Asean must walk the climate talk

Asean must walk the climate talk

Next month, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is going to have the big party it deserves. The golden jubilee celebration will pay tribute to the remarkable journey of a small regional association founded by five foreign ministers from backward countries in a war-torn region.

The five ministers -- Thanat Khoman of Thailand, Narciso Ramos of the Philippines, Adam Malik of Indonesia, Abdul Razak of Malaysia and S Rajaratnam of Singapore -- on Aug 8, 1967 signed the charter that came to be known as the Bangkok Declaration. It heralded the arrival of a regional bloc for small and poor nations in a war-torn region, all of them except Thailand emerging from colonisation. Their vision was modest and pragmatic: to create some bargaining power and to find a way to deal with the world's big guys.

"If those small nations can learn and find ways and means to band together and cooperate with one another, they may eventually be able to shape and implement a positive and concerted policy without being squeezed or crushed by the weight and pressure of larger countries," Thanat, known as the initiator of the Asean idea, was quoted as saying.

Despite derision from superpowers who predicted the bloc would become a flop, Asean has survived and, surprisingly, thrived. It is being held up as a beacon of multilateralism and emerging-market potential with the official formation of the Asean Economic Community in late 2015. Its member states have achieved a degree of peace and prosperity that few could have envisioned five decades ago. Singapore has reached developed country status while new members such Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam are emerging production hubs and on the way to exiting poverty.

But in order to remain prosperous and peaceful, Asean -- like other nations and groups in the world -- needs to deal with continuing challenges such as income disparity, the threat of terrorism, economic uncertainties and internal political conflicts. Yet in my humble opinion, one of the biggest threats Asean is going to face is climate change.

Unlike political issues, terrorism or financial crises, "climate change" is not a regular part of Asean policymakers' vocabulary. The lukewarm attitude toward this problem makes Asean more vulnerable.

Make no mistake. I don't mean Asean is a climate change denier. Indeed, Asean ministers since 2007 have announced a series of "initiatives" and "joint statements" to express "Asean's common understanding/position and aspirations" toward a global solution to the challenge of climate change.

So you may want to know about actions. Apart from a series of workshops and forums, there have been few concrete achievements. Among them is a US$15-million regional project titled "Rehabilitation and Sustainable Use of Peatland Forest in Southeast Asia" to deal with fire in peatland cleared for oil palm planting, which has become a major source of polluting emissions. Another one is the project on "Biodiversity and Climate Change", this one with €2.5 million in financial assistance from Germany.

The question is, are these action plans a match for the magnitude of the problem? As a regional bloc, can Asean do more, devoting the same attention to climate change that it does to security, economic and trade issues?

It certainly can and must, and should take its cue from Europe, which has had concrete plans to combat climate change since the early '90s. Asean has done very little even though it is part of a region deemed highly vulnerable to climate change impact. The World Bank last year warned that Asia Pacific could see growth rates decline by as much as 6% of GDP by 2050, unless they can deal with climate change in a more effective manner.

A report released last week by the Asian Development Bank and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), warns that in the absence of any adaptation or technological improvements, rice yields in the region, home to major food exporters such as Thailand and Vietnam, could decline by up to 50% by 2100.

Cities in region, especially in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, are also vulnerable. Economic losses from flooding and inundation will reach $52 billion per year by 2050, from $6 billion in 2005. These figures are not the kind of numbers we associate with an emerging economic powerhouse.

As a regional bloc, Asean at 50 years old, has done quite well at countering the big guys of the political and economic world. Now, its next mission is to band together to survive the wrath of Mother Nature.

Anchalee Kongrut

Assistant News Editor

Bangkok Post's Assistant News Editor

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