At a glance, Southeast Asia seems to be more and more a venue for opportunity and change.
In less than a week, the Philippines will open its doors to leaders of its neighboring Southeast Asian countries for the 30th ASEAN Summit and the celebration of 50 years of its existence. With the theme, “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World,” the Summit is set to express the region’s optimistic attitude towards a changing global landscape. Considering the economic strides the Southeast Asia has reached in recent years, with the region’s share of global GDP rising from 5.9% to 7.7%, it seems that such optimism is well-founded. And interested parties are taking notice.
Presently, energy investments are pouring in to supply the region’s growing energy demand. Reflecting strong economic and population growth, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that the ASEAN’s primary energy consumption will grow at an annual rate of 3% from 2014 to 2040, a rate which exceeds the combined present consumption of Japan and Korea. Coal is projected to have the largest growth in the region among the vast array of energy sources in the region, accounting for 34% of the overall primary energy demand. As of 2017, Southeast Asian nations - specifically Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Cambodia - are among the top 30 countries with the most coal projects in the pipeline with a total wattage of 125,307MW or close to 15% of the total global coal plants in the pipeline. Here it seems as if the writing is on the wall: coal’s future is secured in Southeast Asia. One now wonders what that entails for the future of everything else.
It is easy not to share the optimism some find in Southeast Asia’s rising economy, especially considering the kind of development it is headed towards as reflected by its foreseen energy future. While being a significant part of the development of industrialized nations, emissions from coal have historically played a large part in the current climate crisis the world is facing, being among the leading causes of global warming with around 60% of the total fossil fuel burned coming from the coal industry. Southeast Asia is more than just a hotspot for coal projects in the pipeline; it is also a hotspot for climate vulnerability. With most of the people and much of the economic activity located along its coastlines, and with its peoples’ strong reliance on natural resources, agriculture and forestry, the threat of displacement, loss of life and destruction brought about by extreme weather events is a reality which Southeast Asians confront in a changing climate. To underscore this vulnerability, recent researches have put that due to climate change, 50% of fish catch in the region will drop by 2050 – where a large majority of dependent on marine resources are poor fishing communities in the region.
The disruptive reality of climate change and its effects is no debate for the peoples of Southeast Asia, with such a reality always ferociously knocking at the door. Vulnerable peoples from Southeast Asia have been a rallying voice in raising the ambition of climate agreements among nations. As far back as 2007, ASEAN leaders have expressed unity and resolve in addressing the climate crisis, and by 2015, all ASEAN member countries have agreed to the Paris Climate Agreement, thereby committing to the aspiration keeping the globe at an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius and taking drastic measures to globally decarbonize.
However, despite this professed commitment, Southeast Asia as a region has had the most growth in per capita emissions from 1990 to 2010, with over 140% growth in pollution. With the region's 125 GW of coal in the pipeline, these emissions are set to double by 2040. Meanwhile, Southeast Asia’s neighbouring countries, China and India, managed to freeze 68 GW of construction at over 100 project sites. Coal plants are also being retired at an unprecedented pace globally, with 64 GW of retirements in the past two years, mainly in the European Union and the United States.
It seems that ASEAN governments are indeed "engaging the world," but for the wrong reasons. Disturbingly, the region seems to be sheltered from the global drive to lessen dependence on coal. Citing the role of coal in the development of rich, industrialized countries, the assertion of a nation’s “right to develop” is becoming an instant go-to justification for the proliferation of coal in Southeast Asia. Moreover, the reality of energy poverty in the region seemingly makes ASEAN governments’ support for more "cheap" coal not a mere matter of opportunity, but of urgency. Presently, some 120 million people lack access to electricity in the region, while another 276 million solely relying on solid fuels, such as fuelwood and charcoal, for cooking. Here, it appears to be that the region is stuck in an almost impossible balancing act of weighing its countries’ right to develop and its peoples’ need for survival.
But what if it isn’t as impossible as we are led to believe? What if the Southeast Asia is not only a venue for opportunity for coal to seek refuge in a world that is increasingly rejecting it, but for humanity to finally shed its dependence on such a destructive resource? Looking on the bright side of the Southeast’s growing dependence on coal becomes increasingly difficult while considering what is at stake and what we can lose. Also, the smoke makes it harder for us to see. Yet, while the future seems bleak with more coal on the horizon, hope can be found in the developments unfolding at present.
Increasingly, renewable energy is drastically becoming cheaper, and new the rapid pace of developing renewable energy technology is ushering in a possible era of clean, sustainable energy for all. Solar energy prices in China, India, Brazil and 55 other emerging market economies have dropped to about one third of its price in 2010, owed largely to China’s massive deployment of solar, and the assistance it had provided to other countries financing their own solar projects. Such developments not only pose an end to the debate of whether there can be development without coal, but an opportunity to deliver cheap, reliable energy to places and peoples no coal-powered grid has ever reached.
And yet, Southeast Asian governments continue to resist the tide of change brought about by renewable energy technology. Excluding hydro-power, clean energy technology only accounts for 5% of Indonesia’s installed electricity, mostly comprised of geothermal, biomass and waste. The capacity of wind and solar to sustain energy needs are blatantly ignored, with only a mere 79 MW and 3 MW installed respectively. Solar is also virtually non-existent in Vietnam, while wind is stuck at 1% with only 143 MW installed. While solar power is emerging in the Philippines with around 800MW already operational and/or being constructed, and another 150 MW project on the horizon, solar remains at 1% gross generation at present.
This resistance immediately silences the narrative of "cheap coal" and the need for coal in order to fuel development. Once the global rejection of coal and the emergence of renewable alternatives is considered, it becomes clear that the coal surge in Southeast Asia is not a matter of seizing opportunity for development, but accommodating the qualms of a dying industry.
The evidence, being overwhelming, puts the matter of engaging the ASEAN and its member governments as a matter of urgency. Development and cheap energy from coal can no longer be dangled by Southeast Asian leaders as an alibi, with the drastic plummeting of the price of renewables and the global call for decarbonization. The ASEAN Summit, in this sense, truly provides a venue for opportunity for change, as the ASEAN peoples are presented an opportunity to demand meaningful change in the region's energy system, prioritizing the needs and survival of citizens over the needs and survival of an industry which has overstayed is welcome.
Whether coal will bounce back through desperate attempts to silence its opposition, or if the voice of those who have suffered from it and those under its threat will be heeded, the ASEAN Summit may very well be a venue for partnerships and engagement among nations, but it may also be where the fate of coal is decided.
With contributions from Arvin Buenaagua of the Center for Energy, Ecology and Development (CEED).