A Tough Balancing Act to Climate Change

Workers rubbling tin are seen at Timah tin factory in Pangkal Pinang, Bangka Island in this file photo. (Bloomberg Photo/Dimas Ardian)

Workers rubbling tin are seen at Timah tin factory in Pangkal Pinang, Bangka Island in this file photo. (Bloomberg Photo/Dimas Ardian)

The smoke billows from the slender chimney stacks of the power plant on North Jakarta’s shore, reaching ever higher before dissipating in the atmosphere. Untold amounts of pollutants flood the air, and the biggest culprit for global warming — carbon dioxide — is released.

The facility, fueled by coal, generates power for factories and thousands of homes across Indonesia’s capital. But the scene could have played out in any city in the world, be it an emerging nation or a developed one such as the United States.

As the world observes Earth Day today, with the theme on climate change, leaders from many countries are making a determined effort to prevent global temperatures from rising even further and to respond to drastic changes in the weather worldwide. And trying to balance economic growth with lower emissions is the biggest challenge facing both emerging economies as well as developed countries.

The Danish minister for foreign affairs, Villy Søvndal, met with his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, last week to strengthen bilateral ties between the two nations, particularly in dealing with climate change. Issues included seeking renewable energy sources.

Marty emphasized Indonesia’s willingness to develop a green economy and green infrastructure with Denmark, which has earned a reputation for being at the forefront of environmental protection.

Denmark spends the equivalent of 1 percent of its economy in controlling its pollution — an amount similar to other Scandinavian countries — and spends more to help other countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

According to the 2013 Climate Change Performance Index, which tracks carbon dioxide emissions controls in 58 countries, Denmark was at the top based on criteria such as emissions and climate policy. Indonesia ranked 36th, while the worst offender, in last place, was Saudi Arabia.

Across Asia, India was in 24th place, followed by Thailand and Indonesia, but those three nations were far ahead of China and Japan — which is focusing on coal and gas to fuel its power plants as it reduces its reliance on nuclear energy. Elsewhere in the region, Malaysia had the lowest rank, at 55.

Climate change is important because it affects the way people live, from the costs of fruits and vegetables at a supermarket to rising water levels from rivers and streams that could quickly inundate a town or city.

Warmer-than-usual weather in the spring of 2012 in the United States led to a drought that pushed up prices globally of some commodities such as corn, soybean and wheat. In Indonesia, tempeh producers protested against the rising price of their raw ingredient, tofu, which is made from soybeans.

Flooding in the central part of Thailand, particularly around Bangkok, in the second half of 2011 dragged that nation’s economy down as manufacturers such as automakers and disk-drive makers shuttered operations. It has only started to recover in the past year. A massive hurricane in the eastern part of the United States in late October flooded communities and knocked out power to parts of New York City.

Climate Action Tracker, an independent science-based assessment that tracks the emission commitments and actions of countries, conducts its own survey and categorizes countries on a scale from “role model” to “inadequate”, based on each country’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The only country in the “role model” category is a developing country, the Maldives, which has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2020. Costa Rica’s pledge to become carbon-neutral by 2021 with international support places it in the category of “sufficient”, along with developed countries such as Norway and Japan.

Indonesia’s ambitious pledge in September 2009 to cut emissions by 26 percent by 2020 places it in the “medium” category. It mainly plans to do so through reduction in deforestation. Other nations in this category include India, Switzerland, Mexico and Singapore. Among the countries in the “inadequate” end of the scale are Australia, New Zealand, China, Russia and the United States.

China and the United States — the world’s two largest energy consumers, greenhouse gas emitters and non-ratifiers of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change — are indicating greater cooperation toward action on climate change. In US Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Beijing on April 13-14, both sides reached an agreement to add climate change to their Strategic Economic Dialogue.

The “overwhelming scientific consensus regarding climate change constitutes a compelling call to action” and the United States and China would engage in “large-scale cooperative action” in an effort to set a “powerful example that can inspire the world,” according to a joint statement by the two countries.

Deforestation is just one factor contributing to climate change, some environmentalists say, and there should be solutions, namely conservation and protection as well as educating the public. Fewer trees means larger amounts of carbon dioxide that cannot be processed as oxygen back into the atmosphere.

In Indonesia alone, a nation of more than 240 million people that makes it the world’s fourth most populous, deforestation affects as much as 1.7 million hectares of land per year, according to 2009 data from the Forestry Ministry. That’s roughly 40 percent the size of Denmark.

“Climate change has affected Indonesians in various ways,” says Nyoman Iswarayoga, climate change and energy director at WWF-Indonesia in Jakarta.

“For people in more rural societies who farm for a living, climate change has changed the way crops grow and thus changed the way they farm. Many of them face crop failure and declining yields. Meanwhile, fishermen also face changes in wind directions, which change the way they fish, which is their livelihood.

“Keeping the environment safe is not simply about replanting the forest,” Iswarayoga adds.

“There are a couple things that need to be part of the government’s agenda when it comes to this. First, conserve the quality of the environment. Second, protect the environment from destruction. Third, rehabilitate the destroyed environment.”

World Bank data on carbon dioxide emissions show that Indonesia’s emissions rose to 1.9 metric tons per capita in 2009 from 1.2 tons in 2000. Still, that amount is small compared to other countries in the region where emissions have increased.

Australia’s emissions climbed to 18.4 tons from 17.2 in the same period, and China’s rose to 5.8 tons from 2.7 tons. Rates in New Zealand, where the economy is largely agricultural, dropped to 7.4 tons from 8.5 tons. In the United States, the rate dropped to 17.3 tons from 20.2 tons.

Trade officials from the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation that met in Surabaya this past weekend discussed the possibility of promoting environmentally friendly goods through incentives in trade. That might include eco-friendly goods, whether it be agricultural goods or manufactured goods, and possible reductions in tariffs on such goods to 5 percent or less.

The Earth’s temperature has been increasing since the Industrial Revolution but has picked up significantly in the past 15 years, as demand for goods drive up power generation and human-made greenhouse gases build up.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration said in a January report that 2012 was the ninth warmest year going back to 1880, but 10 of the warmest years have happened since 1998.

The World Bank said in November that the global mean temperature had continued to increase and was now about 0.8 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and could rise by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 if the global community fails to act on climate change. The bank said it was helping 130 countries take action on climate change, and in 2011 it doubled its financial lending that contributes to adaptation.

Global warming by 4 degrees Celsius might lead to extreme heat waves and rising sea levels as high as a meter by 2100, leaving coastal cities in nations such as Indonesia vulnerable, it said.

In 2009 the World Bank said that research and development costs at around $100 billion to $700 billion annually were needed, which would be up from the less than $100 billion already spent.

“Corporations, private industries as well as individuals need to play their role in this,’’ WWF’s Nyoman said.

“We, as individuals, need to realize that we play a big part in making a difference on a global level. We should see this Earth Day as a moment to look around and see what we have around us. It is time to change our behaviors and paradigms. Remember, we only have one Earth to live on.”