Still growing … a ceremony at the site of a new hotel in Beijing. Photo: AFP

JAKARTA: The United Nations has delivered a stark warning that Asian mega-cities can no longer develop first and rein in carbon emissions later.

A new report, released in Jakarta yesterday by the UN Development Program, will add impetus to efforts to encourage countries such as China and India to make deeper cuts to their fast-growing emissions at international meetings beginning in November.

But it acknowledges that without fast economic growth, 900 million people in the region will remain in poverty, unable to afford decent lives.

”Asian growth is reducing global inequality,” UNDP regional director Ajay Chhibber told the Herald.

”But we have to give people choices which allow them to live healthy, long [lives] without necessarily aping the consumption patterns of the western world.”

Australian National University academic Andrew Macintosh said global negotiations had been at a ”Mexican stand-off” for 20 years as developed and developing countries each said the other needed to move first, or do more.

”Now there is an expectation that the Asian countries will do a lot more,” he said.

But the challenge, according to the UNDP, is to make sure these countries can continue to grow at the same time.

Despite growth rates of 5 per cent or more in consumption, one in 10 people in the Asia Pacific region still suffer from ”chronic under-consumption” with minimum dietary intakes, and a quarter have no electricity.

The battleground between growing consumption and climate change will be fought in the world’s mega-cities, half of which are in the Asia-Pacific region.

By 2026, more than half of the region’s population will live in a city. While they occupy just 2 per cent of the land in Asia, cities contribute more than two-thirds of greenhouse gases, particularly from transport and electricity.

Jakarta has 130 shopping malls, more than any other city on the planet. Its lack of a reliable public transport system means ownership of cars and motorbikes is rising by 20 to 30 per cent a year, with these all using heavily subsidised petrol.

The report notes that growing richer increases people’s demand for meat and dairy foods, for power to run air-conditioners and for private vehicles. It also generates more rubbish from packaging, which in Asian countries is often still burned or thrown into waterways.

Despite the growth of wealth in Indonesia, the potential for more growth is enormous. Only 11 per cent of people live in cities, and in rural areas only 3.4 per cent own a car.

”We’re not saying consume less, that Asia shouldn’t have a middle class,” Mr Chhibber said. ”But it’s how you plan your cities in terms of transport development, greener buildings, the shift to gas [for electricity] against other forms of fuel [such as coal], and much greater options on transportation.”

Low-lying mega-cities, however, were not only the engines of future climate change but also likely to be its most likely victims, Mr Chhibber said, with poor residents of cities having a limited ability to adapt to a changing climate.

The European climate chief, Connie Hedegaard, said there was now a widespread recognition that the old division between developed and developing countries had outlived its usefulness. Countries wanted ”something more dynamic”, she said.

Mr Chhibber said that ”until five years ago, many Asian countries were of the view that climate change was a problem for the developed world”.

”There’s a growing realisation at least among many of the Asian leaders that this is not good enough,” he said. ”[That’s a] big mindset change that gives us great hope.”

Reports from meetings in Europe this week suggest that realisation has hit home among negotiators, too. China, India and Indonesia have committed to reduce how much carbon dioxide they produce per unit of development, and are likely to promise more cuts at future negotiations.

”Ten years ago, all anyone said was all we want in Asia is growth, growth, growth,” Mr Chhibber said. ”Now … the mental road blocks that people have are beginning to drop. With every flood, every shock, people are beginning to see that Asia is vulnerable … and so we have to make these changes themselves.”