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With the Paris climate agreement already in force, the world has taken a huge step towards furthering the green revolution. While the actions of China, the United States, India, and the European Union and their impacts on solving the climate crisis have been highlighted for decades, the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) look to play a significant role in ensuring a sustainable global future.

The ASEAN countries have exhibited rapid economic growth since the 1970s due to the growth of its labour force and productivity improvements as a result of industrial and agricultural growth. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports a 5.4 percent GDP growth from 2011 to 2013, with a projected 5.2 percent increase by 2020.

However, this growth has been characterized as carbon-intensive, with fossil fuels comprising 74 percent of the region’s energy mix in 2013. Despite contributing only 4 percent of global carbon emissions in 2013, the region’s carbon emissions swelled by 227 percent from 1990 levels. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that Southeast Asia will emit nearly double of its current carbon emissions, comprising 8 percent of the global pollution by 2040.

The region is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Its location along the western Pacific Ocean places it at the path of typhoons, which have intensified and caused more socioeconomic damage in recent years. Rising land and sea temperatures will exacerbate episodes of droughts, forest fires, and sea level rise, which threatens both natural ecosystems and human communities.

Despite this vulnerability, previous regional initiatives failed to establish a comprehensive, collaborative approach to promote sustainable development fuelled by renewables. To solve this problem, Southeast Asian nations have undertaken significant steps to shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.

In the Philippines, significant steps towards fulfilling its commitment to the Paris agreement have been undertaken. The country ratified the treaty last March, indicating its efforts to pursue a 70 percent reduction on carbon emissions by 2030. It also aims to triple its installed renewable energy capacity to 15.3 GW by the same year.

To help attain these goals, the province of Ilocos Norte declared itself a “clean, green, and coal-free province” in a resolution passed last year. Already the country’s leading wind energy producer, the province has strengthened pursuits for eliminating coal from its power supply due to its health and environmental hazards.

Bangui Wind Farm, Ilocos Norte

“As a province of farmers, ecological sustainability comes indeed naturally, but we have begun to take for granted even our environment,” Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos said.

The country’s largest solar power plant is currently being built in Tarlac in central Luzon. Solar Philippines plans to install 450 thousand solar panels across 150 hectares to create a 150-MW solar farm that can provide enough electricity for the entire province. The Philippines’s renewables potential have stimulated the interest of foreign companies into developing large-scale solar energy projects across the country.

In Indonesia, a new renewable energy law was passed that strongly incentivizes main utilities to acquire renewable energy. Specifically, the decree installs the framework for procuring energy from green power plants by setting a cap on the feed-in tariffs (FIT), which depends on the location of the project. Its passage promises to spur small-scale solar energy development and lower electricity supply costs in the eastern islands of Indonesia.

This law also addresses the tariff dilemma faced by PLN, Indonesia’s primary electricity distribution corporation, which has inhibited the growth of renewables in the country. By providing a maximum tariff at or below the local generation cost, it will be able to pay for the additional costs of developing green energy. This is important for increasing the contribution of renewable energy in the national generation mix from its current level at 11 percent to 23 percent by 2025.

The 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi dam in northern Laos, the first of eleven planned Mekong dams

The 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi dam in northern Laos, the first of eleven planned Mekong dams

However, renewable energy development comes with obstacles that may be harmful to the sustainable development of Southeast Asian countries. For instance, nations such as Vietnam and Lao PDR have most of their newly installed renewable energy sources focused on hydropower in 2015, with most of the facilities set along the Mekong River.

Despite this development, recent drought and flooding episodes have decreased the power output of said facilities from their expected capacities. The installed dams may also have irreversibly altered the ecological characteristics of the Mekong River and its tributaries, which hosts the world’s largest freshwater fishery and, subsequently many fishing communities. Potential climate change impacts such as extreme heating or saltwater intrusion due to sea level rise can intensify these changes.

This has caused tensions to grow among countries along the Mekong River. In a recent conference, Vietnam’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Tran Hong Ha remarked that the country is “seriously worried about the increasing exploitation of hydropower in the Mekong River in recent years by upstream nations”, such as Lao PDR.

“Vietnam wants all upstream Mekong River nations to adopt proper policies in exploiting the river, especially in hydropower dam construction, in order to ensure rights for downstream nations, like Vietnam,” he added.

Photo: Aerial view of the Amcorp Gemas 10.25MW Solar Power Plant which was accorded
by Malaysia Book of Records as the Largest Grid Connected Solar Farm in Malaysia

With an increasing population and a growing economy, the primary energy demand of Southeast Asia grows at a rapid rate. The IEA projects a 2.2 percent increase of primary energy demand, higher than the global average. Without the proper political and economic measures in place, some countries such as Indonesia are projected to increase their reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas, which will slow down the growth of cleaner energy sources in the region. Thus, it is imperative for nations to make huge investments into the development of renewable energy.

For instance, Thailand has invested over USD 1 billion in asset finance for renewables in 2015, ranking third among Asian countries behind China and India. Its commitment to capitalizing on green energy, especially solar power, is spurred by the reduction of its natural-gas reserves. This allowed for the push for subsidies in energy tariffs and decreases in the costs of solar components. As a result, the country has installed more than 2500 MW of solar energy by 2015, which exceeds the rest of Southeast Asia combined.

Solar power is also growing in Malaysia as a result of the participation of both the government and the private sector. In particular, investors have been rewarded by selling the energy they produced into the national grid through purchasing agreements to overcome the high costs of production. This development has helped in attracting many multinational companies into the country’s solar power market. Malaysia currently ranks third in terms of solar panel production, which demonstrates the country’s unique position in terms of enticing solar equipment manufacturers for investments and developing its own solar farms.

Southeast Asia possesses a vast yet mostly untapped potential for renewable energy necessary for continuing sustainable development. Thus, future policies must be focused on further lowering the costs of renewables and improving national and local capacities to manage these resources without compromising nearby ecosystems. With the United States’s impending withdrawal from the Paris agreement, the development of renewable energy in Southeast Asia is more significant than ever in promoting the green revolution for years to come.

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Originally published at Rappler X

John Leo Algo

About John Leo Algo