Coal and Clean Energy Reporting Across Southeast Asia in 2020

“The climate battle will succeed or fail in Asia”—an often-quoted phrase in climate media since UN officials uttered it last year, and for good reason. Asia, specifically Southeast Asia, is one of the fastest-developing regions globally with an energy demand growth rate twice as fast as the rest of the world—and a coal demand growth rate of more than 5 percent annually through 2024. In Philippines and Indonesia, coal already makes up more than 50 percent of total energy output. 

Whether Southeast Asia turns to dirty coal or green energy to supply this demand may well determine the world’s progress in meeting necessary carbon cuts to stay below the IPCC-recommended 1.5-degree increase. 

Marking the turn of the decade, 2020, more than any other year, is important for the future of energy in the region—Vietnam is about to release its Master Power Development Plan for the next ten years, while the Philippines’ Department of Energy is planning to triple the current amount of coal in the country, despite divestment pressures from a domestic energy producer and international financial institutions. Meanwhile in Indonesia, much speculation has arisen about whether the coal industry can survive the global recession. 

But has the media in Southeast Asia given this incredible energy and climate risk its due attention, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 threat that is still ravaging lives and economies in the region? 

Over the course of two weeks in June and July, 19 veteran journalists and media researchers from five Southeast Asian countries conducted a short media analysis of coal and renewable energy reporting as part of Climate Tracker’s Research Fellowship. The results of their study shed much light on this question, as they considered the quantity and quality of energy reporting in the first six months of 2020. 

Denise Alcantara, a researcher from the Philippines, exclusively focused her study on how energy reporting changed from before to after the pandemic lockdown. Two major news networks Alcantara studied—Abs-cbn and Gmanetwork—increased publishing renewable-related stories during quarantine,” while the Inquirer and Rappler, often cited as the best climate publications in the country, decreased their coverage. 

Overall, this brought the number of energy stories published before and during quarantine to be equal—signifying continued interest in the topic. Alcantara linked this momentum in the media to the “return-to-nature” sentiment often expressed during lockdown, citing an open letter to future leaders signed by 300 scientists and conservation groups in April that received much attention. 

Interestingly, the majority of articles Alcantara analyzed were listed under the “Business and Money” category, as Filipino media most commonly  approached through a purely business lens, with extensie quotes from CEOs. Another Filipino researcher, Jason Paolo Telles, also noticed the same pattern, citing 13 out of 15 articles analyzed as business-focused.  

In Vietnam, environmental journalists did not seem to lose sight of the bigger picture either—at least not at Saigon Times, the leading business and economics news magazine in the country.  According to Vietnamese researcher Nguyen Nguyen, the articles also demonstrated a more balanced approach; roughly two dozen pieces were published in the first half of this year, many of which featured NGO, expert and locals’ perspectives. Nguyen credited the release of new policy statements as the source of journalists’ interest in the topic, as is typical in this country. 

As a percentage of total articles published in Vietnam however, the number of energy articles is still low—accounting for less than 2 percent for VnExpress and VietnamPlus total output, according to researcher Mi Hoang

Meanwhile in Thailand, researcher Chalefun Ditphudee concluded after her study of three online news sources that “during the Thailand Covid-19 lockdown situation [from April 4 to mid-May], these online media platforms temporarily paused their reporting on coal..” 

Renewable energy-related articles before and during quarantine in the Philippines | Graph by Denise Alcantara

Before and after the lockdown, however, the national outlook for climate news was more positive. COVID-19 served as a new lens through which climate and energy topics were approached. According to researcher Sippachai Kunnuwong, 27 percent of all examined climate change articles this year from Thai Rath Online and Bangkok Biz Online are related to the COVID-19. Commonly featured story types were opinion pieces about a post-COVID “new normal”  and renewable energy solutions to economic recession. 

Glaringly lacking were environmental activism stories, a fact which PPTV reporter Afnan Abdulloh attributed to COVID social distancing measures in an interview with Kunnuwong. It seems that digital activism is less capable of drawing mainstream media attention than traditional methods.  

Malaysian researcher Maisarah Kadir noticed the same gap in energy coverage in her country’s major newspaper The Star, which mostly focused on electricity affordability during and after the pandemic. 

In Indonesia, researcher Cherika Hardjakusumah similarly found that even though newspapers covered renewables, especially solar energy, the most-often mentioned topics were cost, capacity and investment. Environmental impact of renewables versus coal was hardly considered.  

Taken as a whole, media research in five Southeast Asian countries—Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines—showed that energy coverage during the first six months of 2020: 

  • Decreased during COVID-19 lockdown, but remained stable before and after lockdown despite the ongoing pandemic. 
  • Mostly focused on business aspects of energy projects and affordability. 
  • When mentioning the environment, usually approached it through the lens of a “new normal,” less carbon-intensive post-pandemic reality. 
  • Lacked human stories and the perspective of environmental activists.