Exclusive: UN Asia Chief calls on region to lead on climate change

By Shirley Tay

Armida Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of UNESCAP, discusses Asia-Pacific’s road to recovery.

“It’s already too late”. That was the stark warning on climate change Sir David Attenborough gave to world leaders at a recent United Nations' Security Council session.

“Even before the pandemic, climate change has been one of the highest priorities,” says Armida Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).

As the largest contributor of global CO2 emissions, Asia-Pacific needs to show leadership in climate efforts, she adds. GovInsider caught up with Alisjahbana to find out how countries can build back better from Covid-19.

APAC leading on climate change

The region needs to keep the perennial climate crisis in mind as it recovers from Covid-19, Alisjahbana says. But she emphasises that it cannot be mitigated by only one or two countries. “This is the problem. You need to do it together.”

Agriculture burning in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, for instance, have been huge sources of CO2 emissions, she says. 1.6 million hectares of Indonesian forests went up in flames in 2019, costing the economy US$5.2 billion, Channel News Asia reported.

Asia-Pacific countries are also heavily reliant on fossil fuels. A recent UNESCAP report found that 27 countries in the region account for 76 per cent of global coal generation capacity.

“Our region is big on fossil fuels. We need to reduce that eventually, and substitute that with cleaner, renewable energy.” Conversations are already moving in that direction, a good sign of greener investments to come, Alisjahbana says.

Such investment opportunities provide a chance for the “region to show leadership in innovation,” she adds.

COP26 will be happening in Glasgow this November, and Alisjahbana hopes countries will come up with a more ambitious commitment to mitigate climate change. Cleaner, sustainable energy will be central for countries to recover from Covid-19, she adds.

Partnering to distribute vaccines

Countries must partner in the global Covid-19 vaccine rollout, Alisjahbana says. Access has been a huge issue, as “all countries are basically trying to grab the supplies of vaccines.”

The global COVAX scheme can help to ensure vaccines are distributed fairly, she says. The WHO-backed programme will deliver 237 million doses of AstraZeneca's vaccines to 142 countries by the end of May.

Alisjahbana calls on wealthier nations to contribute to the scheme, so developing countries can also secure supplies. “I hope this effort can be accelerated. If we could get this to the widest population as soon as possible, we have a better chance to defeat the pandemic.”

Building digital connectivity

Image by UNESCAP
Covid-19 has changed the way we work and live, creating an unprecedented reliance on technology. Governments must accelerate digital connectivity in an inclusive manner, Alisjahbana says.

Only 44 per cent of households in Asia-Pacific’s developing countries have Internet access at home, UNESCAP wrote in GovInsider last year. Even for those with access, connection speeds and affordability keep the Internet out of reach.

UNESCAP has been working with the region to achieve universal digital connectivity by 2030, she says. Its Asia Pacific Information Superhighway initiative, for instance, aims to enhance the development of affordable and reliable broadband connectivity across the region.

The digital divide among countries also needs to be reduced, Alisjahbana says. The organisation is in discussions to create a shared Internet exchange point between Fiji, New Zealand and Samoa.

Preliminary studies have shown that the exchange point will reduce Internet delays by 64 per cent, and benefit six other Pacific ESCAP member states as well.

Scale up social protection

The global crisis has exposed the vulnerability of societies and highlighted existing inequalities, Alisjahbana says.

Vulnerable groups like women, children, and migrant workers have been affected the most.

Countries need to scale up social protection schemes and universal health coverage, she emphasises. Many vulnerable populations in Asia-Pacific “are not covered with any type of social protection, even the simplest one”.

“Unfortunately, we’ve learnt huge lessons from the pandemic, maybe the hard way,” she says.

Resilience, sustainability, and inclusivity must be the cornerstones of Asia-Pacific’s recovery from Covid-19. "We have to be better prepared for future crises, because this is something that can happen again.”