Experts believe the EU should pay more attention to climate diplomacy in Southeast Asia

As the EU’s climate goals become increasingly ambitious, it should engage more proactively with Southeast Asian countries (ASEAN) to reassure them that the bloc’s green targets are not trade protectionism in disguise and ensure a sustainable COVID recovery globally.

“We have a green interest in ASEAN,” EU ambassador to ASEAN Igor Driesmans told a recent event.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) consists of Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippnes, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.

“We all know ASEAN is growing very rapidly economically and demographically but also in terms of CO2 emissions,” Driesmans said, calling the potential future figures “staggering.”

While the growth of energy-related CO2 emissions has slowed in some major emitters in the region due to improved energy efficiency, the overall share of ASEAN countries in the global emissions has been steadily rising from 3.07% in 2000 to 4.39% in 2018.

Meanwhile, Southeast Asia’s energy demand is projected to grow by 60% to 2040, and it was one of the few regions where the share of coal in the power mix is increasing, with policy choices indicating that coal demand is projected to rise steadily over the coming decades to fuel coal-fired power plants, according to a 2019 report of the International Energy Agency.

One 2018 study showed that energy-related CO2 emission levels could rise in the ASEAN region by as much as 61% from 2014 to 2025, with rapid urbanisation as one of the factors affecting emissions.

At the same time, five of the fifteen countries most affected by climate change between 1999–2018 are located in the ASEAN region: Myanmar (ranked at number 2), the Philippines (4), Vietnam (6), Thailand (8), and Cambodia (12), according to the Climate Risk Index 2020.

Cambodian Environment Minister Say Samal, who chairs the meeting of ASEAN ministers on environmental issues, said the bloc’s countries are working on the updates to their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) in the context of the Paris Agreement, which set concrete targets for each country to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change by 2030.

“Although the commitment to greenhouse gas reduction targets is voluntary for least developed countries like Cambodia, setting clear targets demonstrates ASEAN Member States’ serious commitment to addressing this disastrous global threat,” Samal told The Asean magazine in a recent interview.

According to Samal, whose country managed to increase the share of solar power in its electricity production capacity from zero to almost 10% in four years, one of the key commitments made by ASEAN is to achieve a 21.9 per cent reduction in energy intensity compared to 2005 levels.

“Things like the Green Deal can be of great interest to ASEAN if packaged, delivered, and supported by the EU in terms of a green recovery, a better recovery and a sustainable recovery,” according to Noel Clehane, global head of regulatory and public policy at BDO, a consulting and business advisory firm.

Clehane pointed out, however, that there is a sense in ASEAN that the Green Deal and all of the initiatives around climate may be “protectionism in disguise.”

There is a growing worry in Southeast Asian partners that green projects like the carbon border tax could effectively be a barrier to imports.

“I think the climate diplomacy side of things at the EU level could really do with a bit more gloss,” said Shada Islam, senior adviser at the European Policy Centre think tank.

“We’re not communicating the Green Deal, … creating a bit of uncertainty in the world about what the plans are but that’s possibly because we don’t know ourselves yet.”

Jaya Ratnam, Ambassador of Singapore to the EU, said that one area of convergence between the EU and ASEAN is green financing, which will be much needed to sustainably complete the infrastructural projects in the region.

One joint initiative is the $1 billion ASEAN Catalytic Green Finance Facility that will provide loans and technical assistance for state-run green infrastructure projects on sustainable transport, clean energy, and resilient water systems, more than half of it financed by the European Investment Bank, as well as the German and French national development banks.

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