ASEAN-Australia: Co-building the Missing Pillar

AAYLF delegate from the Philippines Queenie Pearl V. Tomaro explores environment as the fourth pillar of ASEAN-Australia cooperation. 

The Indo-Pacific region comprising both Australia and ASEAN is facing an environmental crisis putting at risk more than 620 million human lives and 20 percent of the world’s species. This protracted ecological calamity is alarming given the emergence of the Philippines and Indonesia as the world’s top two contributors of plastic pollution in our oceans. Additionally, the annual devastation caused by forest fires and transboundary haze constitute unresolved environmental challenges for the ASEAN region [1]. The impacts of these fires have seen the loss of 2.12 million acres of forest as of September 2019 [2]. In the Lower Mekong region, fish stocks have recorded significant declines, causing food and economic insecurity for the millions of ASEAN citizens subsisting within the Mekong River ecosystem [3]. These same environmental concerns are echoed by Australia as climate change poses a central threat to Australia’s economy and financial stability [4]. The region’s shared environmental vulnerability needs a solution.

Smoke rising from a burning forest in Central Kalimantan. Image from Willy Kurniawan via Reuters

What ASEAN should do

Whilst problems such as potential agricultural crises, the rise of terrorism, human rights, and disasters are answered by existing regional agreements such as the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve Agreement (APTERR), ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism (ACCT), 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, and ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response, the climate emergency remains without an ASEAN answer. It is clear therefore that a unified regional action is needed to effectively develop environmental management strategies and address the climate emergency. A coordinated regional plan would facilitate convergence of efforts and changing of mindsets- from economic prosperity to sustainable and environment-friendly development. Hence, I argue for the erection of a fourth pillar in the ASEAN structure, the Environment pillar. The introduction of a new pillar would bring the climate emergency to the centre of the decision-making table, bringing forward environmental issues that continue to remain unresolved or under-addressed. The pillar fits within the ASEAN way which is about building on complementarities, respect and about co-promoting the interests of every ASEAN member state. There is nothing more unifying than the shared impacts of the climate crisis addressed by a shared vision for a healthier ecosystem.

Proposed ASEAN Structure

The Environment Pillar: An opportunity for strong environmental partnership between Australia and ASEAN

The environment pillar would be a pathway towards the forging of stronger relations between ASEAN and Australia as their close proximity means they face similar environmental concerns. The regional imperative for climate action supports the Sustainable Development Goal 13 on Climate Action, 14 on Life Below Water, and 15 on Life on Land, among others. The environment pillar would also be an opportunity to drive forward SDG 17 on Partnerships for the Goals through creating a region-wide mechanism. Additionally, the ground-breaking adoption of this pillar would localize environment-related SDGs, thus it would institutionalize and guide the initiatives of the ASEAN Working Group on Environmentally Sustainable Cities (AWGESC).

Australia’s role

While it is established that the environment is a shared interest of Australia and ASEAN, it is also important to highlight how Australia can partner with ASEAN. Australia can play a vital role in supporting ASEAN-led climate action initiatives as it is renowned for its global contribution to environmental management through the development of its National Environmental-Economic Accounting Strategy [5]. This strategy devised by the Australian government ensures that environmental accounts shape economic decision-making, thus underpinning policies that enhance environmental management for a sustainable future.

Thus, the building of the environmental pillar would not only introduce an architecture focused on goals for environmental protection and conservation but it would also increase partnerships, synergize efforts, mobilize knowledge-sharing, stimulate capability-building and technology transfer, and enhance policy coordination and policy coherence between Australia and ASEAN. This will pave the way for environmental partnerships and the convergence of efforts towards the vision of a healthier ASEAN-Australia ecosystem.


  1. Qadri, ST (2001). Fire, Smoke, and Haze: The ASEAN Response Strategy, Asian Development Bank
  2. Reuters (2019). Area burned in 2019 forest fires in Indonesia exceeds 2018 – official, Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southeast-asia-haze/area-burned-in-2019-forest-fires-in-indonesia-exceeds-2018-official-idUSKBN1X00VU
  3. Najam, A, Runalls, D, & Halle, M (2007). Environment and Globalization: Five Propositions, International Institute for Sustainable Development, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.
  4. Climate Council of Australia (2019). Compound Costs: How Climate Change is Damaging Australia’s Economy. 
  5. Interjurisdictional Environmental-Economic Accounting (IEEA) Steering Committee (2018). Environmental Economic Accounting: A Common National Approach Strategy and Action Plan. Commonwealth of Australia.

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