BANGKOK: Up to 1 billion people in Asia could live in areas experiencing lethal heatwaves by 2050 as a result of worsening climate change, according to a new report by consulting firm McKinsey Global Institute (MGI).
The modelling in the report outlines that severe heat is just one of the major risks forecast for the continent under RCP8.5, a worst-case scenario situation that could result without collective action to reduce carbon emissions.
Without vastly improved action to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, Asia is expected to see temperature rises of more than two degrees from pre-industrial levels.
While much of the risk lies in subcontinental Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, Southeast Asia would also face more frequent, dangerous heat conditions, especially Vietnam.
Based on MGI’s report released on Nov 24, it means more regular deadly heat events and vastly reduced safe outdoor working hours, a factor compounded in Southeast Asia by fast spreading urbanisation and the prediction of shifting manufacturing operations to the region from China.
The flow-on effects to agriculture is also predicted to place greater strain on populations.
In Southeast Asia - labelled Emerging Asia in the report - yields of essential crops like rice, corn and soy will become more unpredictable, affecting prices for consumers and livelihoods of farmers. Singapore is in a separate category called Advanced Asia.
“Climate risk and response is one the imperatives, if not the imperative of our generation,” Oliver Tonby, Asia Chairman of McKinsey & Company, told CNA.
“The stakes of climate change - and the impact it’s having on people, on economies, on countries - we’re already starting to feel it in significant ways and if we continue on the slow pace we’re on right now, the consequences are going to be devastating, especially for Asia,” he said.
READ: Hot in the city - Rising night temperatures a potentially major health issue in Asian metropolises
The financial impacts on economies could be staggering - between US$2.8 trillion and US$4.7 trillion of collective GDP in Asia would be at risk every year from rising heat and humidity.
Tonby says one of the report’s intentions is to put a dollar figure on the damage that could lie ahead in the hope that it will provoke action from governments and companies.
“It is important to have a fact base in this debate. For certain people, it is important to talk about what the effect is in monetary terms,” he said.
“We want to paint a realistic picture. The numbers themselves and the messages themselves are startling. It illustrates the importance of climate risk, of sustainability, in a certain context and hopefully it spurs more action. That’s the idea.”
Regional governments have been urged to “amplify” investments in climate action in order to protect vulnerable populations and empower them to adapt to the rising dangers of drought and extreme heat, in another recent report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Secretariat.
It follows some of the worst drought conditions ever recorded in the region over the past five years, with 70 per cent of Southeast Asia's land area affected and about 60 per cent of the region’s population exposed at the peak of dry conditions, according to the study.
“The ever-present threat of drought, with devastating impacts across the Southeast Asia region, is a hallmark of the climate crisis,” UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana said in a statement on Nov 27.
“The best way to protect people in pandemics, droughts or other disasters, is not just to offer emergency aid but to also help people become more sustainably resilient,” she said.
The authors of the report called on regional governments to be more proactive to foreseeable drought events and implement better early warning systems and drought risk financing.
Despite growing attention to extreme heat from authorities, it remains an overlooked and under-examined issue, according to Albert Salamanca, a Bangkok-based senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute.
“Extreme heat is an issue that is yet to receive full attention by national and regional actors and stakeholders,” he said.
“There is now a growing realisation, however, of extreme heat in the context of agricultural drought and its contribution to a country’s annual loss due to disasters.”
The urban heat island phenomenon is also a growing impediment to productivity and health, as increasing thermal mass adds to temperatures in large cities.
Roads, buildings and other concrete urban infrastructure absorb solar radiation during the day and release it slowly at night, causing an increase in temperature. Vehicles add to the issue, as well as the clearing of green spaces to make way for new construction.
While small-scale solutions are being implemented in some major cities, fast urbanisation around secondary cities poses a pressing need for more urgent mitigation strategies.
“Extreme heat in the context of urban areas or urban heating has not yet entered the priorities of national and regional policymakers. To date, discussions on this issue are very limited,” Salamanca said.
It is in the investment in infrastructure where MGI identifies a key opportunity for the Asia region. The report estimates the need for US$1.7 trillion of new investments to maintain economic growth targets.
Much of the factories, networks and other physical urban spaces will need to be future-proofed, especially with regard to the threat posed by extreme precipitation events leading to historic flooding. In some parts of the continent, including Indonesia, the likelihood of these events could increase by three to four-fold, putting hundreds of billions of dollars of assets at danger of damage.
Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo and Jakarta are highlighted as metropolises where the costs of protection from inundation will continue to rise at steeper magnitudes.
But because much essential infrastructure has yet to be built, decision makers have the chance to make prudent investment choices that prioritise sustainability and build resilience rather than risk.
Decarbonising road transportation, buildings and industrial operations - notably steel and cement - as well as forestry and agriculture are all important components in controlling emissions.
As Asia contributes about 45 per cent of global emissions, the speed of its transition from coal to renewable energy sources will be one of the key indicators of success or failure on climate change action.
New capacity in renewables is growing year by year, and several powerhouse nations including China, South Korea and Japan have ambitious emissions targets, which will be driven by the expansion of the solar, wind and geothermal industries.
“That shift is happening naturally. In Southeast Asia we’ve seen a big, big step up in recent years from a lower base and the pace is slightly slower than India and China, but it’s coming,” Tonby said.
The COVID-19 pandemic could prove to be an illuminating lesson on how regional and global cooperation and solutions can help tackle a daunting challenge. Indeed, experts insist that coordinated action is a necessary strategy to help mitigate climate change.
“Working collaboratively on climate change is not only about limiting economic losses; it is about survival,” said Sharon Seah, coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre and the Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
The speed of action and international collaboration has been unprecedented during this crisis, and Tonby expects the pace of climate change initiatives to accelerate too in its wake.
“The surprise - and it’s not a good surprise - is the pace of change that we are facing now and the severity of it. It’s how rapidly it’s coming now,” he said.
“What’s to come in the next ten to 15 years is dramatic and it’s already locked in. What we’re talking about now is moving the needle for 2030 onwards.”