Climate urgency increasing
While the latest UN Climate Change Conference was taking place in Madrid, smog returned to Bangkok last week with PM2.5 dust exceeding safe levels in some areas. Face masks were back in fashion, while children, pregnant women and the elderly were advised to avoid outdoor activities.
In New Delhi, toxic haze worsened and visibility dropped due to cooler temperatures and lower wind speeds that allow deadly pollutants to hang in the air. The air quality index crossed 400 on a scale of 500, indicative of "severe" conditions that pose a risk for healthy people and can seriously affect those with existing diseases.
Earlier, Sydney was hit by smog caused mainly by severe bushfires, shattering the hopes of people looking forward to outdoor activities as the Australian summer began. Concentrations of harmful pollutants in the atmosphere were up to 10 times hazardous levels.
The headlines these days bring us regular reports of deteriorating environmental conditions and their wide and lasting impact. Besides drastic effects on human health, the economic losses are huge and mounting.
A World Bank report last week noted that the forest fires that have raged across Indonesia cost Southeast Asia's biggest economy US$5.2 billion, equal to 0.5% of its gross domestic product, from June to October alone. That included $157 million in direct damage and another $5 billion from losses in the agriculture, industry, trade, tourism, transport and environmental sectors.
According to official figures, 942,000 hectares (2.3 million acres) of forests and land were burned this year, the highest since the devastating blazes of 2015 destroyed 2.6 million hectares. More than 900,000 people reported respiratory illnesses, 12 airports halted operations, and hundreds of schools in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore had to close temporarily due to smoke and haze pollution.
The blazes were "manmade and have become a chronic problem annually since 1997" because fire is considered the cheapest method to prepare land for cultivation, the World Bank said. As 44% of the areas burned in 2019 were in peatlands, the resulting carbon emissions were estimated to be almost double those from the fires in the Brazilian Amazon this year.
Besides intensifying air pollution, the threats posed by climate change are raising sea levels. The threat has become so stark that Indonesia is preparing to move its capital to somewhere that wasn't sinking.
In the context of agriculture, it has been estimated that every 1°C temperature increase will result in a 1.3% loss in economic growth and a 10% drop in crop yields.
While society and particularly younger generations appear to have awakened to the threat of the climate catastrophe, industry shows little signs of sharing their urgency. Greenhouse gas emissions are again set to rise in 2019 after hitting a record in 2018, as extreme weather events -- made more likely as the planet warms -- struck seemingly everywhere.
A total of 66 nations have announced plans to be carbon-neutral by 2050. Yet there are fears that meagre progress could be undermined as developing economies appear no closer to ditching fossil fuels and the US -- the largest historic emitter -- is poised to complete its pullout from the Paris agreement.
Keeping forests standing, restoring and replanting them is the most effective way to sequester carbon on a large scale, but a century of extraction of short-term economic value has pushed global forests into a sustained crisis.
The World Resources Institute estimates that 30% of the world's forest cover has now been completely cleared, and a further 20% degraded. Of the remaining half, most is fragmented and vulnerable; just 15% is functionally intact.
A report by the Nikkei Asian Review indicated that in 2018 alone, 12 million hectares of tropical forests were lost and the figure could be higher this year, after devastating fires across the Amazon and Indonesia.
And the cost of restoring forests after such devastation is high. A 2014 report by McKinsey & Co, Credit Suisse and the World Wildlife Fund estimated that between $300 billion and $400 billion is needed to fund conservation and ecosystem restoration each year.
As a consumer, I'm glad to hear of even small steps to respond to the growing environmental crisis. For example, big retailers in Thailand will stop handing out plastic bags to customers in January. Plastic straws are being banned at coffee shops and paper straws are gaining ground.
Awareness about the devastating impact of climate change has increased substantially, but how quickly the awareness will translate into meaningful actions and substantial results is yet to be seen. Let's hope that is not too long and comes before it's too late.