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Climate Change in Southeast Asia: ASEAN Needs to Act Now to Forge a Common Approach

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June was unexpectedly active for climate change, with announcements from the U.S. and China that could influence ASEAN’s future development. On June 2, 2014, the Environmental Protection Authority proposed to reduce U.S. power plant carbon emissions by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. Only one day later, Chinese authorities hinted at the likelihood of continuing to strengthen legal limits on carbon intensity and adopting an absolute cap on carbon emissions in its next five-year plan. These recent announcements follow indications from the Sunnylands and G-20 summits that China and the United States are seeking to coordinate on greenhouse gas emission controls, which is noteworthy for ASEAN because it could herald international movement on addressing climate change.

As one of the regions of the world most vulnerable to climate change, ASEAN should follow suit in re-examining its commitment to climate change mitigation. More than half of the World Risk Index’s top twenty countries most vulnerable to climate change are in Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific, with the Philippines, Cambodia, and Timor-Leste ranking in the top ten.

Rising sea levels, the most existential threat will be a major challenge to coastal areas and archipelagos over the course of the next century.  Rising sea levels have already inundated some coastal areas and are exacerbating the impact of a climate change related rise in the frequency and intensity of flooding from powerful storms and typhoons.  Less dramatic but equally serious are both current and predicted declines in agricultural productivity as rising air and water temperatures increase the variability and intensity of precipitation, leading both to more floods and more drought.

 Rural-urban migration, industrialization, rising living standards, and population growth are all concurrent with climate change.  As in much of the rest of the world, some ­­­­­­60 percent of Asia’s population is concentrated in vulnerable coastal regions. These trends will interact with and intensify the threats posed by climate change.

ASEAN has clearly started giving climate-change more attention: ASEAN’s regional socio-economic plan for 2009-2015 included a commitment to raise awareness of climate change. Typically for ASEAN, the proposed actions are numerous but short on specifics and voluntary—though the initiative did lead to the creation of a working group on climate change that supports an exchange of information between member countries. Most importantly, the Chairman’s Statement at May 2014’s ASEAN Summit in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, called for the drafting of a joint statement on climate change for consideration at the 2015 ASEAN Summit.

While these projects are important first steps, little can be expected unless the ASEAN countries go beyond building climate resilience and adaptation and act together on regional climate mitigation. ASEAN’s energy demand is estimated to grow by approximately 80% to reach 2.3 Gt in 2035, an amount approximately equal to Japan’s current energy demand. Despite an absolute growth in investments in solar, hydropower, and other renewables throughout the region, the vast majority of this increased energy production will be produced by burning fossil fuels, with coal demand likely to triple between 2011 and 2035. Continuing growth in demand will likely lead to a doubling of the region’s greenhouse gas emissions unless significant efforts towards energy efficiency are made.

Any new climate change treaty will likely be necessary to allow for growth in emissions from developing countries like those in Southeast Asia but also limit emissions below the amount produced under a business-as-usual scenario. Although the adoption of a treaty is likely to be years—or even decades—in the future, the ASEAN Working Group on Climate Change or another body should promptly begin  to consider what a regional carbon control mechanism would look like.

Because it is one of the few concerns that all ASEAN countries recognize as a threat, urgently addressing the challenge of climate change could have additional benefits.  For instance, given the uptick in tensions within ASEAN as the region is increasingly buffeted by diplomatic and military tensions over maritime territorial disputes, addressing emissions could become a unique venue for cooperation. Emissions control mechanisms are varied, ranging from energy-efficiency measures to cut the total amount of energy demanded; adopting smart-grid technology to reduce energy loss through long-distance transmission; or the more widely-discussed carbon cap and trade system, which could be developed in line with the international standards discussed at climate change negotiations leading up to Paris in 2015.

Establishing an initiative under ASEAN’s Working Group on Climate Change to address regional carbon control measures will benefit ASEAN member countries by enhancing their planning capacity and ability to stay on current with rising international standards on emissions and state of the art approaches. Starting discussions now would be an investment in long-term development that would allow the world’s economic growth engine to better prepare for a future where carbon is globally priced.

Photo credit: Franck Vervial via flickr

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