Asia’s Energy Future

SINGAPORE – Asia’s rise is unstoppable. What is stoppable is the steep rise in Asia’s reliance on fossil fuels. Indeed, the decisions to be made by Asia on energy production and use will determine the fate of our planet’s environment.

It is natural for the world to be alarmed by Asia’s growing appetite for energy. If China and India replicate American per capita consumption of fossil fuels, the resulting greenhouse-gas emissions will only accelerate global warming.

Support Project Syndicate’s mission

Project Syndicate needs your help to provide readers everywhere equal access to the ideas and debates shaping their lives.

Learn more

But Asians will not accept Western moralizing on energy use. The West industrialized rapidly without worrying about climate change, contributing mightily to the stock of greenhouse gases that has led the world ever closer to the tipping point at which global warming can no longer be halted.

If the West now wants to hold Asian countries responsible for restraining new sources of greenhouse-gas emissions, it must first hold itself accountable for its old stock and current emissions. This is why there is unanimous agreement in Asia, including China and India, that any just solution for climate change demands greater sacrifice from rich Western countries.

The good news is that robust public policy, coupled with rapid advances in technology, could help humanity as a whole reduce its energy consumption. Consistent policy and superior technology explain why Japan uses one-tenth the energy that China uses to generate the same amount of economic output.

Both China and India can learn a lot from Japan, and both governments, fortunately, are firmly committed to increasing their energy efficiency and use of green technology. Zhenhua Xie, Chinese President Hu Jintao’s special representative on climate change, has stated categorically that China has no other choice than to pursue sustainable development.

In 2007, China founded its National Leading Group on Climate Change, headed by President Hu, and adopted its National Climate Change Program, the first by any developing country. China aims to lower its energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20% relative to 2005 levels by 2010.

As for India, at the G-8 Summit in July 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “Nothing could be farther from the truth than the notion that the developing countries were complacent or were not interested in addressing the consequences of climate change.” Indeed, in 2008 India unveiled an ambitious National Action Plan on Climate Change, which includes eight national missions, including solar and enhanced energy efficiency missions.

Asia is also at the forefront of innovative energy technology and policy efforts. The nonprofit company Grameen Shakti currently leads the world in the installation of solar panels for the rural poor. From 1996 to 2009, Grameen Shakti installed 750,000 solar home systems in Bangladesh to provide emissions-free electricity to more than two million people.

China doubled the efficiency of rural energy consumption between 1983 and 1998 by distributing safer and cleaner stoves to 185 million households. In Singapore, regulators are developing an innovative Electricity Vending System to give 1.2 million consumers real-time price signals so that they can learn to conserve electricity during peak periods.

India, China, and a handful of other Asian countries are also witnessing remarkable growth in local alternative energy companies and the use of renewable energy. India ranks fifth in the world in total production of wind power and third in terms of wind power added in 2008. Suzlon Energy, an Indian company started in 1995 with just 20 people, has become one of the world’s leading wind power companies, with offices in 21 countries.

Moreover, China is the world leader in total renewable energy capacity, small hydroelectric capacity, and the use of solar hot water heaters; second for wind power added in 2008 (ahead of Germany and Spain); and third in total ethanol production. Suntech, a Chinese company founded in 2001, is the third largest manufacturer of solar cells in the world. Japan and South Korea were third in the amount of grid-connected solar photovoltaic panels added in 2008; the Philippines was second for total geothermal power and third for total biomass power; Indonesia was third for total geothermal power. 

Yet neither policy nor technological innovations in Asia will solve the world’s climate change problem. Only a major global bargain between the West and the rest will suffice.

In the eyes of most Asian policymakers, the proposed contribution by the West, especially America, towards solving the problem is woefully inadequate. The American public is simply not being asked to make any serious sacrifices. The G-8’s declaration that its members will reduce carbon emissions by 80% in 2050 contains no upfront commitments. And the clock is ticking. Today, Earth’s atmosphere already contains 380 parts per million of CO2. The “tipping point” could come when we reach 450 ppm.

Developing countries, particularly those in Asia, will suffer the worst consequences of global warming: storm damage, rising sea levels, and massive refugee flows. The Maldives will likely disappear entirely.

In these circumstances, Asians cannot afford to sit back and moralize. They must formulate and present realistic solutions, and negotiate forcefully and realistically before and during the Copenhagen conference in December 2009 in order to produce a global agreement that is based on an equitable sharing of the global commons. The biggest challenge Asians face is to use their intellectual and political leadership to save the world and themselves.