Sout-East Asia's huge and growing demand for energy will set the tone for the global fight against climate change, the United Nations climate chief said yesterday, and the region needs to plan energy investments carefully or risk higher health costs, more damage from extreme weather and loss of competitiveness.
Electricity generation is forecast to nearly triple in the region between 2011 and 2035, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says, with fossil fuels like coal providing most of the energy.
With a population of 600 million, nearly twice that of the United States, and about 130 million people without electricity, South-east Asia faces an immense challenge to meet energy demands in a cost-efficient and sustainable manner.
"It's definitely a challenge, in particular in South-east Asia... over the next two decades, 65 per cent of the (global) growth in energy consumption is going to come from South- east Asia," said Ms Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, in an interview with The Straits Times.
"South-east Asia is such an important weather vane of where greenhouse gas trajectories are going to go," she added.
She said South-east Asia's energy demands underscored the challenge in reaching an ambitious global climate pact at UN-led talks in Paris at the end of the year.
The talks are aimed at sealing a deal that sees all nations taking steps to cut planet- warming greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Last year was the warmest since records began in the 19th century and average world temperatures have already risen by about 0.85 deg C, raising risks of heatwaves, floods and rising world sea levels as ice melts.
South-east Asia's energy- related carbon dioxide emissions will almost double, reaching 2.3 billion tonnes in 2035, says the IEA in its South-east Asia Energy Outlook 2013.
Ms Figueres said the region needed to consider its energy investments as global demand for low-carbon goods increases, meaning nations that invest heavily in dirty energy could become less competitive.
While she was confident a deal would be agreed in Paris, she noted it was just the start of a long process by which nations progressively ramp up their national plans to cut emissions.
She also said China and India, the world's No. 1 and No. 3 carbon polluters, will play a major role in Paris. She pointed to the benefits that investment in clean energy, energy efficiency, replanting forests and curbing coal use can have on their economies.
Ms Figueres, who is on a two-day visit here, said Singapore was a good example of how integrating nature with urban planning has helped it control the city's heat, and protect and increase biodiversity.
"When I was riding a bicycle in the city, I almost felt like this was the city of the future. It has been so well-planned, with concentrated urban populations that nonetheless have access to very efficient public transportation and nature," she said.
She added that Singapore could act as a role model for developing nations that are quickly becoming more urbanised, and also help other small island states that do not have its resources.
This article was first published on March 2, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.