Only a handful of serious scientists would deny that climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face this century. As Christine Lagarde warned at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters: “We will be grilled, toasted and roasted” if we don’t manage to curb our greenhouse gas emissions, which heat up the planet, very soon.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions means, first and foremost, reducing the consumption of coal, oil and gas. But what does this mean for fast-growing economies in East Asia, hungry for inexpensive energy? In 1997, the world agreed on a historic compromise: under the umbrella of the United Nations (UN), industrialized nations – responsible for the vast majority of emissions in the past – committed to cutting back their emissions, while it was agreed that such cuts would not apply to emerging markets. However, when an economic crisis hit many industrialized nations, the willingness to unilaterally reduce emissions without any binding commitments from the new economic powerhouses melted away like the glaciers in the Himalaya.

When the binding commitments made by industrialized countries ended in 2012, only a handful of nations showed willingness to extend them. After nearly two decades of negotiations, industrialized and emerging countries continue to argue over historic versus future emissions and over whose duty it is to take responsibility. The UN process to broker a global agreement to fight climate change got stuck in an impasse.

However, quite unnoticed by many, an interesting movement has started across East Asia and beyond. Instead of waiting for the UN process to bring results, many countries now act on their own. South Korea and Taiwan are both about to launch domestic carbon emissions trading schemes; China is experimenting with seven pilot schemes; and Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are coming up with low-carbon legislation, green building standards and even industry engagement programmes to voluntarily cut harmful emissions. All eyes are now on Myanmar: will this emerging country embark on a resource-efficient growth path?

Yes, the climate is changing in East Asia. There are clear signs of a new political climate, one that focuses on the opportunities of green growth, rather than the costs of cutting emissions. Seeing East Asian nations leading by example may well inspire a critical mass to get the UN process back on track.

Author: Renat Heuberger is CEO, South Pole Group

Image: A woman rides a bicycle past a coal burning power station in China REUTERS/David Gray