This will be extremely difficult, given the adverse economic impact of Covid-19. But there are pockets of excellence on which the region could build. The cost of generating solar energy, for example, has become as competitive as conventional power sources. Although still smaller in size compared with common modes of transport, electric cars have the potential to reduce the region’s suffocating air pollution and dependence on fossil fuels. Green finance issuance is also rising in the region, albeit with differing standards on labelling (what qualifies as a green financial product), which raises concerns over “brownwashing”.
However, for all this to be sustained, Asia needs a vibrant and enabling private sector that could become part of the solution, rather than the problem it currently is. As things stand, international and local banks continue to provide much of the funding in Asia for coal, palm oil, cement, and other polluting industries. Solemn pledges about achieving “net zero emissions” in their operations is fanciful at best and, at worst, misleading.
If the private sector is failing Asia and governments are asleep at the wheel, is there a third force that could become more assertive in advocating for climate rights and a green economy? Grassroots action led by citizens’ groups, which could apply pressure on politicians to be more responsive, has the potential to influence public opinion.
There are positive examples from India and many other countries where such grassroots action has worked. At the same time, these initiatives have been too localized to have a broader national impact. What the region needs is a youth-led Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousufzai-inspired mass campaign that builds national and regional support on environmental issues.
This may be too much to expect given that governments in the region, democratic or otherwise, are clamping down on the public space for debate and protest. But climate distress – be it from flooding, drought or pollution – will eventually force affected communities to the streets to demand action. Asia has already suffered enough from the pandemic. Let us not add fuel to the raging fire.