Asian cities’ end­less sum­mer

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

It’s mon­soon sea­son in Asia – mark­ing an end to months of scorch­ing tem­per­a­tures. But the ex­treme heat will re­turn, with cities fac­ing par­tic­u­larly bru­tal con­di­tions. Al­ready, Asia’s ur­ban ar­eas ex­pe­ri­ence twice as many hot days as its ru­ral ar­eas do – and could ex­pe­ri­ence ten times as many by 2100. At that point, there will be no re­vers­ing the trend.

The first de­tailed as­sess­ment of cli­mate risk for Asia, car­ried out by the Asian De­vel­op­ment Bank (ADB) and the Pots­dam Institute for Cli­mate Im­pact Re­search (PIK), makes clear that Asia’s cities stand at the front­line of the fight against cli­mate change. In­deed, many con­se­quences of a hot­ter planet – such as more ex­treme weather events, sealevel rise, en­vi­ron­men­tal mi­gra­tion, and mount­ing so­cial ten­sions – in­ter­sect in ur­ban ar­eas.

This is par­tic­u­larly true in Asia, where cities house more than half of the pop­u­la­tion and pro­duce al­most 80% of eco­nomic out­put. By 2050, Asia’s ur­ban pop­u­la­tion could nearly dou­ble, to three bil­lion peo­ple. With­out new cli­mate ini­tia­tives, the re­gion’s cities could con­trib­ute more than half of the in­crease in global green­house-gas emis­sions over the next 20 years.

Such a sce­nario is of­ten called “busi­ness as usual.” Yet, in re­al­ity, it is busi­ness as usual that would be dis­rupted by the con­se­quences of cli­mate change, with un­fet­tered warm­ing im­ped­ing or even re­vers­ing Asia’s re­cent eco­nomic progress.

The longer we wait to ad­dress the cli­mate chal­lenge, the more dev­as­tat­ing the dis­rup­tion will be. And we may not get much warn­ing, be­cause cli­mate ef­fects gen­er­ally do not evolve in a lin­ear fash­ion, but rather emerge sud­denly and pow­er­fully, once cer­tain tip­ping points have been reached.

So far, not nearly enough has been done to as­sess Asia’s ex­po­sure to cli­mate im­pacts, much less to strengthen pro­tec­tions for vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas or re­duce green­house-gas emis­sions. The re­gion needs low-car­bon green growth strate­gies that use less land, wa­ter, and en­ergy. Th­ese strate­gies will help to slow rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion, which en­tails dense con­struc­tion, sealed roads, and pri­vate cars – all of which con­trib­ute to the “ur­ban heat is­land” ef­fect.

If we con­tinue on our cur­rent path, the mean tem­per­a­ture over the Asian land­mass could soar by more than 6C (10.8F), rel­a­tive to pre-in­dus­trial lev­els, by 2100. Peo­ple may fall ill and even die from res­pi­ra­tory and other ail­ments caused by heat stress or pol­lu­tion. Be­yond the hu­man costs, higher tem­per­a­tures would un­der­mine agri­cul­tural and in­dus­trial pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Cli­mate-driven mi­gra­tion flows will ex­ac­er­bate the chal­lenges Asian cities face. Un­less a suf­fi­cient num­ber of de­cent jobs are cre­ated, cli­mate mi­grants could be­come a per­ma­nent un­der­class. Even if jobs are avail­able, the en­vi­ron­men­tal pres­sure cre­ated by ever-more pop­u­lated cities will pose a grave threat. Yet pro­jec­tions of the im­pact of cli­mate change on mi­gra­tion in Asia re­main in­de­fen­si­bly lim­ited in num­ber, scope, and pre­dic­tive power.

In or­der to im­prove city plan­ning and health-care ser­vices, we need a sim­ple and ac­cu­rate way to as­sess cur­rent and fu­ture heat-tol­er­ance lev­els among ur­ban pop­u­la­tions. We also need strate­gies to de­crease ur­ban heat stress, in­clud­ing a shift to­ward poly­cen­tric ur­ban con­fig­u­ra­tions, with economies and so­ci­eties built around mul­ti­ple re­gional hubs, rather than con­cen­trated around a sin­gle city, and nat­u­ral as­sets main­tained through eco-cor­ri­dors and con­nected green spa­ces.

But ris­ing tem­per­a­tures are far from the only threat posed by cli­mate change. Ex­treme weather events, from droughts to floods, will in­ten­sify and be­come more fre­quent. In Asia, in­creased rain­fall and wors­en­ing trop­i­cal cy­clones will wreak havoc on food pro­duc­tion, driv­ing down ru­ral in­comes. In Sri Lanka, for ex­am­ple, rice yields could drop by up to 20% by 2050; in Fiji, cas­sava out­put could plum­met by 36%.

All of this would be ex­ac­er­bated by ris­ing sea lev­els, which could be 1.4 me­tres higher by the end of the cen­tury, po­ten­tially caus­ing many coun­tries to lose more than 10% of their land area. If coun­tries meet their com­mit­ments un­der the Paris cli­mate agree­ment, the to­tal sea-level rise could be halved, with more am­bi­tious schemes promis­ing even greater re­duc­tions. If, how­ever, we con­tinue on our cur­rent path for just a cou­ple more decades, we could trig­ger cen­turies of ris­ing sea lev­els, even if we sub­se­quently ended all green­house-gas emis­sions. The ef­fects would be grad­ual but mer­ci­less.

The risks are ar­guably high­est on Asia’s crowded coast­lines, where mil­lions of peo­ple are ex­posed to flood­ing. And those risks con­tinue to mount: in coun­tries such as Bangladesh, In­dia, the Philip­pines, and Viet­nam, coastal pop­u­la­tions are ex­pected to dou­ble by 2060. Asia is home to 13 of the 20 global cities ex­pected to ex­pe­ri­ence the sharpest in­creases in an­nual eco­nomic loss due to floods be­tween now and 2050.

As it stands, the risks of sea-level rise for Asia’s coastal ur­ban cen­ters are still not suf­fi­ciently un­der­stood, nor have they been ad­e­quately in­te­grated into plan­ning pro­cesses. This must change. In flood-prone coun­tries, city-plan­ning schemes should blend gray in­fra­struc­ture, such as drainage sys­tems, dikes, and sea walls, with green mea­sures, like con­ser­va­tion of wet­lands and forests. Im­proved me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions and early-warn­ing sys­tems would also help sub­stan­tially.

But here, again, there is a lack of ad­e­quate knowl­edge and prepa­ra­tion. There is no sys­tem­atic anal­y­sis of the eco­nomic costs and ben­e­fits of coastal for­ti­fi­ca­tion rel­a­tive to other ap­proaches. “Softer” in­ter­ven­tions, like bet­ter land-use plan­ning and ecosys­tem-based ap­proaches, are widely sup­ported, but their ef­fec­tive­ness has been as­sessed in only a few small-scale stud­ies.

Flood risks could com­pli­cate en­ergy-in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment in coastal cities in coun­tries like Bangladesh and In­dia. Here, at least, the way for­ward is clearer: closer re­gional co­op­er­a­tion would help to off­set power short­ages, while off-grid en­ergy from re­new­ables and cli­mate-re­silient sup­ply net­works would help coun­tries to en­hance their en­ergy se­cu­rity. Given Asia’s mas­sive size, pop­u­la­tion, and eco­nomic im­por­tance, it must be at the cen­ter of global ef­forts to mit­i­gate cli­mate change. In many ways, Asia’s cities hold Earth’s fu­ture in their hands. They must do their ut­most to pro­tect it.

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