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Japan’s Role in Climate Action and Security in the Asia-Pacific Region

By Dahlia Simangan
Hiroshima University
April 07, 2023
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released the synthesis of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on Climate Change, reiterating that those who historically contributed the least to climate change are more likely to suffer the most from its consequences.

The Asia Pacific region, as a whole, is highly vulnerable to climate change despite its historically lower contributions to global CO2 emissions. Six of the ten countries most at risk of extreme weather events due to climate change are in the Asia-Pacific region: Myanmar, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, and Nepal. These countries are no strangers to natural hazards, but climate change is increasing the intensity, frequency, and duration of extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones, floods, heatwaves, and droughts.
Typhoon damage in Philippines
Increased typhoon severity has been causing extensive damage
Eight of the eleven strongest landfalling tropical cyclones in recorded history occurred in the region, and six of them in the past decade alone. Five of these super typhoons had hit the Philippines, home to 113.9 million people, 18.1% of whom live in poverty.

Climate change is also melting the Himalayan glaciers, following intense heat waves, and bringing in heavier monsoon rainfalls in South Asia. In 2022, just two years after the 2020 South Asian floods, Pakistan experienced catastrophic floods, claiming 1,739 lives and displacing 7.9 million people. It is the country’s worst natural disaster and one of the world’s costliest.

In 2021, Nepal was shrouded in hazardous smoke after an unusual period of dry months and hot, windy weather, intensifying local fires that are commonly done for managing farmland and pastures. It is likely that seasonal wildfires will continue to worsen in a country where air pollution is the leading cause of health issues and disabilities.

Many developing countries in the Asia Pacific are confronted with unique challenges when it comes to balancing economic development and climate action. Home to 60% of the world’s population and fastest-growing economies, the region takes the largest share of global GHG emissions, with China, India, Japan, and Indonesia emitting the most in the region. Additionally, many of the region’s climate-vulnerable countries are also dealing with protracted conflicts and episodes of political instability—from the armed conflicts in the deep south of Thailand, Mindanao in the Philippines, and West Papua in Indonesia, to the Kashmir conflict, the Rohingya refugee crisis, the civil war in Myanmar, and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Geopolitical rivalries, historical animosities, and the presence of nuclear weapons add an international dimension to these conflicts.
Air polluted traffic in South Asia
Heavy pollution is having profound health effects
Although conflicts are driven more by socioeconomic conditions than climatic factors, the IPCC reported in 2022 that extreme weather and climate events could intensify ongoing conflicts. The same report also recognized that climate change exacerbates levels of vulnerability during humanitarian crises not only in societies experiencing violent conflict but also in locations with high levels of poverty, climate-sensitive livelihoods, and governance issues that limit access to basic services and resources. Droughts and floods could lead to food shortages, adding a burden on marginalized communities and refugees already lacking socio-economic safety nets. Climate change can also intensify existing territorial conflicts (such as the competing claims in South China Sea) due to rising sea levels and warming sea temperatures and can incite new competition over transboundary resources (such as in the Mekong region in mainland Southeast Asia and the river basins in South Asia). Indeed, climate change is transforming not just the environmental landscape but also the security configurations where peace and development take place.

How should climate-vulnerable and conflict-affected countries in the Asia Pacific approach the twin challenges of peace and development amidst climate change? Conceptually, peace and development should be understood holistically, with peace being the conditions that enable human flourishing (or positive peace) and development as meeting the needs of present and future generations (or sustainable development). It must also be understood that climate change is just one manifestation of global environmental change due to human activities; biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, land-use change, and freshwater change also threaten humanity’s survival on this planet.

Asia-Pacific approaches to peace and development must be situated in the context of the changing climate and broader global environmental change. These entail climate-sensitive conflict resolution and peacebuilding strategies in which the role of poor resource management and the environmental impact of conflict and conflict-related migration, for example, are taken into account. Meanwhile, the underlying issues of inequality, marginalization, and power asymmetries should be considered when designing and implementing climate adaptation and mitigation policies.

Whatever the Asia-Pacific does to address climate change in this highly complex and interconnected world will send ripples to the rest of the world. And Japan is in a unique position to initiate such a motion. In 2021, Japan was the third largest Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donor country. Its Official Development Assistance (ODA) contributions are primarily channelled to economic infrastructure in Asia-Pacific’s developing countries that are also climate-vulnerable (e.g., Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Myanmar) and large GHG emitters (e.g., India and Indonesia). For many of these countries, Japan is the largest bilateral donor and therefore has a significant role in influencing their development paths.

Japan’s support for developing economic infrastructure in recipient countries must be coupled with requirements to reduce GHG emissions and minimize environmental impact. It may incentivize development plans that incorporate low-carbon and more ecologically-aligned economic models (e.g., doughnut economics, circular economy, care economy, and buen vivir). These models resonate with Japan’s overall ODA strategy, emphasizing “quality growth” that is inclusive, sustainable, and resilient.

On the other hand, large-scale implementation of development plans, especially in highly insecure contexts, must be attentive to potential shifts in political power dynamics that may result in heightened conflict risks or climate maladaptation. In Bangladesh, for example, the construction of a 29.73-km road connecting the often-submerged region of Kishoreganj was one of the government’s achievements in 2020; for the locals, however, the road has disrupted water flow, inundating hectares of land for cultivation. While infrastructure development contributed to the local economy and reduced immediate risks from extreme weather events, it also encouraged vulnerable communities to remain in disaster-prone areas. Climate adaptation measures have also led to the elite capture of public commons in Bangladesh, thereby aggravating human insecurity and violent conflicts. It is therefore important for funding bodies, like Japan, to apply ex-ante frameworks that assess potential adverse side-effects and other negative externalities of deploying development support.

In countries where the reach and effect of national capacity to address conflict and environmental issues are limited, local communities are left to manage or mitigate these socio-ecological disruptions on their own. It is crucial that international support does not enable exploitative behaviors, especially in societies with weak national economies and issues of corruption. Given the compounding risks of climate change, external funding for development needs to be aimed at enhancing social capital through a just, transparent, and efficient distribution of economic aid and technological transfers. Japan has the technology to assist developing countries in transitioning to renewable and efficient energy and to build the capacity of climate-vulnerable countries for disaster risk reduction. It also has the expertise in providing humanitarian assistance and peacebuilding programs to societies affected by conflict. Ultimately, these development plans and assessments must be proactive, context-specific, long-term, and inclusive of the perspectives of vulnerable groups.

Considering the implications of climate change for regional security, stronger partnerships in the Asia Pacific are imperative for Japan to sustain the positive outcomes of its development assistance. This entails enhanced cooperation with other actors in the region, including the private sector, civil society organizations, and leading economies. International cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region will solidify Japan’s reputation as a champion of peace and development amidst global challenges.
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