The heat is on

The heat is on

With a climate change denier in the White House, Southeast Asian states are wondering about what effects it will unleash on the vulnerable region from afar

The natural landscape of Southeast Asia has suffered a slew of losses in recent years. As El Nino disrupts world weather patterns, and the region recovers from its worst droughts in decades, Thailand has lost 6.1 million tonnes of agricultural products. That's 15.5 billion baht in gains gone between January 2015 and April 2016.

Last year, reports of coral bleaching surfaced from the Indian and South Pacific Ocean, including sections of the Gulf of Thailand, and the coast off East Flores in Indonesia. Many years are required for the reefs' recovery, but experts say that more bleaching is expected to take place. This will hit the Southeast Asian countries that depend heavily on coastal tourism.

Adding to this bleak portrait is the region's trouble with transboundary haze. Forest fires, started by illegal slash-and-burn practices, are major haze producers in Indonesia's Sumatra and Kalimantan islands, with high heat disposing the land to raging flames.

This summer, forest fires ripped across southern Thailand, a rare phenomenon in part of the country which is generally rendered damp by its long rainy season. At least 2,000 rais of peatland in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Narathiwat, Phangnga and Phatthalung were engulfed by flames.

Nasa has stated that 2016 is set to be the hottest year recorded in 136 years of modern data-keeping.

Echoing this trend, the Meteorological Department of Thailand has reported that the temperature in Mae Hong Son province reached 44.6 degrees C in April, breaking Thailand's record for the warmest day yet. It takes more pages than are at hand to list every case attesting to the threats to Southeast Asia posed by global warming. The more cases that stack up, the more chills shoot down the spine of states around the world.

But no setback felt quite as seismic as the election of US President-elect Donald Trump on Nov 8 – a global warming sceptic, he has threatened to call off the Paris Agreement, cut United Nations spending on environmental reform and dismantle President Obama's domestic climate change regulations. His campaign further promised to promote the coal and fossil fuel industries.

However, in a New York Times interview on Tuesday, Mr Trump backtracked on his original campaign stance, stating that were was "some connectivity" between global warming and human activity, despite having previously called climate change a downright hoax.

Asked whether the US would indeed withdraw from the Paris Agreement, he replied, "I'm looking at it very closely. I have an open mind to it."

The US is the second largest carbon-emitting country next to China. It's also the top donor for the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a financial mechanism under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that helps developing countries in adaptation and mitigation.

The unpredictability of Mr Trump has people unsure about his next move.

But regardless of what stance he'll will ultimately take on climate change, its effects will be felt around the world, including Southeast Asia, an area marked by significant environmental precarity.

MOST AFFECTED AREA

Many major cities in Southeast Asia -- Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Manila and Yangon -- are considered highly vulnerable to rising sea levels and coastal flooding by the Asian Bank Development (ADB).

This year, the Global Climate Risk Index released by NGO Germanwatch states that Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam were among the top 10 countries most affected by extreme weather events between 1995 and 2014.

Without strong efforts from both international and domestic actors, the future for Southeast Asia will only become more bleak.

At COP22's meeting in Morocco on Nov 16, Thailand's Natural Resources and Environment Minister Gen Surasak Karnjanarat recited a speech on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, a coalition of developing countries who want to see the Paris Agreement put into action for the collective betterment of their economies. The agreement seeks to limit the rising global temperature to well below two degrees.

"Developing countries have been the most affected by the adverse impacts of climate change, but we are taking ambitious measures in line with our capacities. Therefore, developed countries must support our endeavours," said Gen Surasak.

He further emphasised the need to enhance target goals in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, as well as upping climate financing to lead the group's economies to lower carbon paths.

G77 representative Manasvi Srisodapol announced that the group wanted developed countries to support more adaptation financing and technology transfer.

The Green Climate Fund, a key actor in helping raise climate financing to 100 billion dollars a year by 2020, will play a strong role in helping the G77 with adaptation and mitigation.

As of Nov 4, the GCF had raised 10.3 billion dollars pledged from 43 state governments.

The US was the top donor, pledging three billion dollars, followed by Japan ($1.5 billion), Britain ($1.2 billion), France ($1.03 billion) and Germany ($1 billion).

If Mr Trump decides to cut this funding, developing countries will suffer a major setback in implementing greener policies. Developing countries do not have the independent technical, human or financial capacity to undertake mitigation and adaptation.

U Ohn Winn, Myanmar's Union Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, stated at COP22 that financial support from developed countries is a vital element in applying the Paris Agreement in the world's least developed countries.

Even in middle-income countries like Thailand, which lacks advanced green technology, financial aid is required to help promote renewable energy, electric vehicles and low-emission farming.

NEW MARKETS

According to the European Union's Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, the US emitted 16.5 tonnes of carbon per capita in 2013.

Its emission levels increased in 2013 from 2012 by 4.4%, mainly due to the coal industry -- the industry that Mr Trump previously vowed to promote.

He has further stated his desire to cancel Mr Obama's Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 32% within 25 years relative to 2005 levels.

Mr Trump has named Myron Ebell, director of the libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute and a global warming denier, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency transition team.

The president-elect also appointed Bob Walker, who served as the chair of aerospace research under ex-president George W Bush, to chair the Nasa transition team. This week, Mr Walker announced that he would replace Nasa's focus on global warming with efforts to send humans to space.

He cited the "interference" of politicians in climate change research as a barrier to allowing scientists to unveil the "reality" about climate change.

While President Obama has striven to reduce coal use, and cut financing for coal and non-renewable energy sources both in the US and abroad, Mr Trump's take would see a sharp reversal of this, with more money going towards fast-tracking coal projects.

"Mr Trump's pro-coal stance is more likely to affect the US than the landscape of Southeast Asia," said Tara Buakamsri, the Thailand country director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia. "However, the anti-coal movement in the US is strong.

"It's been successful in discharging many coal-fired power plants and preventing the construction of new ones. US companies may seek out new markets.

"Efforts may come in the form of funding, consultants or those involved in the bidding process."

Southeast Asian countries don't own clean energy technology, making them more inclined to keep relying on conventional energy sources to sustain economic growth.

As China and India plan to steadily reduce their coal production, Southeast Asia will be the final remaining haven for the coal industry, said Mr Tara.

As emerging economic markets, Myanmar and Vietnam are set to be attractive places for coal producers.

Southeast Asia is home to many of the world's fastest growing economies.

The US was among the top five of countries that placed foreign direct investment in Southeast Asia in 2013, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Others included the EU, Japan and China.

Total foreign direct investment, including non-energy investment, in the region in the same year reached a record high of $125 billion.

With this financial boost, Southeast Asia's demand for energy services has risen by over 50% between 2000 and 2013, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Its electricity demand is expected to nearly triple by 2040.

The IEA projects that coal is set to power 40% of electricity in Southeast Asia, making it one of the few global regions that has a growing share of coal in its primary energy mix as of 2014.

This would count the region as one of the world's largest carbon emitters, and also, one of the most vulnerable areas to the effects of climate change.

But Mr Tara holds the optimistic view that the market will gradually shift away from fossil investment.

By developing new technology and gathering a local anti-fossil fuel movement, the private sector should be forced to choose renewable energy since it will cost less, says Mr Tara.

"While the EU and China are leaping forward [in tackling climate change], going against global efforts to cut emissions will make the US isolated from the rest of the world," he adds.

LOW CARBON ECONOMIES

As Mr Trump's office is urged to change their climate change plans, so too should Southeast Asia be urged to step up in mitigating the impending environmental disaster that experts predict.

In July, Global Coal Plant Tracker reported that 151 coal-powered plants (producing 63,128 megawatts) are in various stages of development, and 250 plants are now fully up and running.

Indonesia is one of the world's major coal producers and exporters. Coal-powered energy is set to dominate its energy mix in 2025.

Vietnam is also revising its power development plan, with coal set to play a major part.

Thailand plans to build two new coal-powered plants in the southern provinces, Krabi (800 megawatts) and Songkhla (2,200 megawatts).

In May of this year, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim told a gathering of government and corporate leaders in Washington that more coal-powered plants in Asia -- including in China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam -- would spell disaster for the planet.

But the good news is Southeast Asia countries seem generally intent on increasing renewable energy use.

"We won't be able to create low carbon economies if we rely on fossil energy heavily," said Chayun Tantivasadakarn, director for the Pro-Green Policy Research Centre on Green Economy at Thammasat University's faculty of economics.

"Coal will never be a cheap choice if you count the costs it wields on climate change."

Letting the private sector enter the free energy market to compete in electricity generation is expected to boost technology development.

In most Southeast Asian countries, the energy sector is currently monopolised by state and government enterprises.

Mr Chayan says that Southeast Asia will have to make bold moves in fighting climate change. Introducing economic incentives, such as carbon credit and carbon tax, is required to make a meaningful turnaround.

In the short term, companies have to inject capital to create low-carbon products. However, they will gain in the long term and increase their competitive capacity on the global stage, Mr Chayan said.

In Thailand, for example, carbon credit policy is adopted on a voluntary basis. This means that carbon tax still plays a minimal role in influencing the private sectors' behaviour.

"The EU -- the world's first carbon market that's implementing an emissions trading system -- has proved that it can increase its competitive capacity by making products environmentally friendly," said Mr Chayan. "These will be the kinds of products that developed countries will require from developing ones.

"If we don't change, we can't compete. We will drown in our old products. Every country must collaborate in meeting the [Paris agreement's] two degree target. Even if we stop emissions today, the impacts of climate change will still remain. So we just can't avoid decarbonisation."

LOSING FACE

The Paris Agreement, effective as of Nov 4, represented a big step in the global effort to battle climate change.

To date, 112 of 197 countries in the UNFCCC, representing 79% of global emissions, ratified the agreement.

"US climate change policy does not depend on the president's decisions alone," said Bantoon Sethasiroj, director of the Good Governance for Social Development and the Environment Institute, which monitors climate negotiations.

The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 by ex-president Bill Clinton's government, failed to be ratified by the Senate.

However, having already been ratified by President Obama, the US cannot technically withdraw from the Paris Agreement for at least four years. Still, the US could simply fail to meet its lowered emissions targets.

"But that wouldn't fit today's [business] atmosphere. The private sector has become eager to cut greenhouse gas emissions," said Mr Bantoon.

This year, Mr Bantoon's organisation reached out to various government sectors to draft measures for cutting emissions and implementing adaptation for a post-COP21 Thailand. The energy sector -- which CAIT, a climate data website, indicates held a 73% share of emissions in 2012 -- is expected to be a big priority.

The draft underwent a series of public hearings from the state to the private sector, eager to learn about the next step in tackling energy innovations.

A recent ADB study called "Southeast Asia and the Economics of Global Climate Stabilisation" indicates that the region's carbon emissions, from 1990 to 2010, have grown more rapidly than in any other area in the world. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam accounted for 90% of regional greenhouse gas emissions in the region.

Indonesia has said it intends to lower emissions from 29 to 49% below normal levels by 2030, according to the UNFCCC. Malaysia plans to lower emissions from 35 to 45%, Thailand from 20 to 25% and Vietnam from eight to 25%.

To achieve this goal, Thailand introduced the new Power Development Plan last year to increase renewable energy usage to up to 30% of overall energy usage by 2036, while reducing energy intensity by 30%, relative to 2005 levels in the same year.

The expansion of national railways is on its way to improving public transport accessibility and cut carbon emissions from independent vehicles. The government further plans to have 1.2 million electric cars on the roads by 2036.

"It's clear that the Thai government are prioritising helping the global community in tackling climate change," said Raweewan Bhuride, secretary-general of the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning.

After COP22, she says that the Thai government is committed to cutting emissions targets, but help from the GCF is needed.

The failure to meet the demands of the Paris Agreement would be a global crisis. It will also be a huge loss of face for every party involved, and especially Mr Trump.

red flag: US president-elect Donald Trump is a climate change denier, top right.

crowded in: Both sides of the Pasak River in Ayutthaya’s Nakhon Luang district are lined with factories and warehouses belonging to the coal industry. Locals say they live with a constant blanket of smog.

dried up: A lotus pond in Prachuap Khiri Khan province's Sam Roi Yot National Park is now dry due to severe drought, reported to be the worst in the past three decades. Park authorities insist its wetland status isn't threatened as the area should recover naturally. photo: Chaiwat Sardyaem

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