Is ASEAN Critical to its Regional Climate Actions?

Despite many sceptics who thought the wide divergence of views among its members would pose difficulties, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has now been celebrated as an economic powerhouse, known as the major global hub of manufacturing and trade apart from being one of the world’s fastest-growing consumer markets. However, ASEAN now faces an unprecedented threat, as the region is considered as one of the most vulnerable to climate change. As ASEAN turns 53 this year, one may wonder how the regional organization is responding to this challenge. For this issue, this article intends to discuss ASEAN’s involvement in formulating climate policy initiatives, its challenges, and the way forward to strengthen policy enforcement and climate change commitments of its member states.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020, four of the world’s ten countries most affected by climate change are located in Southeast Asia: Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. While all ASEAN Member States (AMS) are susceptible to climate impacts such as sea-level rise, extreme weather events like extreme drought and flood, the effects are more pronounced in countries with significant low-elevation coastal areas where increased frequency and intensity of typhoons, tropical storms, floods and droughts have regularly gripped news headlines. In addition to physical damage and impact on fishing resources, climate change threatens food security in the ASEAN region through loss of agriculturally productive territory and reduced nutritional value of crops.

Member states need to step up their efforts in tackling climate change. ASEAN plays an important role to incorporate climate change adaptation and mitigation in its regional frameworks to push the AMS. Below is a brief account of ASEAN’s initiatives on climate action since 2007. 

  • 13th ASEAN Summit where the ASEAN Declaration on Environmental Sustainability was announced in 2007
  • It was then followed by the ASEAN Declaration on the 13th Conference of Parties (COP) and 3rd CMP to the Kyoto Protocol. The declarations had a clear goal to address climate change issues and achieve sustainable development
  • This was also followed by the ASEAN Socio-Culturally Community (ASCC) Blueprint 2009-2015 where it aims to address impacts of climate change through the implementation of adaptation and mitigation measures with a few principles at core like the common but differentiated responsibilities
  • ASEAN Working Group on Climate Change (AWGCC) was also established in 2009 to oversee the blueprint accompanied by other relevant working groups like energy and transport
  • ASEAN Multi-Sectoral Framework for Climate Change: Agriculture and Forestry Towards Food and Nutrition Security and Achievement of SDGs was integrated into the ASEAN Framework for Climate Change (AFCC)
  • ASEAN has also worked on several regional policies related to climate change such as ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation, ASEAN Environmental Education Action Plan and also ASEAN Disaster Management and Monitoring Response System

While the regional efforts mentioned above deserved to be recognised, the conversation on climate change has yet to get a centre stage in its regional meetings, as issues of economic development are still the main priorities for AMS. The increasing coal consumption, in addition to relatively modest and unambitious nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement are hurting ASEAN’s fight against climate change. Further, limitations like inadequate capacity, monitoring mechanism and consensus-based decision making had caused difficulties in implementing resolute solutions. Weak enforcement of existing AMS agreements has also been the subject of criticism. For example, although the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (THPA) was agreed in 2002 but considering it is a consensus-based decision making, thus it was fully ratified in 2014. Even years after its ratification, the haze still becomes a recurring problem in the region as the THPA prescribes no specific sanctions against a country that fails to comply with its obligations. 

As climate change issues become more critical and complex, ASEAN has to rethink how best it can coordinate climate change actions across the different sectoral working groups. It also needs climate change concerns to be mainstreamed in all of its institutions, and not only limited to the socio-cultural, but also economics and political security frameworks. For example, the climate change agenda should be embedded in foreign trade agreements facilitated by ASEAN, due to increasing investor’s interest in environmental sustainability. Regional cooperation amongst the AMS in addressing climate change is imperative not only for their economic interests, but also to safeguard their credibility in shaping the discourse on climate justice and sustainability issues at the international stage. ASEAN also needs to strengthen the enforcement mechanism of its existing agreement, and hold members accountable over their commitments. It can start to: 

    • Advocate for an improved disclosure and reporting of climate change related risk and commitment, as well as monitoring and publicly commenting on the implementation of nationally determined contributions by its member states 
    • Formulate a Regionally Determined Contribution (RDC) for ASEAN to encourage more ambitious commitments between member states
    • Expedite the formulation of ASEAN Climate Change Initiatives (ACCI)
    • Accelerate and expand the implementation of ASEAN Power Grid (APG) to facilitate speedy roll-out of renewable energy sources which would also allow regional renewable electricity trade between its members 
    • Emphasize the importance of strengthening partnerships, best practices between member states, and 
    • Continuously engage private sectors and civil society groups in addressing climate change

ASEAN’s motto “one vision, one identity, one community” distinctly portrays the serious commitment of the association to unify its 10 member states into a shared goal of achieving “cooperative peace and shared prosperity”. Now, it is more important than ever to turn that spirit into collective action in responding to the threat of climate change. 

References

Anbumozhi, V. (2017). Ensuring ASEAN’s Sustainable and Resilient Future. ASEAN@50 – Building ASEAN Community: Political–Security and Socio-Cultural Reflections, 4, 309–323. 

ASEAN Climate Change and Energy Project. (2019). Multiple game plan for ASEAN in tackling climate change. ASEAN Climate and Energy Insight. https://accept.aseanenergy.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Energy-Insight_Multiole-Game.pdf  

Eckstein, D., Künzel, V., Schäfer, L., & Winges, M. (2020). Global climate risk index 2020. Germanwatch. https://germanwatch.org/sites/germanwatch.org/files/20-2-01e%20Global%20Climate%20Risk%20Index%202020_10.pdf 

Letchumanan, R. (2010). Is there an ASEAN policy on climate change? Climate Change: Is Southeast Asia Up to the Challenge, 50–62. Retrieved from https://www.snrd-asia.org/wp-content/uploads/SNRD-Newsletter/issue-2/Documents/Adaptation%20to%20Climate%20Change/Is%20there%20an%20ASEAN%20policy%20on%20Climate%20Resillience.pdf 

Sagbakken, H., Overland, I., Merdekawati, M., Chan, H. Y., & Suryadi, B. (2020). Climate change, security and regional cooperation in ASEAN. ASEAN Focus. https://www.iseas.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/ASEANFocus-March-2020.pdf

The ASEAN Post. (2019, November 26). Is ASEAN losing its battle with climate change? https://theaseanpost.com/article/asean-losing-its-battle-climate-change

Wijaya, A., & Idris, S. (2018, September 26). ASEAN countries must act together to confront climate change. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/blog/2017/11/asean-countries-must-act-together-confront-climate-change

Written by: Chew Ai Hui, Fathi Rayyan, Liyana Yamin, Rahim Ismail