ASEAN’s renewable energy resistance will leave it defenceless against climate change

Written by : Thomas Da Jose

Four years have passed since world leaders committed to the Paris Agreement, a breakthrough for all 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, the agreement will be nothing more than just another ‘diplomatic triumph’, unless governments fulfil their obligation to drive sustainable growth and make climate-smart investments.

After all, the goal, while ambitious, is far from impossible. All signatory countries must band together to maintain an average global temperature increase “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” by the year 2100.

The mechanism to make the Paris Agreement inclusive for developing economies was simple – governments would be accountable for setting their own nationally determined contributions (NDCs) towards the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. As such, the agreement has received overwhelming support from the Asia-Pacific region, which arguably stands to benefit the greatest from global climate change action, being one of the most disaster-prone areas in the world.

The ASEAN Working Group on Climate Change (AWGCC) organised the first ASEAN Climate Change Partnership Conference on 26 June 2018 in Manila, Philippines (Image: ASEAN, 2018)

Given what is at stake for ASEAN, the Paris Agreement is more important than ever for the protection and wellbeing of its combined population of 640 million people.

Natural disasters and climate change come hand in hand

Natural disasters manifest in many forms, spanning from rapid-onset disasters such as earthquakes and storms, to slow-onset disasters like flooding and drought.

The Asia-Pacific region is no stranger to natural disasters. According to the 2018 Red Cross World Disasters Report, two billion people have been affected by natural disasters over the past decade. The Asia-Pacific region was subject to two of every five of the 335 disasters recorded worldwide in 2017, and suffered 58 per cent of disaster-related deaths. As such, disasters have headlined tabloids, and its destructiveness is only expected to increase as a direct result of climate change.

Communities are further affected by the negative cascading effects of such calamities on livelihoods, education, agriculture, health and the economy. If climate change is effectively addressed, their effects can be mitigated. This would prevent natural hazards from eventuating into catastrophic events.

Southeast Asia bears the brunt of climate change

Largely comprised of coastlines with heavily populated low-lying areas, Southeast Asian communities become exceptionally vulnerable to extreme weather events and rising sea levels. According to the Global Report on Internal Displacement produced by Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), disasters in Southeast Asia caused 61% of new displacements in 2017.

Tropical storm Tembin brought about mudslides and flash flooding, which reportedly killed more than 180 civilians and left many more displaced in Mindanao, Philippines (Image: Reuters, 2018)

As one of the most disaster-prone and vulnerable regions in the world, one would believe that ASEAN countries would prioritise climate change action.

Yet, we are now in 2019, and the resistance against renewable energy remains crystal clear.

Indonesia continues to use polluting vessels to import diesel instead of investing in its solar and wind energy potential, Vietnam has confirmed major plans to build 40 gigawatts worth of coal-fired power plants despite pledges to curb emissions, and Thailand’s current administration has limited renewable energy expansion. Falling behind the standards set by leading nations and neighbouring communities around the world, it has been reported that “ASEAN is the worst-performing region globally in terms of renewable energy deployment and transport sector electrification” (Razzouk, 2018).

ASEAN Member Countries (Image: Medium, 2018)

At a crossroad: Economic growth at collision with a green vision

So, why is it that the countries in ASEAN struggle so much when it comes to investing in renewable energy when the region stands to arguably benefit the most from global climate change efforts?

Growth.

The region has experienced significant economic advancement over the past decade with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth reaching an estimated 5.3% in 2018, and is expected to remain robust in 2019.

Gross domestic product (GDP) of the ASEAN countries from 2008 to 2018 (in billion U.S. dollars) (Image generated: Statista, 2019)

As such, ASEAN countries are at a crossroad. On one hand, member states’ economies are rapidly growing, which is why they require energy that is both easily available and affordable in order to feed this growth, especially with rising consumption. On the other hand, countries must also modify their development strategies that increasingly contribute to global warming in order to mitigate natural disasters and honour their commitment to the Paris Agreement.

However, no global agreement is without its caveats.

In the Paris Agreement, there are no rigid timelines for these commitments to be met, nor are they binding under international law. The proposed national targets in each country’s respective NDCs are expressions of good intentions. For this reason, ASEAN’s roadmap to combat climate change is ultimately a self-determined priority. Unfortunately, its priority is towards economic growth by any means required, even if it is at the expense of renewable energy opportunities.

Why ASEAN must prioritise renewable energy investments

In the immediate future, fossil fuels may be the easiest and cheapest path for countries to maintain economic growth and generate sufficient energy supply for its constituents.

However, resistance to renewable energy cannot last for two main reasons:

  1. It is expected that power generation will double by 2025 and that overall energy demand will grow by 50 percent. Fossil fuel sources are finite and will not thoroughly keep up with the increasing consumption.
  2. The scale, severity and unpredictability of natural hazards are expected to increase as a direct result of climate change. Communities need institutional support to adopt clean energy alternatives, which can be scaled nationwide.

By investing into and advancing the adoption of renewable energy technologies, communities are equipped with the knowledge and tools to persist, adapt and thrive in the face of climate change. They will increasingly become disaster-resilient; especially as these technologies themselves are adaptable to adverse conditions due to their decentralised nature. This is evident in the increased availability of utility-scale solar devices in the Southeast Asian market, which are competitively affordable and accessible when compared with their fossil fuels counterparts.  

As a result, the substantial reduction in carbon emissions with the use of renewable technologies will provide short-term and long-term benefits to the wellbeing of communities.

Last but not least, the economy will also benefit from climate change action. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), climate change is estimated to shave 11 percent off the GDP of Southeast Asia by the end of the century. This is due to its impact on key sectors such as agriculture, tourism, and manufacturing. However, as this is predictable, it is manageable and preventable.

Therefore, governments cannot shy away from combating climate on the premise that is financially unviable. It is clear that renewable energy investments will benefit economic growth.

Looking ahead into the future

The purpose of this article is not to undermine the efforts made by cities, town and grassroots communities in combating climate change. In fact, many initiatives have been mobilised since the inception of the Paris Agreement.

However, this article aims to criticise the lack of efforts made by governments towards the adoption of renewable energies despite having made a commitment to the historic agreement, preferring to invest in other initiatives or doing so little that they are seemingly betraying the cause.

It is accepted that the task of balancing economic growth and a green vision is no easy task. Nevertheless, governments remain accountable for the wellbeing and protection of their people and must be called on to do more.

As one of the most vulnerable communities in the world, the ASEAN region cannot afford to continue to ignore climate change for much longer.

Renewable energy investments must be prioritised. And it must be a cornerstone of the region’s agenda in building a climate-resilient ASEAN.


References

Brown, D. 2017, ‘Vietnam makes a big push for coal, while pledging to curb emissions’, Mongabay.

Da Jose, T. 2016, ‘Does the Paris Agreement have the necessary leadership to be successful’, Accessed 09 January 2019.

Gnanasagaran, A. 2018, ‘Will fossil fuels die in Southeast Asia?’, The ASEAN Post, Accessed 12 January 2019.

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, ‘Global Report on Internal Displacement 2018’, Accessed 09 January 2019.

Kaushik, P. 2018, ‘Asian cities to stand to lure climate investments worth US$20 trillion’, Accessed 09 January 2019.

Little, A. 2015, ‘What the Paris Climate Agreement means for vulnerable nations’, The New Yorker, Accessed 08 January 2019.

Matthews, N. & Deon, N. 2018, ‘We can’t rid Asia of natural disasters. But we can prepare for them’, World Economic Forum, Accessed 09 January 2019.

Prakash, A. 2018, ‘Boiling Point’, International Monetary Fund, Accessed 09 January 2019.

Razzouk, A. 2018, ‘Southeast Asia is the global laggard in renewable, but for how much longer?’, Medium, Accessed 09 January 2019.

The Business Times 2018, ‘GDP growth in ASEAN expected to slow in 2019: ICAEW report’, Accessed 12 January 2019.

United Nations, 2015, Article 4(4), Paris Agreement, Accessed 08 January 2019. 

United Nations, 2016, ‘World leaders invited to Paris Agreement signing ceremony on April 22’, Sustainable Development Goals, Accessed 08 January 2019. 

Wade, M. 2018, ‘Two billion people hit by natural disasters in the past decade: Red Cross’, The Sydney Morning Herald, Accessed 14 January 2019.

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