MANILA, Philippines – What does ASEAN integration in 2015 have to do with climate change?
A lot, according to leading scientists and civil society groups.
Speakers at a press conference on Monday, September 22, were one in saying that, as the economies of the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations converge in 2015, they should push for economic development that is powered by green energy instead of fossil fuels and that is resilient to climate change.
"The definition of ASEAN integration is very limited. We integrate economic policies, but we do not integrate other policies that affect society. How do we cooperate with one another so we can come up with policies to stop global warming or protect the environment?" said Riza Bernabe, policy and research coordinator for Oxfam Grow.
The press conference was held a day before the UN Climate Summit in New York City, a gathering of more than 120 heads of state called by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
The New York summit aims to build political will among nations to ensure that an ambitious new agreement to combat climate change is made during a UN climate change negotiations in Paris in 2015.
ASEAN has an important part to play in the climate change debate.
For one thing, its nations are among the most vulnerable to the effects of this phenomenon, defined by Ki-Moon as the most urgent problem now confronting humanity.
For instance, 4 out of the top 10 countries most affected by extreme weather events from 1993 to 2012 are ASEAN countries (Myanmar, Vietnman, Philippines, Thailand), according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2014.
Three out of the top 10 countries worst hit by climate change are ASEAN (Myanmar, Vietnam, Philippines).
Southeast Asian countries are already in the grip of climate change.
Since the 1960s, the region has experienced 0.14 to 0.2 degrees Celsius warming each decade, said Bernabe.
Average rainfall during tropical cyclones in ASEAN has also increased by 100 millimeters. Each year has also seen sea levels rise by 1 to 3 millimeters, threatening the majority of Southeast Asians who live in the coastlines.
If sea level rise continues because of unabated climate change, 7% of Vietnam's agricultural land may be underwater by 2100.
Droughts have also devastated Cambodia, Laos PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam since 2009, endangering their agricultural sector.
According to the International Rice Research Institute, every 1% increase in temperature during the growing season due to climate change translates to as much as a 10% decrease in rice yield.
In drought-prone areas, crop yields are reduced by as much as 40%.
Such destructive impacts of global warming to the region's agricultural sector poses many threats not only to ASEAN but to the rest of the world, which depend on ASEAN nations like Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines for such food staples as rice and corn.
The volatility and increased intensity of extreme weather events in the region – another effect of climate change – endangers lives, infrastructure, businesses, and other economic foundations.
Because of critical impacts of climate change to ASEAN, the association of countries should be more decisive in curbing climate change, said Orlando Mercado, secretary-general of Eastern Regional Organization for Public Administration (Eropa), a group that works on development issues in Asia and the Pacific.
One way to do this is for ASEAN as a region to commit to low-carbon, climate-resilient economic development, he said. (READ: Filipinos in US to Aquino: Walk your climate talk)
Here are the recommendations made jointly by Oxfam Grow, Greenpeace, and Eropa:
Championing renewable energy
Though ASEAN has already taken steps to address climate change as a region, it is yet to make a unified stance on core climate issues like the adoption of renewable energy (RE).
The shift from fossil fuel energy sources to renewable, "green" energy has been promoted by scientists, environmentalists, energy specialists, and policy makers as one of the most effective ways to curb climate change.
ASEAN countries are still far behind in terms of RE compared to Western countries like Germany and Denmark. Germany is currently sourcing 80% of its energy needs from RE, mostly solar power. Denmark is leading the charge in wind energy with the goal of being 100% RE-powered by 2030.
Closer to home, China has emerged as a new leader in solar panel production and installation.
The Philippines, with its Renewable Energy Act of 2008, is one of the ASEAN countries taking big steps toward green energy, but the current administration's approval of more coal-fired plants is putting this reputation at risk, said Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Ben Muni.
President Benigno Aquino III approved 26 new coal-fired plants set to become operational by 2020. Because of his administration's coal approvals, the share of RE in the country's energy mix has been reduced from 34% in 2008 to 29% in 2011, said Muni. (READ: 5 things Aquino should say in his UN Climate Summit speech)
"Meanwhile, coal-powered electricity generation was only 25.89% in 2008 but rose to 38.76% in 2012," he told Rappler.
When the 26 coal plants open in 2020 without more RE approvals, the country may not reach its goal of 50% renewable energy by 2030. (INFOGRAPHIC: Grading Aquino: Climate change action needs improvement)
Matter of survival
If ASEAN nations continue to depend on fossil fuel to drive their economies, they will end up paying for its impacts, such as crop loss due to droughts, displacement due to submergence of coastal communities and massive infrastructure damage, and loss of lives from stronger tropical cyclones.
With the climate debate now becoming a matter of survival for the region, ASEAN should do away with its policy of consensus-making and non-intervention, said Mercado.
Its policy, called the "ASEAN way," requires that no decision be made by the regional bloc unless all member countries are in agreement. The association is also not supposed to intervene in internal affairs of its member countries.
"ASEAN should suspend the 'ASEAN way' because this is a matter of survival. Let us debate on negotiations on territorial disputes, fine. But on the climate change issue we are talking about survival. They should come up with a majority position to adopt low-carbon development," Mercado told Rappler.
The same economy the region is depending on for growth, because it is fossil-fuel-driven, may also condemn it to catastrophic changes brought about by climate later on. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.