Nine out of ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have ratified the Paris Agreement, and Myanmar is expected to do so in the near future. While each country has its own, individual Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), collaboration among these countries will be essential to achieve NDC targets and tackle global climate change challenges across a region with a quarter of the Earth’s population.

A new report by The Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), “Impact of Climate Change on ASEAN International Affairs,” is one of the first to focus on the impact of climate change on ASEAN international relations. Co-authored by think tanks and international institutes across ASEAN, including World Resources Institute Indonesia, it highlights potential areas of concern for member nations.

Highlights from the report include these findings:

1. Changing climatic conditions may affect interstate relations through humanitarian crises, migration, and/or a need for greater imports of vital goods.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, four of the world’s ten countries most affected by climate change are located in Southeast Asia: Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. In these countries and others, climate change is likely to have implications for ASEAN international affairs in the following ways:

  • Sea level rise is expected to be most damaging in Indonesia, where coastal flooding is predicted to affect 5.9 million people every year by 2100. With rising sea levels, cities on the coast are threatened, territories will shrink, and maritime territorial conflicts could worsen.
  • Extreme weather events are also expected to worsen. Events in the past, such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, have caused high death tolls and a rise in cross-border migration.
  • Transboundary haze originating from fires has already caused tensions between countries, as it affects air quality and human health across borders. While haze can cause diplomatic rifts, it also provides an opportunity for countries to work together.
  • Food security is also threatened, because a large proportion of Southeast Asia’s workforce is engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries—sectors which are especially vulnerable to climate change. Rice yields and GDP in ASEAN countries are projected to decline 50 percent and 6.7 percent by 2100, respectively.

All of these conditions can have a significant impact on migration. Sea level rise will force the evacuation of low-lying areas, which will increase population density elsewhere. Other climate-related factors influencing migration are altered river flows, lack of water for agriculture, and rising temperatures in rural areas.

<p>The coal-fired Quezon Power Plant in Mauban, Quezon, Philippines. Photo by Lawrence Ruiz (Epi Fabonan III)/Wikimedia</p>

The coal-fired Quezon Power Plant in Mauban, Quezon, Philippines. Photo by Lawrence Ruiz (Epi Fabonan III)/Wikimedia

2. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions requires international coordination and cooperation, including in the energy sector.

Climate mitigation requires a global energy transition, which has implications for interstate relations. In ASEAN countries, coal is projected to become the largest energy source from 2040 onward, which is completely counter to the NDCs. Failure to move away from fossil fuels, especially coal, may damage the international stature of ASEAN countries and potentially lead to failure in meeting their Paris Agreement targets. Reducing fossil-fuel subsidies and increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix could counteract fossil fuel dependence and achieve the NDCs.

Energy transition provides an opportunity for increased cooperation within ASEAN. Since 1997, greater electricity integration using renewable energy has been conceptualized as the ASEAN Power Grid (APG). Eleven shared power lines between six pairs of ASEAN countries have been established, and further cross-border integration is planned.

How ASEAN Can Accelerate Climate Action

ASEAN has identified climate change as a priority issue since the 2007 ASEAN Summit in Singapore. Yet the conversation on climate change in regional meetings is more likely to be picked up as an occasional topic, instead of a continuous discussion. For example, climate change deliberations seemed to be absent in the agenda of the latest ASEAN Summit, just concluded in Manila. ASEAN countries should demonstrate their commitment to climate mitigation by elevating the issue and taking concrete action to achieve their NDCs.

Here are some of the report’s recommendations for ASEAN to embrace a bolder stance on climate policy:

  • Formulate a Regionally Determined Contribution (RDC) for ASEAN to encourage more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions of the ASEAN member states
  • Ensure that current and future initiatives under the ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation (APAEC) are as ambitious and detailed as possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Highlight Southeast Asia’s vulnerability to climate change by publishing and sharing relevant analysis
  • Facilitate regional electricity trade through the expansion of the ASEAN Power Grid for better handling of the intermittency of renewable energy

Climate change does not adhere to geopolitical boundaries; it must be solved transnationally. This requires particularly close cooperation between ASEAN countries, since ASEAN’s interlinked geographies and economies are highly exposed to the effects of climate change. If member nations don’t commit to climate action—and don’t commit to working together—the region’s future could be jeopardized.