specifically mentioned in the PA, Article 5 contains scope for a yet-to-be-finalised REDD+ type approach to emission reductions. The PA also permits that any CO2 sequestered through a new REDD+ like activity counts either to the emission reductions of the country that is the source of the finance (market based) or the country where the sequestration occurs (non-market based). As a result, market based schemes are expected to be in addition to the extent of land taken up by NETs envisioned in a host country’s NDC, while generating income to that country. By comparison, non-market based schemes could conceivably help finance conditional NETs-based emission reductions outlined in a host country’s NDC.
Although NETs have been the focus of considerable attention in recent years, relatively little has focused on how NETs might best be deployed and managed, and how past mistakes, such as those associated with carbon credit schemes such as REDD+, can be avoided. For NETs to stand any chance of working the CO2 they remove from the atmosphere must be sequestered for the long term. Thus any conflicts with potentially competing land uses will require a similarly permanent resolution. Moreover, in order to circumvent countries using the prospect of CO2 sequestration as a good reason not to take the hard decisions needed to decarbonise their economies, NETs will have to be rolled-out in conjunction with, rather than instead of, stringent emission reductions.
Many of the problems of past NETs-like deployments (e.g. in the form of REDD+) align with those that have hampered the global response to climate change more generally. Attempts to drive governance of the atmosphere through a single, monocentric climate regime in the form of the UN FCCC have largely failed; projections and concerns highlighted in IPCC (2018) differ little from those presented in its first Assessment Report, released almost 30 years previously (IPCC 1990) ~ only the uncertainties have been reduced in the intervening three decades. As a result, arguments in favour of a shift to a more diverse, polycentric, multi-levelled and, hopefully, effective form of governance are increasingly being heard (Jordan et al. 2015). There is evidence that the UN FCCC is responding positively, facilitating an opening-up of discussions on how best to deal with global climate change via the involvement on non-state actors, for example through the Talanoa Dialogue, which is due to conclude its preparatory phase at the COP24 meeting in Katowice, Poland (December 2018). Talanoa is from the word used across the Pacific region to describe a process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue.
One of the most dynamic areas of research at present is in hybrid forms of governing transboundary environmental commons that recognise the variability of natural resources and the diversity of stakeholders in them and that are decentralised, span national borders and property regimes and bridge the analytical divide between public and private spheres. Transboundary environmental commons include the atmosphere, but also forests, rivers and peatlands. All are under considerable pressure in Southeast Asia, either directly or indirectly, from rapid environmental and economic changes, and foci of attention in the TECSEA research project, funded by Social Sciences Research Council Singapore. The need to protect and sustainably utilise these important, transnational resources in equitable ways – now given even greater impetus through an increased recognition of their role in avoiding dangerous levels of global warming – is unlikely to be assured under the same regimes that have overseen their degradation and destruction in recent decades.
A shift to more polycentric, hybrid forms of governance, motivated by the need to ensure the permanence of carbon stocks captured by NETs and the attainment of sustainable development and poverty eradication goals, among ASEAN states and more widely, just might end up being the most effective response to and the most positive outcome from IPCC (2018). Just how requires urgent attention.
Blunden, J.D. et al. (eds) (2018) State of the Climate in 2017. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 99: SiS 310
Eckstein, D. et al. (2018) Global Climate Risk Index 2018
Fletcher, R. et al. (2016) Questioning REDD+ and the future of market-based conservation. Conservation Biology 30: 673–675
Fuss, S. (2018) Negative emissions – Part 2: Costs, potentials and side effects. Environmental Research Letters 13: 063002
Hein, J. et al. (2018) The transnationalisation of competing state projects: carbon offsetting and development in Sumatra’s coastal peat swamps. Antipode 50: 953–975
Jordan, et al. (2015) Emergence of polycentric climate governance and its future prospects. Nature Climate Change 5: 977-982
Koplitz, S.N. et al. (2017) Burden of disease from rising coal-fired power plant emissions in Southeast Asia. Environmental Science & Technology 51: 1467-1476
Minx, J.C. et al. (2018) Negative emissions – Part 1: Research landscape and synthesis. Environmental Research Letters 13: 063001
Osborne, T. (2015) Tradeoffs in carbon commodification: A political ecology of common property forest governance. Geoforum 67: 64-77
International Energy Agency (IEA) (2018) World Energy Outlook 2018
IPCC (1990) Climate Change The IPCC Scientific Assessment
IPCC (2014) Summary for policymakers. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
IPCC (2018) Global Warming of 1.5 °C an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty
Smith, P. et al (2016) Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions. Nature Climate Change 6: 42–50
US Global Change Research Program (GCRP) (2018) Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II: Report-in-Brief
The cover photograph shows part of a plantation of exotic (non-native) trees in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Fast-growing exotic trees, such as acacias and eucalypts, sequestering a known amount of carbon under particular growth conditions, may be preferred in the tropics as Negative emission technologies to native rain forest taxa with their slower and more variable growth rates. Although plantations of exotic trees may capture more carbon per unit area, their extensive development can have significant negative impacts on ecosystem services and livelihoods. Because of their very low species diversity (often grown as mono-cultures) they can also be highly susceptible to disease.
Table 1: Summary of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted by ASEAN member states as part of the Paris Agreement (PA). BAU = Business as usual
An abridged version of this article ("A Southeast Asia perspective on climate change and negative emission technologies") appeared in the Long Read section of the Asia Dialogue on 10 December 2018 and can be accessed here.