By Sahana Menon
Laos: In recent weeks, South and Southeast Asia have been hit by a severe heatwave, leading to a tragic loss of lives, a surge in hospitalizations, and substantial financial damages for farmers and businesses. This scorching weather has shattered previous temperature records across the entire region.
Tak province in Thailand recorded its hottest day on record, soaring to 45.4 degrees Celsius (113.7 degrees Fahrenheit), while Luang Prabang in Laos broke national heat records at 43.5 degrees Celsius.
Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, recently witnessed its highest maximum temperature in five decades, hitting a scorching 40.6 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit). Numerous cities in northern and eastern India recorded temperatures exceeding 44 degrees Celsius (111.2 degrees Fahrenheit). Vietnam experienced unprecedented temperatures of 44.2 degrees Celsius (111.5 degrees Fahrenheit). Myanmar, too, suffered greatly, Its Magway region reaching an astonishing 46 degrees Celsius (114.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and with media reports indicating 61 reported deaths due to heat-related complications, pending official confirmation.
This photo depicts the fiery aftermath of slash burn cultivation in Northern Laos, where traditional agricultural practices contribute to climate change and escalating temperatures. photo credits : Sahana Menon
The Philippines experienced dangerous heat index levels, leading to a reduction in classroom hours, while Manila and surrounding areas faced power outages, exacerbating the situation. Cambodia encountered temperatures reaching 41.6 degrees Celsius (106.8 degrees Fahrenheit) days ago, posing challenges for athletes participating in the Southeast Asian Games. Concerns were raised by an Indonesian coach about the heat’s impact, and a Malaysian health official warned of the risk of heat stroke.
Vietnamese residents were significantly affected by the heatwave, with adverse effects on their daily lives and income. Street vendors reported losses as customers chose to stay indoors, and delivery motorcycle drivers were compelled to halt their work during the hottest hours to prioritize their well-being.
These instances highlight the extensive implications of the ongoing heatwave and underline the urgent need to address the escalating threats of climate change in the Asia-Pacific region.
Climate scientists attribute the heatwave to a combination of factors, including reduced rainfall in preceding months, the resurgence of El Niño in the Pacific Ocean, and human activities such as urbanization and greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat.
The daytime haze engulfed the streets of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO heritage city in Laos. The haze, a visible manifestation of atmospheric pollution, is primarily attributed to slash-and-burn cultivation practices in the region. These agricultural activities release large amounts of smoke, particulate matter, and greenhouse gases, contributing significantly to climate change and exacerbating the prevailing heat.photo credit : Sahana Menon
Experts warn that these extreme heat events are projected to become more frequent, longer-lasting, and more intense as global temperatures continue to rise. The Asia-Pacific region has experienced faster temperature increases over the past 60 years compared to the global average. While heat waves are not uncommon in the region before the rainy season, the recent wave has been particularly severe and extensive.
The impacts of the heatwave have been wide-ranging. Thailand, for instance, witnessed April temperatures 2.5 degrees Celsius above the historical average, resulting in reduced business activities and negative effects on livelihoods. Laos suffered devastating impacts on agriculture and tourism, with parched lands and dying crops. Myanmar’s meteorology and hydrology department issued warnings for workers to avoid direct sunlight during the hottest hours of the day.
The lack of winter rainfall has exacerbated the high temperatures in the region. Dry soil heats up rapidly compared to moist soil, leading to the formation of hot anomalies as spring arrives. The emergence of El Niño, characterized by warm ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, could further exacerbate the already warm and dry weather conditions in Southeast Asia.
Human activities, including rapid urbanization and excessive reliance on fossil fuels, have also significantly contributed to these extreme weather conditions. Experts emphasize the urgent need to address deforestation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the impact of climate change. A recent report by the United Nations reveals that global warming, driven by human activities, amplified these multiple hazards.
According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the past eight years have been the warmest on record worldwide, with 2016 being the hottest year. The primary drivers behind these record-breaking temperatures are the combination of a powerful El Niño event and human-induced warming from greenhouse gases. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) conducted a study revealing that most countries in the Asia-Pacific region are ill-prepared to cope with the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, primarily attributed to climate change. The report, titled “Race to Net Zero,” highlights that while the region bears the brunt of climate change consequences, it also contributes significantly, accounting for over half of global greenhouse gas emissions.
A group of boys ascending an almost burnt jackfruit tree in search of the remaining fruits. In Sainyabuli Province in Laos, plagued by harmful burning practices, contributing to both heat-induced climate change and food insecurity. photo credits : Sahana Menon
Over the past six decades, temperatures in the Asia-Pacific region have risen at a faster rate compared to the global average. ESCAP identifies six out of the top ten countries affected by these disasters in the Asia-Pacific region, where disruptions to food systems, economic losses, and social instability are prevalent. The study estimates annual economic losses from natural and biological hazards in the region to be around $780 billion, with projections reaching $1.1 trillion in a moderate climate-change scenario and $1.4 trillion in a worst-case scenario.
The report highlights significant challenges faced by Asia-Pacific countries in terms of financial resources and data availability required for effective climate action. Existing infrastructure and services lack resilience to climate change impacts. U.N. Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana emphasizes the urgency for regional climate action, citing the unprecedented heatwaves experienced in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, and other countries in the region.
The report also emphasizes the substantial contribution of the Asia-Pacific region to global emissions, with 57% of global emissions from fuel combustion in 2020 originating from this region, primarily driven by coal consumption. Emissions have more than doubled since 1990, primarily due to the electricity and heating, manufacturing and construction, and transport sectors. Fossil fuels account for 85% of the region’s primary energy supply, with coal alone responsible for 60% of energy-related CO2 emissions, and oil and gas accounting for one-third.
To limit temperature rises to 1.5°C, the report stresses the urgent need for a drastic reduction in oil and gas usage by 2050 and a complete phase-out of coal. The transport sector contributes 27% of the region’s CO2 emissions, with a 200% increase in emissions over the past three decades and an estimated 150% increase in transport demand between 2015 and 2050. Manufacturing and construction activities in the region account for three-fourths of global emissions in this sector.
Despite the majority of countries in the Asia-Pacific region pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by 2022, ESCAP states that their collective efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change fall short of the necessary ambition. The report projects a 16% increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, which is far from the required 45% reduction needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
It highlights the lack of regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region concerning climate action, unlike the European Union and the African Union. Only six countries in the region, including Australia, Fiji, Japan, Maldives, New Zealand, and South Korea, have enacted national laws to address climate challenges. China, the world’s largest emitter, has committed to carbon neutrality by 2060 but has yet to establish legal provisions.
The vulnerability of Pacific countries and small island developing states to climate change impacts due to their ecological fragility is underscored. Strengthening multi-hazard early warning systems and fostering regional cooperation are emphasized by Huda Ali Shareef, Maldives’ deputy ambassador to Thailand. Shareef also notes that least-developed countries and small island developing states in the region have not received any climate-related foreign direct investment since 2011.
In 2019, law students from Pacific island countries raised the question of states’ legal obligations to combat climate change. Now, four years later, the United Nations General Assembly has requested an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on this matter, signifying a potentially significant decision. The ICJ’s view, although nonbinding, is expected to hold substantial legal weight and moral authority.
Pacific island nations, including Vanuatu, face high vulnerability to extreme weather events and sea-level rise due to projected increases in global temperatures. Low-lying nations such as Tuvalu and Kiribati are particularly at risk. Over 130 nations sponsored the U.N. resolution, with Indonesia joining at the last minute. Notably, the world’s largest carbon polluters, the United States and China were not among the sponsors. The resolution seeks an advisory opinion from the ICJ on governments’ obligations to protect the climate system and the environment from global warming caused by human activity. It also requests an opinion on the legal consequences for countries causing significant harm to the climate and environment, particularly regarding small island states.
An opinion from the ICJ could strengthen arguments for developed nations to take more decisive action to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and provide compensation to countries most affected by climate change. It may also influence national laws and court decisions related to climate change lawsuits.
The recent report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity have undeniably caused global warming. The report highlights that the increase in average surface temperature is already contributing to climate extremes worldwide. While the internationally agreed goal of limiting the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius is still attainable, it requires urgent action.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and Vanuatu Prime Minister Kalsakau expressed their appreciation for the law students who played a crucial role in initiating the effort to seek the ICJ’s advisory opinion. The students, studying law at the University of South Pacific campus in Port Vila, Vanuatu, formed a civil society organization called Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change. Their objective was to convince governments to seek the ICJ’s opinion, aiming to develop new international law that combines climate change with legal obligations derived from environmental treaties and human rights.
The campaign reflected frustration with the inadequacy of countries’ emissions reduction pledges. Lavetanalagi Seru, the regional policy coordinator at the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network, anticipates that it will take two to three years for the ICJ, based in The Hague, to issue its opinion.
“The goal is not to assign blame but to enhance understanding of states’ role in protecting the rights of current and future generations and to establish the minimum actions that countries must undertake to safeguard those rights”