Fighting Climate Change: A New Challenge for ASEAN Multilateralism

The Unique Challenges and Impacts of Climate Change on the ASEAN Member States 

Although climate change poses risks for populations globally, mitigating climate change is particularly crucial for Southeast Asian nations. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why Southeast Asia is uniquely vulnerable to the impending impacts of climate change.  Southeast Asian states have a high proportion of the population living in coastal areas vulnerable to rising sea levels. Additionally, the economy is uniquely dependent on natural resources like the agricultural and forestry sectors, which are greatly threatened by climate change (Asian Development Bank, 2009). The region also has a heightened level of biodiversity (three of the world’s designated “mega-diverse” countries are in ASEAN) (Megadiverse Countries, 2020), the preservation of which is crucial to the health of the environment in general as well as the agricultural sector. In fact, according to the Global Climate Risk Index (2018), four of the ten countries in the world most vulnerable to climate impacts are in the region (Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam). 

Such circumstances raise the potential for direct harmful impacts. The costs of damages, responsive measures to environmental changes, and threats to the agricultural sector are projected to cost up to 11% of GDP by the year 2100 by the Asian Development Bank (Asian Development Bank, 2015). This is especially problematic since many other nations of the world are not projected to lose as much GDP, which can cause a gap in development between Southeast Asia and other regions. Additionally, agricultural sector degradation will also reduce the yield of crops (particularly rice) and pose new food security challenges to the region (Asian Development Bank, 2009). The large coastal population will cause mass human migration and require extreme adaptive measures in coastal areas. Finally, climate change will likely increase the likelihood of natural catastrophes and health crises, which will cost many lives. 

The Current State of Climate Policy and Mitigation Strategies 

In general, ASEAN and the national governments of its member states can focus on two types of climate strategies: adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation aims to respond to or prevent the specific environmental impacts of climate change. Mitigation involves a big picture approach and aims to reduce the threat of these impacts by cutting emissions and halting the global process of climate change itself. Adaptation is a suitable policy strategy for national governments in ASEAN, as this strategy relies less on collective action. ASEAN has also created various working groups to facilitate collaboration and knowledge exchange regarding adaptation strategies where national governments struggle. The scope of these groups is quite comprehensive, including groups on environmentally sustainable cities (AWGESC), water resources management (AWGWRM), chemicals and waste (AWGCW), coastal and marine environment (AWGCME), environmental education (AWGEE), and natural resources and diversity (AWGNCB). There is also an ASEAN working group on climate change (AWGCC). However, this will be revisited in greater detail later. Overall, the ASEAN nations (with the help of regional collaboration) seem more suited to implement adaptation strategies than mitigation strategies. 

Mitigation strategies are a more complicated issue since reducing GHG emissions is a global imperative requiring international collaboration. The main policy is that Southeast Asian nations have committed to the UNFCCC Paris Agreement and have consequently submitted NDCs (nationally determined contributions). These NDCs commit the nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by transitions to clean energy. Regarding meeting these NDCs, Southeast Asian nations are relatively unique in fighting a mitigation battle on two different fronts. In 2000, 75% of GHG emissions from the region resulted from deforestation and land use (Asian Development Bank, 2009). Currently, around 55% of the region’s emissions are the result of land use and deforestation (Sok et al., 2020), while the other major source of emissions is the more commonly conceived source of emissions: the energy and transportation sectors (agriculture and other sectors trail further behind). This is projected to change further: Southeast Asia’s coal demand is expected to rise as electricity demand increases due to population growth and transit demands over the next century (International Energy Agency, 2019). Therefore, ASEAN member states’ mitigation strategies need to focus on the transformation of the energy sector and reducing deforestation impacts. 

Southeast Asia’s unique challenges to meeting NDC targets shows most prominently when looking at the NDC targets updated in 2020. So far, NDC targets in the region are modest when considering the goals of the Paris Agreement. Currently, Singapore is the only nation to set a target where GHG emissions will peak, and the target for this achievement is after 2030 (Overland et al., 2020Seah & Martinus, 2021). This makes Singapore the only member state with a long-term low emissions plan so far (Seah & Martinus, 2021). Additionally, the targets set by the current NDCs appear as if they may not even be met due to offset by the region’s growing energy demand (Overland et al., 2020). Overall, ASEAN seems to be less prepared for climate change mitigation, which is concerning due to the heightened risk of impacts in the region. 

Suggestions for Multilateral Cooperation in Mitigation Strategies 

Whether ASEAN nations are doing enough on the mitigation front beings forth a paradox: ASEAN itself is not a major source of emissions globally, and the region’s highest emitting country, Indonesia, is only the 10th most emitting country (UCSUSA, 2020). Still, Southeast Asia has more to lose than other nations if mitigation efforts fall short globally. So it needs to prioritize making a large commitment to global mitigation efforts. So far, the primary policy to achieve this (the NDCs) doesn’t appear to be very promising. 

What can be done about this? One possible solution would be to reassess ASEAN’s efforts to collaborate on reducing emissions. As mentioned before, the primary ASEAN body that does this is the ASEAN Working Group on Climate Change (AWGCC) (Seah & Martinus, 2021). However, like the other working groups, the AWGCC serves as a collaborative platform that prioritizes its Action Plan (Seah & Martinus, 2021). This Action Plan’s section on mitigation primarily focuses on knowledge exchange, promoting collaboration (vaguely), and exploring the possibility of a cap-and-trade system. It doesn’t mention direct ways to increase the NDC targets (ASEAN Cooperation on Environment, 2021). This leaves ample opportunities for improvement, and ASEAN may benefit from a much more proactive coordinating body to face climate change since states need encouragement to raise these targets. 

A more proactive coordinating body could do multiple things, such as increasing green financing in the member states to fund energy transition, therefore opening the opportunity to strengthen the NDC targets. The current action plan relies on external climate funds for financing, but coordinating an ASEAN-specific fund or bank may encourage more investments from the private sector of ASEAN nations that feel they have more a stake in regional mitigation efforts and encourage public and private collaborative investment.  Additionally, a unified ASEAN body on climate could potentially strengthen ASEAN’s dialogue capabilities and represent its grave interest in mitigation policy on the world stage. At the end of the day, ASEAN’s paradoxically small GHG emissions compared to its enormous interest in mitigation requires it to be a loud voice and exemplar in mitigation efforts worldwide. The place to start with this is with more multilateral cooperation and visibility. 




About Writer 

  • Kieta Mueller is an undergraduate Political Science and Economics student from the University of Hong Kong and the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently also an intern at ASEAN Studies Centre UGM. She can be contacted at 
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