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Asia shares a patchwork of climate goals: 5 things to know

Countries unite to reduce emissions but targets are difficult to compare

World leaders appear on a video screen during a virtual Climate Summit with world leaders in the East Room at the White House in Washington, April 23, 2021.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- As world leaders gathered for a virtual climate summit hosted by the U.S., Asian countries -- which account for more than half of global carbon dioxide emissions as a region -- expressed their commitments to fighting the existential threat of global warming, albeit in different ways.

Japan set a new target for its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, while South Korean leader Moon Jae-in reportedly said he would also raise the reduction target later this year. Chinese President Xi Jinping, joining the conference despite the ongoing tensions with the U.S., reaffirmed China's goal to peak carbon emissions by 2030.

National goals come in a variety of percentages and base years, making them difficult to compare. While the long-term commitments by many countries to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions around midcentury sounds compelling, the test will be their actual actions by 2030.

Here are five things to know about Asia's 2030 climate targets.

What are the 2030 targets set by Asian countries?

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Thursday that the country will set a new target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 46% by 2030 from 2013 levels. South Korea currently has a goal to reduce 24.4% of greenhouse gas emissions from 2017, though Moon said he would raise the commitment. Both countries have committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Xi said in December that China will reduce over 65% of its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 2030 from its 2005 level. He also said non-fossil fuels would make up about 25% of total primary energy consumption, forest stock volume would increase by 6 billion cubic meters, and installed capacity of wind and solar power would reach over 1.2 billion kilowatts.

Under its goal submitted in 2016, India aims to reduce emissions intensity of its GDP by 33% to 35% by 2030 from the 2005 level. Other targets includes creating a "carbon sink," equivalent to 2.5 to 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide, through additional planting of forests, which absorb the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

Indonesia's current goal is to reduce 29% of greenhouse gas emissions against the business-as-usual scenario (BAU) by 2030, which was projected to be approximately 2,869 gigatons of equivalent carbon dioxide when the goal was submitted in 2016. One gigaton equals 1 billion tons.

Vietnam aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9% compared with BAU in 2030 with domestic resources. It suggests the goal could be raised up to 27% with international support.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand targets a 20% greenhouse gas reduction compared with BAU by 2030, or possibly 25% with "adequate and enhanced access to technology development and transfer, financial resources and capacity building support."

Why are countries allowed to set up different types of goals?

Under the Paris Agreement in 2015, signatories pledged to keep the rise in global temperature below 2 C from preindustrial levels, or close to 1.5 degrees. Countries were required to submit their commitments in the form of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) and revise them over time.

Unlike the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, there is no punishment for countries that fail to achieve NDC reduction targets. But unlike Kyoto, which only applied to developed countries, the Paris Agreement managed to make both developed and developing countries commit to make contributions.

The differences in goals reflect the various development stages and abilities of countries. Since countries set their targets in terms of BAUs, absolute values, different base years, GDPs, all greenhouse gases or just carbon dioxide, which is the dominant type of greenhouse gas, contributions cannot be easily compared. Developed countries, which generally have more resources and are responsible for historical emissions, are expected to make bigger commitments.

What are Asian countries doing to achieve targets?

Japan's new target of 46% was a major jump from the previous 26%, although it was criticized as being lower than other developed signatories including the European Union. It was a top-down commitment by Suga, rather than a safe bet based on careful calculations of what can be safely achieved, according to an official in the environment ministry.

The prime minister called on other ministers to come up with ways to achieve the new goal on Thursday, according to the official. Meanwhile, Suga told reporters that it would be "centered around renewable energy and energy saving."

Changes to the energy sector, one of the biggest emitters, will be crucial to lowering emissions as many Asian countries still rely heavily on fossil fuel.

"China will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects, and strictly limit the increase in coal consumption over the 14th Five-Year Plan period and phase it down in the 15th Five-Year Plan period," which will start in 2026, said Xi at the climate summit.

South Korea stopped issuing permits for new coal plants, with Moon saying he would scale up investment in renewable energy.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged "renewable energy targets of 450 gigawatts by 2030" on top of other efforts including reforestation and protecting biodiversity.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said the country's deforestation rate has fallen to the lowest in 20 years, thanks to policies and law enforcement.

Developing countries asked for more support and commitment from developed countries at the summit.

"As a climate responsible developing country, India welcomes partners to create template of sustainable development in India," Modi said.

Widodo said: "Developing countries will carry out the same ambition if the commitment of developed countries is credible with real support."

How is Asia affected by climate change?

Asia is often cited as one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan could be "among the first places in the world to experience lethal heat waves that exceed the survivability threshold."

Rising temperature is often believed to be responsible for more rains and flooding in Japan, China, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. In 2017, floods across India, Bangladesh and Nepal killed at least 1,200 people, according to the World Meteorological Organization. In 2016, floods in China led to 310 deaths and $14 billion in losses.

Why are the 2030 targets important?

Before reaching net-zero in the long term, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. body, estimates that global greenhouse gas emissions need to decline by about 45% from the 2010 level by 2030 to reach the 1.5 C goal.

"The impact of countries' 2030 emissions targets are nowhere near enough to keep global warming below 2C, let alone the 1.5C needed to avoid the most disastrous effects of climate change," Alok Sharma, president of the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), said this year.

"I am asking all countries, particularly major emitters, to submit ambitious 2030 emission reduction targets," Sharma said. He said setting ambitious targets was an "urgent priority on the road to COP26," which is scheduled for November in Glasgow, U.K.

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