Southeast Asia’s climate-change challenge
Source: Copyright 2007, Asia Times Date: May 26, 2007
Byline: Andrew Symon
Southeast Asia is possibly one of the most vulnerable areas in the global-climate-change scenarios now being put forward by scientists. Many of the region’s estimated 500 million people live in either low-lying river deltas or far-flung islands that will be inundated if waters rise significantly. Some idea of the damage that climate change could cause over time was witnessed in the tsunami that inundated and destroyed coastal settlements on Indonesia’s Sumatra island in Decembe 2004. While the tsunami was a sudden shock that came without warning, it gave a geographic perspective to what could be anticipated under model scenarios of a more gradual increase in sea and river-delta water levels caused by climate change. The international climate-change spotlight has not yet fallen on Southeast Asia. With the key question now being addressed – what will succeed the present Kyoto Accord when it expires in 2012 – attention is focused more on the industrializing giants – China, India and Brazil – and how they should be incorporated under a successor framework. But Southeast Asia’s 500 million people arguably should not be overlooked. To date, concern and debate over greenhouse-gas emission and climate change remain muted in Southeast Asia. Eight countries in the region, namely Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, have ratified the 1997 Kyoto Accord to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Landlocked Laos has not, nor has the tiny petroleum-rich Islamic sultanate of Brunei. As developing countries – including Singapore, which retains this status formally in international organizations despite its developed-world per capita income – none face any mandatory obligations to reduce gases that contribute to the so-called greenhouse effect, the trapping of the sun’s heat within the atmosphere. The region can take advantage of the Kyoto Accord’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), whereby developed countries having to meet targets under Kyoto can gain credits by funding projects in non-compliance countries that reduce greenhouse emissions. But as of mid-November 2006, of the 173 CDM projects established or seeking registration in East Asia, 70% were in India, 14% in China and only 12% in Southeast Asia. Despite Kyoto and the climate-change debate elsewhere, energy production and consumption in Southeast Asia remain business as usual. Individual governments and the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations often make assertions about the desirability of greater energy efficiency, cleaner energy technologies and greater reliance on renewables. But at the moment there is no major departure from the region’s 1990s trends in energy use. The Singaporean government appears to be positioning itself for what it must see as the need for greater regional efforts over climate change. After ratifying Kyoto late last year, Singapore recently announced a new program to promote research and development, test-bedding and undertaking pilot projects in clean energy on the island. These would potentially have applications elsewhere. Underlying Singapore’s new enthusiasm for clean energy is a week of government-endorsed conferences on biofuels, carbon trading, and finance for renewable energy, as well as an industry exhibition, Sustainable Energy Asia, to be held on June 12-15. Public concern in the region is not especially strong compared with the situation in, say, Western Europe, the United States and Australia (even though the latter two countries are not signatories to the Kyoto Accord). The public focus on the issues varies from country to country. In Thailand, for example, community and non-governmental opposition to plans to build coal-fired power plants have historically been strong, forcing the government to postpone projects indefinitely in 2002. The smog aheadYet projections by the Asia-Pacific Energy Research Center (APERC) in Tokyo, a body operating under the auspices of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, show a fourfold increase in total carbon-dioxide emissions – the major greenhouse gas – from 2002 to 2030 produced by energy production and consumption in Southeast Asia. The total will be twice that of Japan in 2030, nearly a third of the US total, and a quarter that of China (China and the US will be the world’s largest and second-largest emitters of greenhouse gases in 2030). Note, though, that these projections in APERC’s 2006 APEC Energy Demand and Supply Outlook, Projections to 2030, assume no major departure from existing energy production and consumption patterns as a result of policies on greenhouse gases and climate change. One major Southeast Asia-related negative impact on international greenhouse-gas reduction efforts comes from the ongoing destruction of the region’s forests and jungles, especially in Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Sumatra, in the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo island, and in the Mekong region in the mountains in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, as well as in Myanmar and Thailand. Southeast Asia’s extensive wet rice agriculture also results in the release of another greenhouse gas, methane. There are also increasing efforts both commercially and promoted by government to develop and expand biofuel production – bio-diesel from palm oil is especially favored. This drive has been sparked by both high global petroleum prices and the region’s increasing reliance on petroleum imports, particularly from the Middle East. Although biofuel is often pitched as a sustainable energy source, there is concern that the rush to develop it results or will result in more destruction of old forests to clear the way for oil-palm plantations. The large-scale expansion of palm-oil production in Indonesia’s Sumatra and in Kalimantan on Borneo, which has been ongoing for the past decade, is already responsible for another major environmental problem – the haze that affects Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia when land is burned to prepare for clearing. There is a regional shift under way toward more natural gas, which is desirable in terms of its lower carbon-dioxide emissions, though it is sometimes forgotten that upstream production often releases carbon dioxide unless engineering measures are taken to re-inject the gas. And natural gas continues to face obstacles due to delays in constructing pipelines. Moreover, gas will no time soon replace cheap but greenhouse-gas-emitting coal in the region. Coal-fired generation is planned to grow fast in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. More hydropower is likely to be used, especially in the Mekong region, but again there are environmental concerns as to the impact of damming rivers on downstream river life and communities vulnerable to drought. Vietnam in particular is finding this a major problem, with exceptionally dry seasons in the past two or three years leading to low water levels in reservoirs behind hydro dams in the north. There has been competition between supply for farmers downriver for rice irrigation and for power generation. This in turn has made Vietnam’s power planners look to coal-fired generation as well as natural gas as means of reducing reliance on hydropower. Nuclear power has also emerged in the past 18 months or so as a serious possibility in several countries. Vietnam and Indonesia propose large-capacity generation plants, possibly coming into operation at the end of the next decade. And most recently, the governments of Thailand and Myanmar have put forward the idea. Again, there are many issues here, ranging from whether the plants would really be economic to safety and weapons-proliferation concerns. Motor vehicles – another major source of carbon-dioxide emissions – are set to keep filling Southeast Asia’s roads. In per capita terms, car ownership is still low. But at the same time, in large urban areas, growing car ownership continues to congest cities and harm the atmosphere and community health through vehicle exhaust. Better public-transport systems – from buses to rail overhead and underground systems – are clearly critical but are generally only planned for the region’s more affluent countries.
Not all the news is bad, however. For instance, Singapore has for decades been exemplary in its attention to urban planning and mass transport, including extensive use of greenbelts and tree-lined gardens. Bangkok, notorious in the past for traffic jams and exhaust pollution, is also now benefiting from its light rail and more recent underground rail system, as well as stricter standards and controls on gasoline quality. In Vietnam, the fastest-growing economy in the region, there are plans for mass-transit systems for the large and fast-growing cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Whether they can be put in place ahead of the expected huge growth in vehicle numbers remains to be seen, however. Southeast Asia, which justifiably prides itself on the great progress the region has made in terms of both political stability and economic development since the late 1970s, still faces many pressing socioeconomic challenges. As such, concerns over greenhouse-gas emission and climate change do not yet seem as pressing as they are now in the developed world. Southeast Asia’s defenders will point – and rightly so – to the region’s low per capita emissions of carbon dioxide. And over the medium term, these will still be low compared with the developed world. By 2030, APERC projects 4.2 tons per capita in Southeast Asia, compared with 6.7 in China, 10.8 in Japan, 21.9 in Australia and 23.0 in the United States. These low per capita figures are consistent with still low per capita income levels compared with more developed countries, apart from China. The popular argument is – and will continue to be – that Southeast Asia’s economic development should not be penalized through a disproportionate burden of greenhouse-gas reduction measures. Further strengthening this perspective is the fact that much of the atmosphere’s existing carbon-dioxide content has been produced by the West and Japan over the past century. This also points to another problem with carbon-dioxide mitigation: it can take a century or more for carbon dioxide to break down naturally. However, the comparison of per capita output on a national basis is arguably not sufficiently focused. Looking at national averages does not give a sharp enough picture of energy-use patterns and how they might be improved. When comparing major urban areas, say Bangkok or Jakarta, with comparable cities in the developed world, the per capita emission figures in many cases are not that different. Singapore is a case and point. Its per capita carbon-dioxide output was a high 12.2 tons in 2002 and is projected by APERC to reach 18.8 tons by 2030. Future analysis would be better based on scientific and economic geography rather than nation-states – although national governments clearly remain critical and indispensable as far as policy development and implementation are concerned. This in turn points to Southeast Asia’s particular greenhouse-gas challenges. Energy use by the region’s cities is often extravagant and wasteful, which could be improved through better building design, electrical-product standards, and transport systems. Set against this are rural areas where millions of people live in virtual energy poverty with little or no access to electricity. Hence Southeast Asia faces the unique global-warming challenge of both the modern urbanized and industrialized world and the agriculture-based developing world. And it is increasingly important that it is addressed as such.
Andrew Symon is a Singapore-based journalist and analyst specializing in energy and natural resources. He is currently completing a book on energy in Southeast Asia.