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Energy security at the expense of human security?

Updated On: Apr 27, 2007

Energy security and human security are coming together in ways that have reached a critical level, especially for Asia.

Climate change is now a global security agenda, being taken up by the U.N. Security Council.

Apart from increasing pressures on western industrialised nations of the US, EU and Australia to act, the spotlight of responsibility has also been cast on Asia’s emerging giants, China and India

China’s unexpected economic growth and corresponding coal consumption for the past couple of months – 11.1 per cent in the first three months from the same period last year – have prompted its carbon emissions to surpass the US this year, instead of the earlier forecast of 2010, to reach the highest in the world.

In response, China has performed its ‘First National Climate Change Assessment,’ and aims to reduce by 40 per cent from 2000 to 2020 China's emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide per unit of gross domestic product (GDP), a measure called carbon intensity (even though sources say such a goal may defy official release indefinitely). Earlier, Beijing has mandated the use of solar, wind, hydroelectric and other forms of renewable energy to provide 10 per cent of all power by 2010, and urging key industries to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent.

Analysts are not warming to China’s targets however, as long as the latter does not play a active role in extending the Kyoto Protocol. For instance, China’s climate change report has ruled out 'absolute and compulsory' caps before 2050 on China's soaring emissions of the greenhouse gases. Yet, such moves by China are a laudable first step towards political change to address global warming, exemplified by Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent visit to Japan that yielded an environmental agreement to influence a post-2012 Kyoto pact.

A new global climate change treaty by 2009 may be in the mix, as Denmark urges Asia’s support at the recent Asia-Europe environment ministers meeting in Copenhagen, when it will host a UN climate summit at that time.

Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said at the meeting that the country will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by tackling the transboundary haze pollution problem. "I'm aware of statistics that we are emitting CO2 because of forest fires. So we'll stop the forest fires," he said. "It's as easy as that."

Illegal logging and large-scale deforestation also remain an urgent issue to address for Indonesia and Southeast Asia, especially as the latter accounts for 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to environmental organization Nepenthes. In addition, the region’s biofuel development boom may also spell trouble with its land-intensive needs.

Apart from tackling climate change, energy security also relies on efficiency use. India presently aims to meet the challenge of high energy demand with increased efforts of energy efficiency to keep the pace of consumption growth below economic expansion, according to Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of India's Planning Commission. 'We are taking steps to moderate the intensity of energy use. So actually, growth of energy is much less than growth of GDP,' he added.

Elsewhere, energy expert Daniel Yergin also confirmed India’s move and other developments in Asia as indicative of renewed efforts to increase energy efficiency. 'Fortunately, a growing Asia will have both the financial resources and the incentive to address these key questions and develop new innovations,' he said.

Energy security in Asia also speaks to fossil fuel expansion plans, such as two current oil pipeline projects by China and Malaysia, both of which are targeting to bypass the traditional Malacca Straits route.

Malaysia’s private sector move by SKS Development Sdn Bhd in collaboration with National Iran Oil Company is aimed at tapping into China’s energy demand and rapid changes in sea transportation to render Kedah and Kelantan integrated northern hub – estimated at around RM50 billion (S$22 billion) over the next 15 years – financially viable, in spite of criticisms of overly-high user costs and construction expenditure.

China in turn, plans to build a crude oil pipeline this year to link south-western Yunnan province with a deepwater port in neighbouring Myanmar. Such a plan reflects a growing energy relationship between China and Myanmar, and possibly increased clout for the latter.

Besides a reliance on fossil fuel development, renewed interest in the region for alternative energy also forebodes human security threats.

Indonesia’s current nuclear plans - tenders for the first plant to be expected next year, with construction in 2010 – fall under scrutiny, especially with its current record of natural and transportation disasters, as well as terrorism.  

According to an April 24 Straits Times report, ‘critics remain worried about the long-term effects of radiation from the power plants on those who live in the vicinity. Outside the country, the chief worry is: What if something goes wrong and the disaster spreads?’

According to Torry Kuswardono, campaign manager for energy issues at Indonesian environmental group Walhi, 'This could be a recipe for disaster. There's still a big question mark over the safety culture of this country after the recent transport disasters. 'We've also not shown that we have tackled the corruption problem adequately to ensure that no shortcuts or safety compromises are made.'

Elsewhere, Thailand and Myanmar’s hydropower projects have incurred civil society protest, especially for the potential displacement of communities. According to WWF, damming the Salween, one of Southeast Asia's last untamed rivers, will "displace and negatively impact upon tens of thousands of poor and marginalized people from ethnic minorities in that country."

WWF and other groups have also urged Thailand to better manage its energy needs and invest in wind and biomass projects within its borders, rather than turning to hydropower. According to Kraisak Choonavan, a former Thai lawmaker, "it seems more reasonable for Thailand to rely on its own reserves of natural gas for energy security than to be dependent on imports of electricity from a neighboring country with a high degree of political uncertainty."

While the hydropower projects – building four dams on the Salween River – first forged in 2004, were deferred last October, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand included construction of the Hut Gyi and Thasang dams in its draft power-development plan on February 24.

And while spokesman for the Myanmar government, Ye Htut, assured that the dam site is in a remote area and that "very few people will need to be relocated for the hydro project," Karenni and Shan refugees from Myanmar have recently urged the Thai government to stop the projects as they would displace another 100,000 people.

According to April Moe, a 23-year-old Karenni woman, "I want the people who are going to build this project to reconsider their plans, if they do not want to prolong people's suffering under the military dictatorship…I want you to think carefully about internally displaced persons in Burma and the refugees who are living in camps in Thailand.

Elsewhere, Shan refugee Charm Tong said more than 400,000 villagers in Shan and Karen states had been displaced since the Salween dam projects were started. "There are lots of Shan villagers still hiding in jungles and many more fleeing to Thailand who cannot find shelter because there is no refugee camp for the Shan [in Thailand]." (26 April 2007)

Sources:

Myanmar/Thailand: Ethnic groups protest construction of Salween river dams (Thai News Service, 5 March 2007)

WWF: Myanmar Hydropower Project Could Destroy Salween River (Dow Jones International News, 13 April 2007)

Plans for Oil Pipeline across Malaysia (The Straits Times, 23 April 2007)

Work on China-Myanmar crude oil pipeline to begin this year (Reuters/The Straits Times, 23 April 2007)

China's first climate change steps too small (Reuters/The Straits Times, 23 April 2007)

Govt preparing for possibility of rising sea levels (The Straits Times, 23 April 2007)

Expert: Asia on track to tackle energy issues (The Straits Times, 23 April 2007)

India to keep energy demand growth below GDP pace (The Straits Times, 23 April 2007)

China to overtake US as top greenhouse gas emitter (AP/The Straits Times, 24 April 2007)

New jitters as Indonesia dusts off nuke power plans (The Straits Times, 24 April 2007)

Tackling the black mark in China's growth (The Straits Times, 24 April 2007)

Denmark seeks new climate treaty (The Straits Times, 25 April 2007)

RI calls on U.S., China, India to join next global climate treaty (Jakarta Post, 25 April 2007)

European, Asian environment ministers to discuss climate change (Jakarta Post, 25 April 2007)