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Bruce Stokes: Asia's pivotal role at the Paris climate talks

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A flag for the U.N. climate change conference is seen at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Sept. 10.   © Reuters

Negotiators are gathering in Paris in the first two weeks of December to try to craft an international accord on climate change. A similar United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen six years ago ended in discord, with no binding deal. This year, according to a new Pew Research Center survey, individuals around the world overwhelmingly say they are concerned about global warming. A median of nearly 8 in 10 people surveyed across 40 nations say they would support their governments signing an agreement to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.     

     Asian nations -- China, India and Japan -- are now three of the top five annual emitters of carbon dioxide, which represents the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. So, Asian public opinion about climate change could make the difference between success or a stalemate in Paris.

     The intensity of concern about global warming varies widely across Asia. Seventy-six percent of Indians, 72% of Filipinos and 69% of Vietnamese believe climate change is a very serious problem. But only 18% of Chinese (the lowest level of concern in the world), 41% of Indonesians and 45% of Japanese share that worry.

     The low readings in China and Japan are particularly significant. China is the world's single largest annual emitter of CO2. And Japan is the fifth-largest source of emissions.

     At the same time, Indian emissions have risen sharply in recent years as economic growth has accelerated and the population has continued to grow. India is now the No. 3 source of CO2 emissions. Yet Indians are among the most concerned about climate change, with drought being the possible effect that worries them the most.

OVERWHELMING SUPPORT   The big question is whether the more than 190 governments represented in Paris can hammer out an international agreement limiting emissions. In Copenhagen, both China and India resisted such a commitment. In the runup to Paris, Beijing has promised to cap its CO2 emissions by 2030. New Delhi has agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas output per unit of gross domestic product. Neither of these are commitments to reduce current overall emissions.

     The Pew Research Center survey shows that Asian publics are overwhelmingly supportive of their governments signing a deal in Paris to curb emissions. Nearly 9 in 10 South Koreans, roughly 8 in 10 Japanese, Filipinos and Vietnamese, and about 7 in 10 Chinese, Malaysians and Indians say they would back such a move.

     It is particularly notable that in China and Japan, where public concern about global warming is actually lower than the global median, majorities would nevertheless support an international climate change accord.

     Asians are divided, however, over a very contentious issue: Should rich countries, such as the U.S., Japan and Germany, do more to address global climate change than developing nations, since they have produced most of the world's greenhouse gas emissions so far? Or should developing countries do just as much as rich countries because they will produce most of the world's warming emissions in the future?

     More than 7 in 10 Filipinos and a majority of South Koreans and Chinese believe that the rich should do more than the poor. But a majority of the Japanese disagree. They say developing countries should do just as much as advanced economies. Since half of Americans agree with the Japanese, while most Europeans side with the Chinese, this issue is likely to prove controversial in Paris.

     With regard to their countries' future energy mixes, both Chinese and Indians are relatively strong supporters of alternative energy from sources such as wind, solar and hydrogen. Roughly half the Chinese respondents, 51%, and 44% of the Indians believe the most important priority should be the development of these alternative sources, which greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Just 28% in India and 24% of those surveyed in China believe priority should be given to expanding exploration and production of oil, coal and natural gas.

     Given the growing amount of greenhouse gas generated in Asia, the stance taken by Asian governments could be pivotal to the outcome of the Paris conference. And public opinion data suggests the people of Asia, even though they may not be the most concerned about global warming, nonetheless would support an accord that restricts emissions.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.

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