Climate change is a clear and ever-present danger affecting us on many different levels – environment, economy, health, and even international affairs.
A recent study published by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) and the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (MISIS) showed that changing climatic conditions can also have an impact on Southeast Asia as a region and on ASEAN as a multilateral organization.
First, changing climate patterns may affect interstate relations through humanitarian crises, migration threats, and an increasing need for greater imports of vital goods.
According to the Global Climate Risk Index, 4 of the world’s 10 countries most affected by climate change are located in the region, namely Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. The authors argued that migration out of low-lying areas in the broader region is a major potential climate-related trigger of international issues in Southeast Asia.
“The effects of climate change are far-reaching and will greatly impact the region due to the humanitarian crises that it may bring, and also due to the possible displacement and migration of people, and the loss of livelihood,” noted R.J. Marco Lorenzo Parcon, foreign affairs research specialist of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and one of the authors of the study.
Second, the reduction of carbon emissions requires international coordination and cooperation.
The region’s coal-based electricity generation has been rapidly expanding, and this runs counter to the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) which ASEAN member-states have promised themselves under the Paris Agreement. Failure to break free from fossil fuels can drastically affect ASEAN’s reputation in the international community. If ASEAN countries continue to run their economies on dirty energy, the report warned, there could be a large number of stranded coal assets in the future.
Third, the global energy transition driven by climate policy may lead to an altered geopolitical situation in the world, including ASEAN.
There is a call for global energy transition to mitigate the effects of climate change. Authors of the study observed a trend where Southeast Asian countries are moving towards increasing dependence on imports of fossil fuels from the Middle East, making them more politically vulnerable in that part of the world. This vulnerability can be counteracted by climate mitigation measures such as reducing financial aids on coal projects and by creating a bias on transition to clean energy.
Creating a team spirit in ASEAN
ASEAN has identified climate change as a priority issue since the 2007 ASEAN Summit in Singapore. All member states have signed the Paris Agreement, and only Myanmar has yet to ratify the historic global pact. At least 5 ASEAN countries reacted publicly to President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from the climate deal, criticizing it while reaffirming their commitment to climate action. The Philippines was “deeply troubled” by Trump’s decision, while Singapore described it as “a great pity.”
The study noted, however, that despite their positive stances on climate change, most ASEAN countries have not taken on prominent roles in international climate policy. As a result, they remain takers rather than makers in international climate politics. ASEAN as an organization stands to gain or lose status by following up or not following up on its member states on climate issues, and by member states succeeding or failing to meet their NDCs. The ASEAN Secretariat can fulfill an important function by promoting a team spirit around this status drive.
Parcon said that a collective voice is essential in calling for climate justice, as the effects of climate change are far-reaching and mitigating its effects requires international solidarity.
“ASEAN must also continue to emphasize the importance of strengthening partnerships and sharing of best practices between its member-states and partners, particularly when it comes to adaptation and risk reduction efforts,” he said in an interview.
ASEAN moving forward
ASEAN has already institutionalized a number of mechanisms to address the threats of climate change. To move forward, the study offered recommendations for ASEAN to energize its work on addressing the climate challenge.
The study suggested that ASEAN could formulate a regionally determined contribution (RDC) by adding up the NDCs of its member states.
It said that ASEAN could as well implement several other concrete measures, such as:
- ensuring that current and future initiatives under the ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation (APAEC) are ambitious and detailed as to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions
- highlighting the vulnerability of Southeast Asia to climate change by publishing and sharing relevant analysis
- putting climate change high on the agenda of every ASEAN summit
- involving and connecting relevant civil society and academic organizations across Southeast Asia
- promoting the accelerated phase-out of fossil-fuel subsidies.
For Edwin Estrada, FSI senior foreign affairs research specialist and a co-author of the study, ASEAN must continue to build on the progress that it has made, ensure due implementation of plans and projects, further promote cooperation and partnership between ASEAN member-states, its dialogue partners, and other relevant organizations, continue to make use of education to further disseminate information to the communities, and to conduct more relevant studies.
Estrada also said that a dynamic interstate cooperation, establishment of feasible action plans, effective implementation of existing ones, and the creation of a sustainable long term regional strategy based on sound research are needed to fight climate change.
“ASEAN has a big role to play as a conduit for regional and global cooperation to address climate change,” he added.
To be successful, however, the authors said that these climate-related initiatives will need to consider the ASEAN way of conducting business, with its emphasis on national sovereignty, non-interference, and consensus in decision-making. They argued that this kind of approach is highly compatible with the traditional ASEAN approach to interstate cooperation.