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Commentary: ASEAN’s potential contributions to climate action

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20 Nov Commentary: ASEAN’s potential contributions to climate action

By Simon Tay and Meixi Gan

If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, most countries would be at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this month. Governments had pledged to negotiate rules for a global carbon market and improve their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement.

The meeting’s postponement to November 2021 should not equate with inaction. More than ever, there is recognition that the climate challenge must be addressed. Otherwise, the global community risks an existential crisis many times worse than the current pandemic.

Some countries have strengthened their commitments. The European Union announced a pathfinding “Green Deal” which aims for the continent to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030, and become climate neutral by 2050. Allied to recovery from the pandemic, the EU will spend nearly 550 billion euros (US$65.14 billion) on climate initiatives over the next seven years.

Asian climate leadership is also growing, with three major economies pledging recently to decarbonize their economies towards net-zero goals – Japan and South Korea by 2050, and China by 2060.

There is even some optimism from the United States. While the country has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, this coincided with the presidential elections. President-elect Joe Biden has already declared the intention to rejoin the Agreement after he is in office.

Each of these commitments will face obstacles in implementation. For the US, the incoming Biden administration will likely face competing priorities as well as domestic resistance from some powerful sectors. But as 2020 nears its close, attention on addressing climate change has notably increased.

ASEAN Focus

What of ASEAN and of Singapore?

Our region is especially exposed to threats from climate change, including sea level rise and changes in weather that can impact agriculture and food production. The recent severe floods hitting Indo-China and the Philippines are but one reminder of the vulnerabilities.

Each country in the region has recognized the risks and accepted the Paris Agreement. Each has pledged to reduce emissions and energy consumption, or increase the use of clean energy, among other goals. But the path to implementation is not easy, especially as attention and resources have been diverted to managing the pandemic.

Take Indonesia for example – ASEAN’s most populous country and one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases globally. The country has reaffirmed its pledge to reduce emissions by 29 percent independently, or 41 percent with international assistance, by 2030. Indonesia has also made significant efforts to reduce emissions from the forestry and land-use sector, which accounts for more than half of the country’s total emissions.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made addressing forest fires and haze a priority for his administration. The country put in place a moratorium on new palm oil concessions – a major driver of deforestation – and a ban on new commercial licences on primary forest and peatland. However, recurrent fires and a haze crisis in September 2019 have shown that much remains to be done.

The same is true of almost every ASEAN country individually. While commitments to tackle climate change have increased, more can and will need to be done. If business as usual continues, the region’s carbon emissions are likely to increase as countries search for paths to recover and grow.

Regional Collaboration for Green Growth

Cooperation between ASEAN countries will be critical to complement and scale up the individual efforts of countries. This is fledgling at present. At COP25 in 2019, ASEAN countries released a broad and very limited joint statement regarding sustainable forest management, reducing energy intensity, sustainable land transport and fuel economy, as well as climate disaster risk mitigation. But it contained few specifics on implementation.

Moving toward a region-wide climate effort can be jump-started by bilateral arrangements. At the recent Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs hosted Singapore’s minister for sustainability and the environment, Grace Fu, and Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, Luhut Pandjaitan, for a discussion on green policies and regional partnerships towards a low-carbon future.

Both ministers were focused, urgent, and emphasized the gains to be had from innovating, investing, and cooperating. Three areas emerged as promising immediate opportunities for regional cooperation.

Firstly, both Singapore and Indonesia face food security issues – a challenge brought into focus by supply chain disruptions due to national lockdowns earlier this year. In 2019, Singapore launched its “30 by 30” initiative to locally produce 30 percent of the country’s nutritional needs by 2030. Indonesia has also launched a plan to create food estates covering about 770,000 hectares, or more than 10 times the size of Singapore.

Peat-rich Indonesia and land-scarce Singapore will have different agricultural considerations. However, joint research and development activities will benefit both countries. Singapore has much to learn from Indonesia’s decades of experience in agricultural management. Lessons can also be shared on consumer education about sustainably-produced food.

A second large and urgent opportunity lies in the clean energy sector. Indonesia, facing the mammoth task of delivering reliable energy access to more than 270 million citizens, is moving to make renewable energy almost a quarter of its energy mix by 2025, up from just 12 percent last year.

A similar effort is under way in Vietnam, which aims to double its use of solar and wind energy to 20 percent of power supply by 2030. This will reduce carbon emissions by 15 percent, or nearly double the reduction the country pledged under the Paris Agreement to achieve without foreign aid.

In Thailand, whose NDCs outline an Environmentally Sustainable Transport System Plan, mass transit developer BTS recently issued its second oversubscribed green bond. The bond will finance sky-train lines that will help reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 28,000 tons a year. BTS is reportedly considering converting these emissions savings into carbon credits.

Singapore, with its strong infrastructure credentials, can partner its ASEAN neighbors to contribute investment, technology and capabilities. Home-grown corporates such as Sembcorp and financial institutions such as DBS have extensive experience developing, financing, and delivering bankable projects in the region. Singapore is also investing up to $49 million in new low-carbon technologies including hydrogen energy and carbon capture, utilization and storage, and in time can share its learnings with other countries.

Thirdly, to motivate investment and win-win cooperation, carbon credits can be generated across the region. A share of this can come from nature-based approaches that link to conservation and rehabilitation of special habitats. Indonesia, for example, aims to rehabilitate some 600,000 hectares of damaged mangrove forest – critical ecosystems that help store carbon and protect against sea-level rise – in the next three years.

Similar efforts are being undertaken in other ASEAN countries. Myanmar in 2018 had the first mangrove restoration project in Asia to receive Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) certification. The Thor Heyerdhal Climate Park in the Ayeyarwady Region has seen 3.5 million mangrove trees replanted in the last five years, while engaging and supporting thousands of local families. Other initiatives have since followed, forming the basis to build a carbon emissions trading system across the region.

Projects like these, which leverage both natural and social capital, are of increasing interest to international investors from sovereign wealth funds to family offices. Singapore, as a green finance hub, is well positioned to bridge opportunities with the capital markets and this growing pool of environmentally conscious investors.

But there is also scope for a regional collaborative effort. ASEAN countries should align their policy frameworks on the generation and cross-border trade of carbon offsets, as well as standardise requirements on transparency, reporting and verification. This will improve scalability and provide assurance to international investors.

The pandemic has underscored the need to build resilience against future risks, especially climate resilience. There is moreover a real challenge to demonstrate that climate action can indeed effect positive change for the planet while also creating new jobs and economic growth.

A truly multilateral effort is needed for meaningful progress. For ASEAN, the first step is to come together as a community focused on climate action, take stock, and re-energize efforts toward collective goals ahead of COP26 next year.

  • Simon Tay is associate professor at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law and chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). Meixi Gan is assistant director and leads the SIIA’s sustainability program.

Source: A version of this commentary was first published in The Jakarta Post on 20 November 2020.