Asian cities as low carbon catalysts

Author: Benjamin Fox, Tunghai University

As the effects of climate change in Asia become more obvious every year, carbon emission reduction policy in the region remains largely inadequate.

During the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, most of Asia’s largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting nations were considered developing countries and therefore not held to internationally binding agreements to reduce emissions. In the years since, several countries have considered voluntary GHG reduction targets but progress on the concrete mechanisms needed to achieve these goals has stalled in national legislatures. In lieu of national and international leadership, Asia’s cities are poised to be the catalysts driving regional and national climate change action.

Asia, the world’s most populous continent, is in the midst of a monumental rural-to-urban migration shift. By 2030, the percentage of Chinese, Indian and Indonesian citizens (three of the world’s four largest countries and 40 per cent of humanity) living in cities will reach 60 per cent, 40 per cent, and 69 per cent respectively. In wealthier nations such as Japan and South Korea, the proportion of urban dwellers will approach 90 per cent.

Given this massive demographic shift, individual Asian cities are positioned to exert increasing influence on policies affecting carbon emissions. Sub-national governments can fill leadership voids by setting more aggressive targets, implementing concrete GHG reduction mechanisms, and engaging other cities worldwide to promote capacity building and meaningful collaboration.

A prominent example of local action preceding national policy can be found in Japan. Over the past few decades, Japan has experimented with capping carbon emissions but its national strategy for emission reduction has relied largely on voluntary measures. The DPJ government recently called for a 25 per cent reduction in GHG emissions from 1990 levels by 2020 but no firm structure such as a carbon tax or emissions trading system has emerged to actualise such an ambitious goal.

Rather than wait for direction from the Diet, Tokyo city assumed leadership by pushing forth its own cap-and-trade program.  Tokyo’s cap-and-trade initiative holds the distinction of being Asia’s first. It is also the world’s first and only urban cap-and-trade system. By targeting its industrial and commercial sectors, which are responsible for half of total emissions, Tokyo’s policy will be the key instrument used to achieve the city’s climate change goals of a 25 per cent reduction in GHG emissions from 2000 levels by 2020.

The impact of Tokyo’s policy will be substantial. Greater Tokyo is the world’s largest metropolitan area. Home to 35 million residents and a US$1.5 trillion economy, the Greater Tokyo Area more closely resembles a medium-sized European nation. In 2007, Tokyo’s CO2 emissions totaled 56 million tons, slightly less than that produced by Portugal. In addition to reducing its own carbon footprint, Tokyo’s pioneering cap-and-trade system retains potential to be scaled up to manage all of Japan, and even neighbouring Asian countries.

One country that could take cues from Tokyo is China. During its 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010), China took serious steps to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon intensity. Issues persist regarding China’s measurable, reportable, verifiable (MRV) emission data and the lack of an overall GHG emission reduction target. China has addressed these problems with a framework for domestic carbon trading during in its most recent Five Year Plan.

Unlike Japan, China’s cities will lead the way on carbon trading and GHG reduction as a matter of deliberate design. Beijing will favour city-wide and regional carbon trading schemes that precede any national cap-and-trade regime. The central government has designated eight cities and five provinces as low carbon pilot zones. Each of the 13 cities and regions is responsible for crafting individual approaches to meet its low carbon goals by 2015. Tianjin, one of the low carbon cities, inaugurated China’s domestic carbon trading market with the first sales of carbon emission credits in 2010.

Just as China’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ) of the 1980s pushed forward national adoption of free market reforms, today’s low carbon pioneering cities and regions will stimulate future low carbon reforms in the world’s largest emitter.

Another factor enhancing the leadership role of Asia’s cities is international city-to-city engagement. Organisations such as the World Mayor’s Council on Climate Change, C40 Cities, and ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) provide a framework for developing MRV emission standards, capacity building and idea exchange. These inter-city collaborations can work in parallel to activities channeled through the United Nations. For example, the Mexico City Pact, signed by 138 mayors in 2010, will establish an international climate change registry to share emission data and improve transparency. City leaders may achieve success where national leaders fail because they are less hindered by political, economic, or geostrategic competition.

The trend of cities exceeding their national carbon targets in Asia is increasingly widespread. Jakarta has announced its plan to cut emissions 30 per cent from 2009 levels by 2020. Taiwan’s three largest cities have all agreed to reduce emissions 60 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050. In India, where the national government has provided minimal leadership on carbon reduction, New Delhi has pledged to become a carbon neutral city by 2030. There is no question that Asia’s cities have assumed a leading role in shaping national climate change targets and policies. Ultimately, there must be a union of sub-national and national leadership in order to effectively transition to low carbon societies. The degree to which Asia’s metropolitan areas are able to impact regional and national climate change action will be a major factor in determining the success of the continent’s carbon emission future.

Benjamin Fox is a Fulbright Fellow at Tunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan, researching sustainable urban development.

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