Time To Get Radical

By Debra Tan 18 December, 2018

After mulling over three sobering reports, CWR's Tan calls for even more out-of-the box ideas to help us stay within 1.5°C

We are on track to fail with CO2 emissions rising after a four year plateau but we can keep warming below 2°C if we up ambitions by 3x & close the emissions gap by 2030
Staying within 1.5°C instead of 2°C could mean ice or no ice in the Himalayas & requires serious changes in our lifestyles e.g. taking public transport, eating less meat, saying no to fast fashion…
Climate is changing & time is running out; we need to brainstorm a new way forward, especially for Asia; so any time you can allocate to this can be invaluable

I have been mulling over three sobering reports in the past month. These have made me reflect on CWR’s strategy – we need to be “more bold” with even more out-of-box innovations to resolve the water-energy-climate nexus.

We are not having a “real” conversation on climate consequences for Asia’s water resources…

…even “old hands” were shocked that they had missed these “obvious issues”

The real conversation on climate consequences for Asia’s water resources has not even started. This much was evident when we released No Water, No Growth – Does Asia have enough water to develop?Engagement with the mainstream press clearly showed they did not know how to write about it; even “old hands” in sustainability fields were shocked that they had missed these “obvious issues” which were “hiding in plain sight”.

Eventually, two months after its release, Reuters wrote about the economic consequences as did the Wire but the rest are still glossing over the issue; whereas thethirdpole.net covered it much earlier.  At the recent FT Climate Finance Asia Summit, there was zero water experts present on the panels whereas carbon was well represented by experts from Carbon Care Asia, Carbon Tracker and CDP. In short, the focus in climate finance is still on mitigation rather than the arguably more urgent adaption to rising water risks.

From ‘no idea’ to grand ideas to address triple threat

Asia faces a triple threat of 1) not enough water, 2) climate change impact on water resources and 3) clustered assets along vulnerable rivers. Grand ideas are needed to solve our grand challenges ahead.

But thinking out-of-the-box is difficult. As creatures of habit, we are happily wedded to the ‘norm’. We are often reluctant to welcome change in our busy schedule, which means we don’t carve out time to think out-of-the-box.

Grand ideas are needed to solve our grand challenges ahead but we are happily wedded to the ‘norm’

We held an Ideas Lab to Waterproof Asia in September to brainstorm solutions for Asia’s water challenge following the report launch. The hard part was not finding global experts to attend, but locking down the time of 40+ high-level participants across various sectors for half a day. But once they got stuck in, we had to tear them away from very animated discussions – they all wanted more time.

Our ideas lab showed a lack of awareness because we simply don’t have time to read 700+ page reports

The discussions were highly informative (more on this later in a white paper we will release next year) and the lack of awareness and communication topped the list of problems. We simply don’t have time to read 700+ page reports to distil what’s important to us. So how do we make the leap from ‘no idea’ to grand ideas?

Time is not on our side – we are on track to fail

Time is also something we don’t have. According to the newly released 2018 Emissions Gap Report, CO2 emissions are now rising after a four year plateau. It warns that if we don’t close the emissions gap by 2030 it is “very plausible” that the goal of well-below 2°C will not be reached.

Basically, we are on track to fail; our current path leads us to 3-5°C by 2100.

Reality check:
We are already at +1.2°C as of 2016, so there’s not much margin for error in making decisions today that could affect our water resources tomorrow.
  • Do not act and go about with “business-as-usual” = 4.5°C
  • Execute current policies = 3.5°C
  • Meet current pledges under Paris Agreement = 2.9°C

We don’t have time: the new deadline is 2030

We don’t have until 2100 to fix this, the deadline is 2030. Our actions in the next 12 years will decide our future.

Must up ambitions by 3x by 2030 to stay below 2°C

So what if we don’t stay within 2°C? What has this to do with water?
Climate change impacts our water resources from mountains-to-oceans. It affects our glaciers (which have thinned, retreated and lost mass), snow melt and rainfall/monsoon patterns (too much or too little and not in the right place or the right time).
Ultimately these affect our river flow and resource and it does not look good. We project that 4 of the 10 HKH Rivers will see a reduction in runoff flow in the entire river basin in the next 50 years. These 10 river basins house 1.77billion people and US$4 trillion of GDP.
What’s worse is that this assumes we stay within 2°C. Continuing along the current path would be devastating.
Read the report (it is only 100+ pages), but if you have no time, at least check out this infographic and click through to the other links.

The good news is that staying below 2°C and 1.5°C is technically still possible but would require aggressive ambitions – 3x more than the original level ambition for 2°C and 5x more to stay within 1.5°C by 2100.

The limit is 40 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (GTCO2eq) by 2030 to stay within 2°C and 24 GtCO2eq for 1.5°C. FYI we are at 53.5 GtCO2eq today (52.8 GtCO2eq in 2016).

We are far behind. Much bolder action is definitely required

We are far behind. Much bolder action is definitely required. As can be seen from the box above, our water challenges related to climate change are grave and pervasive.

But is staying within 2°C enough? Perhaps for the rest of the world, but not for Asia – our Himalayan Water Towers need the world to stay within 1.5°C, bringing me to the next report.

Ice or no ice in the Himalayas… staying within 1.5°C makes a huge difference

The “Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Report” is a daunting 700+ page tome put together by the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring & Assessment Programme (HIMAP), coordinated by ICIMOD. It has taken 350 scientists, researchers and policy experts from 22 countries and 185 organisations, 5 years to produce. Although not yet published, we were invited to discuss the key recommendations in The First HKH Science-Policy Forum attended by all the member countries of ICIMOD.

Current path puts HKH at +5°C by 2100…

… already 36% glacier loss at +1.5°C

The message from the forum is equally depressing – it is a precarious moment for the HKH. At current emission levels, temperatures in the HKH are expected to rise by about 5°C by 2100. This could be disastrous – staying within 1.5°C means that the HKH will warm by 1.8 to 2.2°C leading to projected glacier losses of 36%.

Less snow and rising snowline elevations will also impact water resources and food production which will likely exacerbate current food insecurity in the region; women and children are particularly vulnerable. Beyond our mountains to our oceans, we will still have 10-30% of our coral reefs at below 1.5°C; only 1% at below 2°C; and none on the current path.

Need to be 5x more ambitious for 1.5°C or we lose all our coral reefs…

… radical changes in our lifestyles needed

Staying within 1.5°C needs the world to be 5x more ambitious. This means effecting serious changes in our lifestyles: driving less gas guzzling cars, taking public transport, eating less meat, using fewer plastics, saying no to fast fashion and so on. We are not doing this now, but would we take action if we knew this meant an uncertain future with water? Surely every incentive counts?

Anyway, the IPCC special report “Global Warming of 1.5°C” is worth a read, if not the 700+ pages, then the executive summary. BTW, this is the document that the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait objected to “welcoming” the document the recent COP24. Push back from these countries is hardly surprising; no one is going to solve this for us, the ambitious push has to come from Asia.

The 4th National Climate Assessment – Yes but no but yes

That said, even the climate denying US is sounding alarms. The US 4th National Climate Assessment” laments that mitigation and adaptation efforts have not yet reached the “scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades” and that “substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts” are needed. Yet, as the 2nd largest emitter globally, the US is absent from the table.

On climate change’s impact on water in the US, the headlines are in the box below.

The consequences for water are too serious to ignore

The consequences for water are too serious to ignore. The various types of water risks above largely echo those raised in “No Water No Growth except India and China are operating in much tighter constraints – they have much less water resources than the US and are still developing.

Simplify & amplify the message + more time for flashes of brilliance

We may finally be moving from denial to acknowledgement. But is it too late?

We are not going to solve something we didn’t even know was a problem in the first place…

…currently, 92% of climate finance does not even go towards protecting our assets

The message is now clearer but still not loud enough. We are not going to solve something we didn’t even know was a problem in the first place. We need to simplify and amplify the message so that we can start taking adapting to a new climate seriously.

Grander ideas for mitigation are urgently required and even more radical ideas are needed to drive adaptation. Currently, 92% of climate finance does not even go towards protecting our assets. Global investors have just issued a statement calling on governments around the world to step up action to address climate change. Some 415 investors, with USD32 trillion in assets-under-management, are behind the call-to-action as signatories of the 2018 Global Investor Statement to Governments on Climate Change. It remains to be seen if their call is heeded.

Climate is changing & time is running out; any time you can allocate to this can be invaluable

Time is running out and solutions are not going to magically appear. We need to also set aside time to rethink how Asia develops; to re-define business as usual. Climate is changing whether we are ready or not. These paradigm shifts in development and financial reform are inevitable. We need to brainstorm a new way forward; any time you can allocate to this can be invaluable.

So just when you are about to go into a food coma post-Christmas lunch and a random thought comes into your head on how you can save the planet … don’t dismiss it, it could well be the flash of brilliance we need.


Further Reading

  • 3 People-Green-Tech Chinese Initiatives – To win its War on Pollution, China is also turning to technology to engage the public. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor & Yuanchao Xu share three such technologies & their success so far
  • YouTube: The Dark Side Of Going Viral – We are already addicted to the internet, YouTube, Netflix, apps and still forecasts show major growth. China Water Risk’s Woody Chan unwraps the darkside of our runaway data use
  • Fashion Has The Power To Shape A 2℃ World – If fashion were a country it would have the fourth highest carbon emissions behind the US, China, & India. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor & Debra Tan question why the industry is not under the spotlight like coal and call for faster disruptions
  • To Tea Or Not – Black, Green Or Milk? – Tea is the second most drunk beverage after coffee but what does it mean for water, for carbon? Does the type of tea matter? Plus, see what consumers can do to reduce impact
  • Youth & Water – 3 Key Takeaways from Egypt & Stockholm – China Water Risk intern Alex Whitebrook shares key takeaways from his recent trips for the World Youth Parliament for Water. See what’s on their minds
  • Changing Perspectives: Report Launch At Asia Society – With water experts sharing their views at our Asia Society forum, China Water Risk’s Dharisha Mirando & Dawn McGregor recaps and explores how & why we have to start thinking about water differently
  • Hindu Kush Himalayas – Why The Third Pole Matters – What is the Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) region and why does this “Third Pole” matter for Asia’s economy? How we can protect the region better? We sat down with Dr David Molden, the Director General of ICIMOD, to find out more
  • New Report: Does Asia Have Enough Water To Develop? – Since our economy runs on water, no water means no growth but there is little conversation on this topic in Asia. To catalyse such conversations, this report provides an overview of the water-nomic challenges facing Asia
  • Tackling Asia’s Water Challenges – Following China Water Risk’s new report highlighting Asia’s water challenges and the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, Cecilia Tortajada from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy calls for action from the investment community

Debra Tan
Author: Debra Tan
Debra heads the CWR team and has steered the CWR brand from idea to a leader in the water risk conversation globally. Reports she has written for and with financial institutions analyzing the impact of water risks on the Power, Mining, Agricultural and Textiles industries have been considered groundbreaking and instrumental in understanding not just China’s but future global water challenges. One of these led the fashion industry to nominate CWR as a finalist for the Global Leadership Awards in Sustainable Apparel; another is helping to build consensus toward water risk valuation. Debra is a prolific speaker on water risk delivering keynotes, participating in panel discussions at water prize seminars, numerous investor & industry conferences as well as G2G and academic forums. Before venturing into “water”, she worked in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker specializing in M&A and strategic advisory. Debra left banking to pursue her interest in photography and also ran and organized philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore and spends her spare time exploring glaciers in Asia.
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