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Beat the heat: How leaders can work together to address climate change in Asia

Earth Day in April was an opportunity for government and business leaders to commit to act on climate change.
Oliver Tonby

Advises oil and gas, energy, and industrial clients on strategic, development, and operations issues; member of Singapore’s Future Economy Council

Mekala Krishnan

Leads the McKinsey Global Institute’s research on gender economics, inclusive growth, and economic development

We are all feeling the heat. Here in Singapore, from 1980 to 2020, the annual mean temperature increased from 26.9 deg C to 28.0 deg C, according to the National Climate Change Secretariat - but the social and economic impacts of a warming climate are larger and reach far beyond our shores.

Climate change will be on the agenda at the World Economic Forum's Special Annual Meeting 2021 in Singapore in August. This is set to be one of the first global leadership summits to address the challenges of recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic and laying the basis for a more inclusive and sustainable world. A key element of any response will be policies that address the impacts of the changing climate.

One of the most serious of these impacts is from rising heat and humidity levels. Gone unchecked and unmitigated, this will not only mean discomfort to our bodies but also impact our livelihoods, infrastructure, and economy. Adaptation and mitigation to climate change is an imperative of our times.

Recent McKinsey research showed the scale of the impact of rising heat and humidity levels. Under a high emissions climate scenario, we find the impacts are widespread, across many parts of the world.

By 2050, between 500 million and 700 million people in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India could face about a 20 per cent annual probability of lethal heat waves. In parts of India some 30 per cent of annual daylight hours available for work could be lost each year from chronic increases in heat and humidity.

And these countries are not alone. South-east Asia will also face the risk of annual outdoor working hours reduced by extreme heat and humidity and, in China, the average share of outdoor working hours lost each year in exposed areas could increase from 4.5 per cent in 2020 to 6.5 per cent in 2030 and 8.5 per cent in 2050, a near doubling. In Australia, the effects of extreme heat are visible with the increasing intensity of wildfires and droughts.

More broadly, we find that Asia, in many ways, could be more at risk than other parts of the world. Asia accounts for more than two-thirds of the global GDP at risk from effective outdoor working hours lost due to increased heat and humidity by 2050. Under a high emissions scenario by 2050, up to 1.2 billion people globally could be living in areas with non-zero annual probability of lethal heat waves, with the vast majority in Asia.

Singapore, like other cities in the region, suffers not only from the general rise in temperatures, but also from what is called the urban heat island effect. When we replace natural cover with pavements and buildings, these absorb and retain heat, leading to temperatures in the city that are much higher than in the surrounding country.


Recent research has confirmed the urban heat island effect throughout Asia in big cities such as Bangkok and Jakarta. Rising urbanisation in Asia is leading to an increase in the size of urban heat islands, as well as an increase in their number. In some cities, the night-time temperature can be as much as 7 deg C higher than the surrounding areas.

Mitigating the effects of heat has been a strategic policy of Singapore since its birth. Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew famously said that the most important invention of the 20th Century was air conditioning, as it allowed workers in hot climates to be as productive as those in cooler climates. Now is the time to find new ways of cooling.

The first pillar of Singapore's Green Plan 2030, announced this year, is called City in Nature. It is an ambitious attempt to sequester carbon dioxide by planting one million trees and setting aside 1,000 hectares for green spaces, of which 200 hectares will be new nature parks.

Due to its strengths as both an R&D and financial hub, Singapore can also take a regional lead in innovation in climate adaptation infrastructure and, by investing in climate mitigation efforts through sustainable investment and sustainability funds. Decarbonisation Partners, a new investment company set up this month by Temasek and BlackRock, is one example.

While Asia stands out as being more exposed to physical climate risk than other parts of the world, it is also positioned to lead the response to these challenges and capture the opportunities that may arise. Adaptive thinking and mitigation design can be included in the infrastructure and urban areas that are still being built in many parts of Asia.

The combination of technology, capital and leadership serves as a model for how we should work together to forge ways of adapting, mitigating and managing climate risks in our region and across the world. By building on ongoing efforts and galvanising support at events like the World Economic Forum, together we can move from just feeling the heat, to beating the heat.

Oliver Tonby is McKinsey's Asia chairman and Mekala Krishnan, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute.

This article was originally published in The Business Times, Singapore,

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