Climate change urgency grows
Climate change is global in nature but it is having an especially severe impact on Asia. Chennai, one of India's largest cities, has run out of water as the summer heat intensifies. With monsoon rains below average, four lakes in the city of 4.7 million have dried up. Residents don't have enough water to drink, bathe or wash clothes, malls have closed their washrooms and restaurants are not open for customers.
The looming water crisis, the world's worst air pollution and drought are all growing concerns in India, where measures to deal with climate change impacts featured in political party manifestos during the recent election campaign.
In South Korea, the army has been drafted to monitor dangerous levels of fine dust pollution. Japan, meanwhile, saw the hottest temperature ever recorded in Hokkaido for May. A January survey conducted by the Nikkei placed "energy and environment" second after health.
Indonesia, the world's biggest producer of palm oil -- an industry blamed for unbridled deforestation -- faces international pressure to move toward a less-damaging biodiesel programme. Jakarta is sinking due to rising sea levels, along with some coastal towns and islets in the Philippines such as Pariahan in the north. Steady subsidence has caused Manila Bay's brackish water to pour inland and displace thousands of residents.
Other parts of Southeast Asia, meanwhile, have become a dumping ground for plastic waste since China's decision to ban such imports in January 2018, along with textile and metal scraps. Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam were ranked by Ocean Conservancy among the top five sources of plastic in the seas. China topped the table.
But despite catastrophic impacts and growing citizen concern, political action has been limited, even in the rich world. A Bloomberg collation of polls reveals some glaring disparities in the way the climate crisis is viewed against other worries such as jobs and security.
That presents a dilemma for political leaders. On the one hand, many face pressure to burnish their environmental credentials as climate action becomes a priority for voters and businesses alike. On the other, political opponents could accuse them of focusing on a distant threat at the expense of more immediate existential concerns such as healthcare or supporting economic growth.
A March survey by Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs found the topics the public most wanted discussed at the G20 Summit this past weekend were ocean plastic (49.3%), followed by climate change (48.1%). The implication may be that electorates simply don't see individual governments as able to tackle a global crisis, and look to the G20 for action.
Some large corporations also are seen as not sufficiently addressing this global threat. According to Legal & General Investment Management (LGIM), the UK's top asset manager, big companies in Japan and South Korea have fallen further behind Western peers in addressing climate change.
Financial institutions are increasingly factoring environmental, social and governance (ESG) into their investment decisions, given the risks associated with such areas. South Korea and Japan are cited as the two worst-performing nations. LGIM said the two countries lacked local regulations to motivate companies to take steps.
At the recent Asean summit in Bangkok, regional leaders pledged to strengthen actions at the national and regional level to "prevent and significantly reduce marine debris".
While environmentalists welcomed this first step, they say the promise requires teeth. Greenpeace calls for "an immediate ban on all imports of plastic waste, even those meant for recycling".
All 10 Asean members have signed the 1989 Basel Convention that aims to restrict the international movement of hazardous waste. But only three -- Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia -- also have adopted the amendment that extends the treaty to plastics.
Not all the news is bad in the developing world. In Hunza in northern Pakistan, the provincial government is moving to ban the "use, purchase, export or import" of plastic in an effort to cut waste and pollution, and is delivering cloth shopping bags instead. The ban on plastic bags is now spreading to other parts of the country.
In Indonesia, thousands of young people spearheaded a three-day mass tree-planting drive to help stop deforestation, drawing inspiration from Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.
But perhaps Asean and the world -- rich and poor nations alike -- have to act more in concert to make the world a cleaner, safer place to live. The climate change threat is real and no one can afford to hold back on action and participation in this mission.
Acting Asia Focus Editor
Acting Asia Focus Editor