Southeast Asia Grapples with Renewable Energy

With the Paris Agreement on climate change entering into force on Nov. 4, the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations far behind on the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy to power their development.

Southeast Asian nations have collectively outpaced the rest of the world in GDP growth since the 1970s, primarily as a result of the expansion of its labor force and productivity improvements fueled by agricultural and industrial growth. A 2015 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports a 5.4 percent GDP growth from 2011 to 2013. It also projects a 5.2 percent GDP growth in the region for the period 2016 to 2020, with Myanmar, Cambodia, Lao PDR, the Philippines, and Vietnam projected to experience high growth rates.

However, this growth is largely fueled by fossil fuels, which comprise around 75 percent of the regional energy mix in 2013. While Southeast Asia contributes only 5 percent of global carbon emissions in 2010, its carbon discharge into the atmosphere increased by 227 percent from 1990 levels.

Southeast Asia is also one of the most vulnerable areas to the impacts of climate change. The region’s tropical climate problems including severe tropical storms interspaced with drought will be further exacerbated by higher land and sea surface temperatures, disrupting both natural ecosystems and human societies. The region’s location along the western Pacific Ocean makes its coastal cities and fishing communities alike vulnerable to sea level rise, which threatens the region’s economic growth.

Previous ASEAN integration initiatives have lacked a clear, sufficient strategy on the issues of green growth and renewable energy, which are crucial given the region’s vulnerability to climate change. To address this issue, Southeast Asian nations have recently taken major steps to either reduce or eliminate their reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas.

In the Philippines, the government of Ilocos Norte in northern Luzon Island declared itself a “clean, green, and coal-free province” despite threats by President Rodrigo Duterte to opt out of the Paris Agreement. In a resolution passed by the Congress on Aug. 22, all local government units can issue “any permit, authorization, endorsement, or any expression of support to the development of coal projects in the province”. Governor Imee Marcos has approved the elimination of coal from the power supply of Ilocos Norte, which already generates half of its electricity from solar, wind, and hydro-powered energy.

This move is a significant step towards the Philippines fulfilling its commitment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for a 70 percent reduction on carbon emissions from current levels by 2030.

Vietnam is also pushing for a gradual transition to clean, low-carbon energy. The national government has opened its renewable energy sector to foreign investors to fuel the development of its solar power. It also has restructured its largest power company EVN to create a competitive power market by 2030 to improve power supply in the country.

These reforms are aimed at giving every Vietnamese household access to electricity and powering half of households with renewable energy by 2050 as it moves away from a coal-reliant economy. Coal has recently become the leading source of electricity to address the increasing power demand fueled by its growing population and developing economy.

“Vietnam’s economic growth still relies heavily on the exploitation of natural resources and relatively low-tech production. Industries such as cement and steel use a colossal amount of energy,” said Tran Dinh Thien, head of the Vietnam Economic Institute.

Despite the benefits of renewable energy in the long run, its development to combat the climate crisis comes with challenges and obstacles, which may be detrimental to regional sustainable development. For instance, the construction of dams along the Mekong River in countries such as Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam have provided hydroelectricity necessary for further economic development for decades.

However, recent episodes of drought and flooding have reduced the power output of such facilities to half of expected capacity. The dams may also have irreversibly changed the ecological characteristics of the Mekong River and its tributaries, which houses the world’s largest freshwater fishery from which many communities earn their livelihoods. Such alterations can further be worsened by the impacts of climate change such as saltwater intrusion or extreme heating.

“It is absolutely essential, in my judgment, for the future of the people who live along the river that a recognition is given to the fact that you cannot change the river by building dams without having negative effects,” said historian Dr. Milton Osborne.

These countries also generally have limited technical and financial resources to install more hydroelectric facilities in the area. Such conditions hamper the development of other renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and biomass. Thus, it is imperative for nations to attract investments into the development of greener energy without sacrificing either economic or ecological stability.

According to Jean-Philippe Denruyter, energy specialist for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the ASEAN countries along the Mekong River need to move from unsustainable hydropower to solar and wind energy. By increasing and diversifying renewable power in the energy mix, carbon emissions can be reduced by as much as 85 percent by 2050 relative to the business as usual scenario. Such a move would reduce the area’s dependence on fossil fuels, promote sustainable economic growth, and improve regional cooperation for maintaining a greener energy system.

“A sustainable high renewable energy uptake approach can ensure electricity cost stability and maintain system security – that is, provide enough electricity at all times to make sure there’s never a risk of the ‘lights going out’”, he said.

Southeast Asia boasts a large yet untapped potential for the growth of renewable energy needed for future sustainable development. Hence, future policies must be oriented towards dropping the costs of renewable energy and increasing the technical capacity of nations for managing these resources without disturbing ecological harmony. These countries also need to collaborate in developing cleaner energy as the region shifts to a fossil fuel-free future to help solve the climate crisis.

John Leo C. Algo is a Manila-based researcher for the Climate Reality Project Philippines and a representative, Philippine Youth Climate Movement