It’s time for us to discuss, plan and act together to protect Cambodia and our children from climate change. We must address climate change from the heart, and not treat it as an abstraction or a problem for other countries.
The recent landmark international climate change agreement signed in Paris is a turning point for the planet. It’s the best chance to keep Earth hospitable to human life. Countries agreed to globally coordinate action on climate change; embraced a common goal to strive for a limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels; and stated that emissions should peak “as soon as possible” and then rapidly decline.
That is what the world did. What can Cambodia do?
Our national 10 to 15 year pledge that we made before going to Paris falls short of what is required to prevent dangerous climate change— most other countries’ plans fell short too—and we must all do better. Cambodia can improve its Paris target of 27 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from business-as-usual levels by 2030 and aim for 50 percent instead, saving our forests and making our cities greener.
The Paris deal will unlock trillions of dollars for climate change adaptation and renewable energy development. Developed countries will send $100 billion annually to developing nations beginning in 2020. That figure will increase with time, and some of that money will come here to Cambodia. But we must be careful.
We learned a valuable lesson from carbon trading program REDD+: independence is vital. Cambodia should not wait for international climate change funds or rely only on these funds. We must act by ourselves and for ourselves, starting now.
The Paris plan is short on specifics, such as how it will be enforced or how to measure improvements. Cambodia can lead Asia, acting at local levels to protect ecosystems that are critical for human life—such as catchment and watershed areas that are sources of freshwater. For us to be healthy, our critical ecosystems must be healthy.
Specifically, Cambodia should ratify the historic Paris agreement, and live up to its pledge to increase forest cover to 60 percent of national land area by 2030. We must strive to save our forests by truly stopping deforestation. Moreover, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap City can lead the way in planting thousands of new trees, making Cambodia famous for its “green cities.” In fact, we can work on a new building code that incentivizes low emissions buildings, eventually making wasteful buildings illegal, learning from the best regional experiences such as Singapore’s stimulation of low-emissions buildings.
Besides changing our buildings, we can improve our streets. We call on the government to expedite its plans for trains in Phnom Penh and ask that the authorities add ferryboats and buses, as authorities have done in Bangkok. If we don’t want to suffocate in polluted streets, we should be shifting steadily from regular motorbikes to electric motorbikes over a 10-year plan, and from regular cars to electric or hybrid cars, too. Building public trust in electric vehicles is key, as is guaranteeing quality, and shifting taxes and tariffs away from good vehicles on to super-polluting vehicles.
Last but not least, Cambodia can stop subsidies to fossil fuels and shift them instead to renewable energy, move away from a future reliance on coal. The best way to do this is to pass a net metering law. In our “nationally determined contribution” to the Paris agreement, we can create a Clean Power Plan for a 100 percent renewable future.
It’s not only the national government that can courageously commit to reduce emissions. The governors of Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and Siem Reap City don’t need to wait. They can join the Paris pledge by 700 mayors to reduce emissions and increase the share of renewable energy by 50 percent by 2050.
The private sector can also act now. Many companies worldwide have already pledged to clean up their production. Cambodian companies can do the same. Companies should make genuine commitments to improve their emissions footprint—not just doing the minimum but aiming for the maximum.
Civil society also has an important role. The Cambodian public, NGOs, and independent development partners must help. Their assistance in monitoring, measuring, and reporting will be crucial, both in environmental protection and renewable energy expansion.
Cambodia is already facing the dangerous impacts of climate change: 2016 is set to be the hottest year ever recorded. The science is clear: Carbon emissions are the main cause of climate change and global warming. Developing countries will face $1.7 trillion each year in economic damage annually by 2050 if global average temperatures rise by 3 degrees. Even with just a 1.5 degree increase, Cambodian agriculture will be hurt by droughts, heat waves, and unpredictable rainfall that will leave farmers struggling, bankrupt and hungry.
Sea levels will rise and flooding will worsen. Babies and old people will die in heat waves, while malaria and dengue fever will spread as the weather warms. Lives are at stake. We cannot sit and wait. We cannot use climate change as a political game played for economic or political benefits, or we will never succeed in managing and mitigating it. We must all come together and stand shoulder to shoulder to ensure positive change.
Tuy Sereivathana is a Cambodian conservationist and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Etelle Higonnet has conducted research for Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Greenpeace Southeast Asia.