Decarbonisation ideas for Asean amidst COVID-19 recovery

Despite recognition that the energy sector is the main source of greenhouse gas emissions of most Asean member states, institutional challenges to addressing climate change and the desire to remain competitive present challenges to countries in the transition away from fossil fuels. Although Asean member states are giving more attention to renewable energy, climate action is undermined by fossil fuel growth, particularly coal.

A new report by the NUS Energy Studies Institute (ESI), ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, and Newcastle University proposes several decarbonisation pathways that can put Asean member states on track to transition to renewable energy, in light of an increasingly carbon-constrained world. NUS researchers contributed to the report by giving their insights on the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead for Asean member states in achieving their energy transitions towards a low-carbon future.

The report, Energy Transitions in Asean, was prepared in view of the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in November 2021. It explored the impact of COVID-19 on Asean countries, examined how carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced while maintaining sustained economic growth, and discussed employment and social justice issues following the energy transition. The aim of the report was to provide useful context to governments in Asean to strategise their post-pandemic recovery plans and align their energy policies with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The recommendations in the report can be integrated into the ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation for adoption by Asean member states.

"This report is an outcome of international collaboration between the NUS community and universities and research institutes from the UK and beyond. With Southeast Asia being one of the fastest growing regions in the world and requiring energy for development, this partnership comes at an important time to help deliver the strategic aims of COP26 and to fully implement the Paris Agreement,” said Associate Professor Lee Poh Seng, Executive Director of ESI.

A holistic approach to decarbonisation

The report highlighted that Asean’s COVID-19 recovery measures were missing opportunities for a green future. Few countries in the region have tied green components to their stimulus packages, which contain some environmentally harmful measures. Green recovery policies and strategies, including enhancing collaboration and partnerships, could help put Asean countries on the path to economic recovery while bringing environmental and sustainability benefits.

“This report demonstrates that, technically, steep and fast emission reductions in line with the Paris Agreement are feasible for the Asean member states. It’s a matter of showing political courage and leadership to make that transition happen,” added Melissa Low, Research Fellow at ESI and one of the leading co-editors and report’s authors.

Being home to rapidly growing economies, the Southeast Asian region is making more significant contributions to global carbon emissions. The NUS researchers emphasised an increased need for a more holistic approach in ensuring greener, low-carbon developments. This includes effective cross-ministerial coordination within each country which would greatly facilitate energy planning in alignment with climate change mitigation plans. The researchers also added that it was essential to increase the renewable energy share in overall power supply, and implement energy efficiency programmes to ensure a sustainable transition to renewable energy in the long-term.

The NUS researchers elaborated in the report that it was crucial to create a conducive environment to facilitate renewable energy deployment in the short term. This could be done with government support, for example through subsidising initial investments, providing tax incentives, and de-risking investments through power purchase agreements or feed-in-tariffs. The researchers also called for a level playing field for renewable energy to compete fairly with the use of fossil fuels in the long term. This includes addressing the powerful indirect influence of the subsidy of fossil fuels.

Call for cross-country cooperation and social justice

In addition to strong government policy and support, subsidy reforms and carbon pricing, the report also recommended fostering greater cooperation across the Asean region and collaboration with other countries. This would allow countries to leverage each other’s comparative advantages to meet their Nationally Determined Contributions and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, while addressing developmental priorities. However, this requires support from the developed countries, including in the form of climate finance and capacity building.

The report also proposed that decarbonisation policies and programmes also pay attention ensuring a just transition, such as creating quality jobs and decent work for those displaced by the low-carbon transition. Social inclusion, gender empowerment and sustainable rural development for local communities could serve as key performance indicators to measure the success of renewable energy transition.

The report is part of a series published ahead of COP26 by the British High Commission and the COP26 Universities Network, which comprises over 80 universities in the United Kingdom and Singapore, to discuss the opportunities and challenges in Southeast Asia’s transition to a greener economy post COVID-19.

Click here to read more.