Not just empty words, hopefully
Countries across the world orchestrated similar commitments last week with the aim of reversing the adverse impacts of the greatest threat facing humanity today, which is climate change.
Southeast Asia, in particular, is among the most vulnerable regions because of the high economic activity along its long coastlines, and its heavy dependence on agriculture, forestry and other natural resources.
Indonesia, the world's eighth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), pledged last Wednesday to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2040 if it gets sufficient financial help from the international community.
The world's biggest exporter of thermal coal said previously it planned to phase out coal for electricity by 2056, as part of a plan to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2060 or earlier. About 65% of the country's energy is generated from coal, which is the single biggest contributor to climate change.
The pledge by Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati was among dozens announced at the ongoing United Nations climate summit known as COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Those pledges are part of an attempt to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels -- a level that scientists say would avoid its most destructive consequences.
To support the government's drive to cut emissions by 29% over the next 10 years, Indonesian banks have pledged to increase funding for environment-friendly projects to US$56 billion.
Many major banks worldwide have agreed to stop financing the coal industry, in line with pledges made by more than 40 countries -- notably not including China and the US -- to shift away from coal.
Vietnam aims to go coal-free as part of its drive to be carbon neutral by 2050. As it cuts back on coal use, it plans to double wind and solar power generation capacity to between 31 and 38 gigawatts by 2030.
Indonesia and the Philippines, meanwhile, have joined a plan backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to retire coal-fired power plants early. Public-private partnerships will be set up to buy out the plants and wind them down within 15 years, far sooner than their usual life.
If the plan can be carried out successfully at scale in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, it could retire 50% of coal capacity over 10 to 15 years, reducing CO2 emissions by 200 million tonnes -- the equivalent of taking 61 million cars off the road.
Four donors to the ADB, including the UK, have pledged $665 million for green infrastructure investments in Southeast Asia. The money is part of a $7-billion ADB-managed fund for low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure.
Numerous other countries announced new carbon neutrality targets -- Thailand by 2050 and Nepal by 2045 among them. But what injected new life into the talks was a bold pledge by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the world's third-biggest emitter would achieve net-zero carbon by 2070. Though India's goal is two decades behind those of rich nations, it's compatible with what scientists say is needed to avoid catastrophic warming.
India also raised its 2030 target for low-emission energy capacity to 500 gigawatts from 450 GW, and pledged to produce half of its electricity from renewable sources.
The challenge for India is figuring out how to finance the transition to net zero, which will require trillions of dollars of investment. Mr Modi reiterated his stance that rich countries should help support poor nations by raising more money to accelerate the necessary moves.
Given the commitments made so far in Glasgow, there are signs that the politics of this existential crisis are finally shifting in the right direction but much work remains to be done. This year's extreme weather events -- the terrible heatwaves, wildfires and floods that have made headlines across the globe -- are evidence that the destructive consequences of global warming are happening faster than expected and on a larger scale.
In Southeast Asia, orangutans are on the brink of extinction as a result of forest loss, along with a host of other irreplaceable endangered species. Globally, deforestation accounts for a significant chunk of all carbon emissions. Ending and reversing this onslaught would be a huge step forward.
The COP26 commitments must hold leaders accountable and the gap between rhetoric and action must be addressed. For any environmental commitment to go beyond empty words, it must be transparent, fully financed, binding and time-bound.
There is no time to waste because what is left undone this decade will determine the fate of future generations. The clock is ticking loudly now.
Acting Asia Focus Editor
Acting Asia Focus Editor