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99 problems: Can Asia’s cities adapt to the changing climate?

Asia is uniquely prone to climate risk, but across the continent, mitigation and adaptation efforts tend to range from ineffectual to non-existent. Without a concerted effort from the international community, some of the world’s most vulnerable cities and people face a precarious future.

Fabrizio Varriale, World Built Environment Forum
9 July 2021

Global forecasting house Maplesoft’s Cities@Risk series ranks nearly 600 of the world’s largest urban centres by their exposure to environmental and climate-related threats. Startlingly, according to the study’s findings, Asia is home to 99 of the world’s 100 most at-risk cities.[1]

While the overwhelming majority of that number are located in India and China, Jakarta tops the list. It is a city truly riddled with environmental issues. Choking air pollution, intense seismic activity and regular flooding events make for a potent cocktail of environmental hazards. What’s more, parts of the city are subsiding at a rate of up to 15cm per year.[2] It is little wonder, then, that the Indonesian government is planning to abandon Jakarta and construct a new capital in a safer part of the country.[3]

Across the continent, the risk posed by climate change is severe. For example, in 2019 six of the ten largest economic loss events resulting from heavy rainfall happened in Asia.[4] Due to climate change, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, and exerting increasing pressure on local economies. Rising temperatures are causing losses in work productivity to the tune of 2-4% for every uptick of 1°C on the hottest days.[5] The Asian Development Bank (ADB) predicts that, by 2050, loss of outdoor working hours caused by rising temperatures will cost up to $4.7 trillion of GDP across the continent.[6] The intense heat can also increase the prevalence of tropical diseases like malaria and dengue fever. In south-east Asia, the scale of the economic impact of climate change could be enormous. ADB estimates suggest that up to 11% of continental GDP could be lost by 2100 as a direct result of new climatic conditions. The majority of these losses will be incurred through falling productivity in the agriculture, fishing, and tourism industries, and the spiralling cost of healthcare.[7] In spite of the sobering facts, substantive action on climate mitigation and adaptation has generally been lacking.

The Asian Development Bank predicts that, by 2050, loss of outdoor working hours caused by rising temperatures will cost up to $4.7 trillion of GDP across the continent.

Developing Asian markets are expected to account for 70% of the forecasted rebound in global energy demand of 2021. This will largely be satisfied through coal consumption.[8] The practice of deforestation, a means by which to create new agricultural land and sustain the urbanising population, weighs heavily on the carbon account of Asian economies. This is particularly true in the continental south-east. There, economic growth, while undoubtedly benefitting the population in the short-run, is serving to entrench local climate vulnerabilities. One knock-on effect of the region’s new centrality to the global flow of manufactured goods has been further demand for deforestation activities. Almost half of Indonesia’s overall carbon output is linked to the practice, making it the leading cause of nationwide greenhouse gas emissions – even outranking fossil fuels use.[9]

Deforestation is not the only example of economic policies cutting across environmental objectives. Petroleum-based products and electricity are often kept artificially cheap for consumers through government subsidies. Incredibly, ADB analysis suggests that the total cost of these subsidies is higher than the investment required to meet Paris Agreement targets in the region.[10] And while the growth of international tourism is a boon for local economies, necessary infrastructure developments can alter the environment and increase vulnerability to extreme weather events.[11]

Cities are key to the climate adaptation challenge. First actions usually involve some form of risk analysis and diagnosis. Remedial measures tend to include hardening of assets, including infrastructure, and the restoration of natural climate defences. Consensus is growing that the latter course of action is often preferable. Rather than relieving the problem, many hard-engineered flood defence schemes in the region have served to simply push the issue down river and across jurisdictional borders.

Many ‘hard-engineered’ flood defence schemes in the region have served to simply push the issue down river and across jurisdictional borders.

Further mitigation efforts include the construction of emergency facilities, and diversification of energy sources and production.[12] The number of Asian cities undertaking such adaptation measures remains troublingly low. In those cities where climate adaptation strategies have been successfully implemented, the guiding hand of national governments is often evident – this is certainly the case in India and China. Correspondingly, a general lack of national guidance and support is the most commonly cited barrier to meaningful climate adaptation work. And even in China and India, many of the measures undertaken have been reactive rather than proactive in nature.[13]

Limited institutional capacity and short-termism in policy circles are certainly frustrating factors, but climate adaptation also requires significant upfront investment. For many of Asia’s frontier economies, that funding need is prohibitive. The ADB estimates that $40 billion per year until 2050 should be invested into climate change adaptation activities across the region. This money would pay for climate mitigation and associated poverty reduction measures.[14] To put that figure in context, over the past decade the ADB has approved a sum total of $41.6 billion of climate financing.[15] The gap between funds available and funds required is huge, but the full cost of inaction promises to be greater still.

It has long been said that the 21st century is Asia’s century. It is already home to 54% of the world’s urban population[16] and continues to urbanise rapidly. Asia’s problems are global problems. Failure to climate proof the region’s cities will have ramifications that extend far beyond continental boundaries.