Climate Change in Southeast Asia and Why We Can’t Afford NOT To Act

by John Pearson

I was in Bangkok last month, and many people were talking about the recent floods. In the previous two months large parts of Thailand had experienced heavy rains.  More than 4 million people have been affected, with 165 sadly killed. Many areas along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok were inundated – the capital is on average only a metre above sea level – and the city authorities had to use 4 million sandbags to keep the waters at bay.

Not surprisingly, this has had severe social impacts. Apparently the floods devastated 1.4 million hectares of agricultural land and destroyed over one million tonnes of rice. Thailand expects a 0.32% drop in economic growth this year as a result, valued at around £117 million.

Experts are linking the floods to climate change, with continued deforestation and  poor urban planning also seen as responsible. And other recent events highlight Thailand’s vulnerability to climatic impacts. Rice production suffered again earlier this year when the country experienced its most severe drought in 20 years.

While it is difficult to link individual events to climate change, these incidents are consistent with the findings of the Asian Development Bank report on “The Economics of Climate Change in Southeast Asia” which concluded that the region  was extremely vulnerable to climate change. The report projected that droughts, floods and extreme weather events would become more intense and frequent, and that the region could see a reduction in GDP of 6.7% per annum by 2100 due to climate change.

Stress on Freshwater Resources

Inland waterways like the Chao Phraya in Thailand and the Red River in Vietnam provide a source of livelihood for many people. For example, about 60 million people live in the lower Mekong Basin, and most get their protein from the local rivers and lakes.

However climate change is putting great stress on these freshwater resources. The ADB report explains that during El Nino years, reduced water flows have caused damage to crops, shortages of drinking water and a drop in electricity production. For example, a drought in 1997/98 in the Philippines resulted in water rationing in the Metro Manila area and affected the operation of hydro electric plants that supplied energy to the urban areas. At the same time, we have seen more instances of heavy rains and associated flooding – in the Philippines alone, about 10,000 people died due to floods and landslides between 1991 and 2006.

This is likely to become a common occurrence. The ADB report projects that climate change will lead to more irregular precipitation patterns in the region – resulting in an increased risk of flooding during the wet season, and increased water shortages during the dry season. For example, the maximum monthly flow of the Mekong River is projected to increase between 35% and 41% – while the minimum monthly flow will fall by 26% to 29% in the Mekong Delta.

Stark statistics, especially when you consider that the region’s population and economic growth is already putting increased pressure on the existing water resources.

Why we can’t afford NOT to act on climate change

Should we take action to prevent dangerous climate change? A common argument is that it may be good to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but this action will be too costly – and damage economic growth. However, I think the issue should be seen another way – if we don’t act soon, climate change will become so severe that economic growth will be unsustainable.

Most experts agree that if we don’t act to prevent climate change, the costs will be complex and serious. Climate change impacts can be thought of as “shocks” to the economic system, that will become more severe over time. We will see temperature increases, which will lead to droughts and floods. There will be direct costs to the economy, including from declining crop yields, reduced fish stocks and flooding of coastal zones. There will be further “hidden” costs to the economy, such as health costs from increased malnutrition and heat stress. And there could be  further impacts from increased conflict and migration, where climate change could become a ‘threat multiplier’.

For example – we may see high food and commodity prices due to a reduced supply of food and minerals. And storms and rising sea levels could destroy large amounts of infrastructure – it is estimated that $35 trillion of assets are at risk of flooding in port cities, even with a moderate sea level rise of 50cm.

Most experts agree that the global costs of climate change are likely to be large. The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change estimated this at 5-20% of GDP every year. And a number of other studies have reached similar conclusions.

There is a clear conclusion to be drawn – current growth will not be sustainable if it accelerates climate change, and produces these huge costs. As Stern said in an article in the Guardian in November 2008: ‘Put simply, high-carbon growth will choke off growth’.

So the next time anybody suggests it is too expensive to take action on climate change, I think the answer should be obvious – on the contrary, the world can’t afford NOT to take action.

About our Guest Writer

John Pearson is Head of the British Government’s network on climate change in South East Asia. Based at the British High Commission in Singapore, he has held the position since September 2008. He works on climate change and “low carbon” issues in all ASEAN countries, working closely with local Governments, business and civil society.

His first degree was a BSc in Geography from the University of Nottingham, where he specialised in coastal environments and air pollutants. He also has an MA in International Peace and Security from King’s College, London, where he wrote his dissertation on ‘Climate Change and the Implications for International Peace and Security. He can be contacted at john.pearson[at]fco.gov.uk

Further links you may be interested in:

1. Slideshare: Cost of Action vs Inaction

2. YouTube: HIGH STAKES: Part 1 The Economics of Climate Change in S.E. Asia (Documentary)

See also Part 2 and Part 3

3. ADB Report: Economics of Climate Change in Southeast Asia

4. EWTT: The Impact of a Global Temperature Rise of 4 deg Celsius

5. Guardian UK: Nicholas Stern: Spend billions on green investments now to reverse economic downturn and halt climate change


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Posted by on Jan 6 2011. Filed under Climate Change, Government Policy, Sustainable Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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