Climate change in the EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership

Dana Pjanic | Climate Change Fellow



Image credit: Doan Tuan via Unsplash
Image credit: Doan Tuan via Unsplash

After decades of mutual cooperation and dialogue, on 1 December 2020 the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced their intention to elevate their relationship to a ‘strategic partnership’. Though specific details of the partnership remain unclear, what is certain is that climate policy has been singled out as a crucial area of cooperation between the two blocs.


On face value, assistance from the EU to address climate change would be a welcome development for the countries of ASEAN. The EU has remained steadfast in its desire to position itself as a global leader in climate action, with encouraging results from its Emissions Trading System showing a 33% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 2005. The EU Parliament has also entertained ideas of imposing a carbon border tax on exporters in “less climate-ambitious countries”, signalling its intention to set international climate standards.


But in approaching cooperation with ASEAN on climate change EU leaders face challenges and barriers that are unique to Southeast Asia. According to the International Energy Agency’s 2019 Outlook, the region’s overall energy demands will grow by 60% to 2040, driven by incredible rates of industrialisation, urbanisation and rapidly expanding economies. A growing reliance on fossil fuel consumption means that during that same period CO2 emissions could rise to almost 2.4 gigatonnes. The EU, as a bloc of industrially developed countries, must face the challenge of adapting its climate policies to a region that is grappling with enormous growth at the cost of mass consumption of dirty energy.


This highlights a particularly a key concern in devising a climate plan for ASEAN countries, in that much of its emissions are the product of declining poverty and hunger in the region. Using the USD 3.20 per day poverty line, Asia’s poverty rate decreased from 73.6% to below 10% between 1965 and 2014. Such a statistic illuminates why Southeast Asia’s demand for electricity is one of the fastest growing in the world, considering that even today 45 million people in the region live without access to electricity. Of course, growth and development are not uniform throughout the region. For a nation such as Cambodia, which falls in the United Nations defined category of ‘Least Developed Country’, and Indonesia, which is predicted to be among the world’s top five economies by 2050, there is a huge divergence in the national interests and priorities of each country. From this perspective, the benefits of climate action must be balanced with respect to the costs it could impose on economic and industrial growth for the people of Southeast Asia, especially those of the least developed nations.


This situation is complicated further simply by virtue of their geography, as research shows ASEAN countries are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. According to the Climate Risk Index 2020, which analyses the countries most affected by extreme weather events such as floods and heatwaves, four ASEAN nations rank amongst the top ten most affected nations in the world between 1999 and 2018. Rising heat and humidity, typhoons and coastal flooding all present severe threats to human lives and infrastructure, especially in countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.


With these concerns, climate action in Southeast Asia is a quagmire of competing economic, developmental and health policy considerations. But it would be a mistake to overstate the significance of the EU in ASEAN’s climate plan. Though the activities of the two blocs in the past might have resembled that of a ‘donor-recipient’ relationship, it seems that their current strategic partnership will place more emphasis on mutual cooperation and alliance. The EU has committed €5 million (A $7.82 million) to the ASEAN Smart Green Cities Initiative, and another €5 million towards a program preventing deforestation. Both of these programs are centred on ‘smart’ urban growth and protecting the rich natural resources of ASEAN nations.


Despite this cooperation, it is evident that ASEAN will continue to approach climate action on its own terms, both in terms of development and the specific needs of each country. With the coronavirus pandemic threatening to reverse decades of progress against poverty in the region, the balance between emissions reduction programs and development will become even more difficult to maintain. What is clear is that at the end of the day no amount of industrialisation or urbanisation will be sufficient to safeguard ASEAN nations against the effects of climate change, without the additional efforts to build resilient and extreme-weather resistant infrastructure for its people.