Understanding the Asian Position on Climate Change


Last week, former American Vice President Al Gore sharply criticized the Obama administration for failing to significantly alter United States policy on climate change and energy. We asked our Sustainability Roundtable to discuss the role American leadership should play in shaping government policies on climate change throughout Asia. Additionally, what global leadership role exists for developed and developing Asian countries themselves in areas like clean energy and global warming mitigation? Is the possibility of a global deal on climate change completely dead? If so, can it be resuscitated?

Ravi Narayanan is Vice Chair of the Asia Pacific Water Forum, International Mentor to the Japan Water Forum, and Chair of the International Steering Committee of the Water Integrity Network. He was a member of the Advisory Group for the Asia Society's Leadership Group on Water Security in Asia.

There is a fundamental divide between the perceptions of governments in Asia and the United States, and Europe too, when it comes to matters relating to energy policy and its impact on climate change. Being lower down the ladder of economic development, the former take the principle of per capita energy consumption as the one that is relevant. The latter tend to look at aggregate emissions as the issue that needs to be addressed. And there the dialogue remains stuck.

If the United States is to take a leading role in leading the dialogue to a productive phase, then a couple of things need to happen. The first is for it to convey through the style of the dialogue and a more sensitive phraseology in public statements that there an understanding of the 'Asian' position. It is not as if these countries, particularly China and India which are sometimes labeled as the recalcitrant ones, deliberately take a contrary position. Their governments too feel the need to respond to the aspirations of their citizens for better livelihoods, better infrastructure and all the things that are taken for granted in the more advanced economies and hence their reluctance to bind themselves to cuts in the same manner as the wealthier countries.

The second and more difficult challenge is to remove the perception of profligacy in the use of energy in the United States. From the perspective of Asian countries this weakens the case for the US to ask other countries to agree to tougher emission standards among other things. And here is the real dilemma that Al Gore's criticism poses for the US administration. Should, or indeed can, the government, and this includes all governments, respond to the needs and demands of its citizens or should it take a leadership position in attempting to moderate consumption and induce habits of conservation? This is a very difficult ask in a volatile, voter led political environment. But is there any other alternative?

There is, of course, a larger question when it comes to responsibility for energy use. Is this something only for governments anywhere, in Asia, the US or Europe to agonize over, or is it time for each one of us to consider our whole design of living?