How Southeast Asia Governs Climate Change: Multiple Contexts, Multiple Tensions

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Southeast Asian countries play a pivotal role in the fight against climate change, taking care to balance economic progress with climate-friendly development. Jens Marquardt, Laurence L Delina and Mattijs Smits, editors of the recent book Governing Climate Change in Southeast Asia, outline how Southeast Asian countries have responded to the climate challenge and summarize the lessons learned from climate governance in ASEAN.

How Southeast Asia Governs Climate Change: Multiple Contexts, Multiple Tensions

Air pollution over Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: In Southeast Asia, economic progress is driven mainly by fossil-fuel combustion, leading to air pollution, adverse impact on health, and a massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions (Credit: Paul Evan Green / Shutterstock.com)

Last year’s United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow saw a multitude of pledges and announcements to bring down carbon emissions. Yet, while the Asian Development Bank (ADB) called the updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) a “promising step forward” in the fight against the climate crisis, Glasgow failed to provide a powerful signal to phase out coal and the Global North did not deliver on its promise to provide US$100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020. While these global debates have received a lot of attention, tackling the climate crisis requires real efforts domestically.

In Southeast Asia, one of the world’s most vibrant and fastest-growing developing regions, economic progress is driven mainly by fossil fuel combustion, leading to air pollution, adverse impact on health, and a massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The total emissions from all 11 Southeast Asian countries grew from slightly over 415,000 tons of CO2 equivalents (tCO2e) in 1990 to over 1.6 million tCO2e in 2019. However, some countries including Cambodia (0.92 tCO2/capita), Myanmar (0.67 tCO2/capita) and Timor-Leste (0.4 tCO2/capita) emit significantly less greenhouse gases than their counterparts such as Brunei (23.22 tCO2/capita), Malaysia (8.42 tCO2) and Singapore (7.78 tCO2/capita).

Over a decade ago, the ADB argued in a high-profile report that while Southeast Asia could benefit a lot from low-carbon development, the region is also poised to suffer from the devastating effects of climate change. Indeed, extreme weather events such as super typhoons and prolonged droughts have become more frequent and severe. Smoke from forest fires on islands such as Borneo or water scarcity in the Mekong Delta have come to be seen as manifestations of the region’s intensified conflicts over natural resources and environmental degradation. 

Southeast Asia’s rising emissions, changing consumption patterns and economic growth have also triggered debates about how to tackle climate change collectively. In an utterly heterogenous region, governing the climate crisis is an unprecedented sociopolitical challenge, with major tensions between authoritarian and more democratic modes of governance, between state-driven climate change politics and non-state interventions, and between state regulations and market forces.

Authoritarian vs democratic climate governance

Southeast Asia is home to many forms of government, ranging from absolute (Brunei) and parliamentarian monarchies (Cambodia, Malaysia. Thailand) to parliamentarian (Laos, Vietnam), semi-presidential (Singapore, Timor-Leste), and presidential republics (Indonesia, Philippines). In addition, as in the case of Myanmar, military regimes have regained power over the last decades. Southeast Asia’s unstable governance architecture and changing regimes have prompted political scientists to describe the region as their “natural laboratory”. Not surprisingly, governments across Southeast Asia employ varying political approaches to climate change. 

While some – Singapore and Vietnam, for example – promote the idea of environmental authoritarianism by announcing top-down climate action measures with little room for critical debate or open confrontation, others such as Indonesia and Malaysia are confronted with increased pressure to publicly justify their climate action plans and commitments in a more democratic and decentralized fashion. Powerful subnational entities in those states offer examples of how public climate change debates can enhance inclusiveness and open up political topics for deliberation. Yet, they also raise doubts on practical implementation. 

The Philippine government under President Rodrigo Duterte (who will leave office at the end of June) illustrates the tensions between a democratic government with a robust institutional framework for tackling climate change and an authoritarian style of leadership. The government’s oppression of critical voices and resistance to reproach have severely hampered open and democratic debates on climate action.

Duterte in nature: The Philippines is one Southeast Asian country that long formulated solid and comprehensive climate legislation (Credit: Presidential Communications Operations Office)

Duterte in nature: The Philippines is one Southeast Asian country that long formulated solid and comprehensive climate legislation (Credit: Presidential Communications Operations Office)

Countries with strong central governments and absent open opposition such as Vietnam and Cambodia demonstrate how central state authorities can streamline climate discourses and action with little disruption from their peoples. Even an absolute monarchy like Brunei is committed to stakeholder cooperation when implementing its climate change policy framework. As seen in Vietnam, however, authoritarian settings do not necessarily lead to more legitimate climate action and effective emissions reduction. The lack of state capacity to implement and enforce climate action is therefore present in democratic and authoritarian systems alike. In Southeast Asia’s youngest nation, Timor-Leste, missing government capacities and the different priorities of a post-conflict state hamper climate action.

State-led vs non-state climate action

We also found the inclusion and participation of non-state actors closely related to climate change governance and leadership. In Thailand, activists and grassroots movements promote renewable energy development; in the Philippines, a growing number of activists have mobilized against coal power; and, in Myanmar, environmental civil society organizations fought for a climate-friendly energy transition, at least until the military coup in 2021. 

These examples of resistance and organized protests against fossil fuel-dominated economies demonstrate the important roles of civil society actors in Southeast Asia. We have also observed a growing active climate justice movement throughout the region. Yet, these activists are often confronted with powerful public and private advocates of a fossil fuel-dominated economy. 

Private companies also play an essential role in the region since they control energy markets in (partly) liberalized countries including the Philippines and Singapore. At the same time, disruptive renewable energy businesses and entrepreneurs can challenge the dominance of fossil fuels and develop climate-friendly solutions, as shown in Indonesia and Malaysia. Yet, the dominance of big companies in these two countries and their preference for coal are obstacles to expanding renewable energy and substituting carbon-intensive modes of production. 

Beyond formally registered NGOs, civil society also includes informal networks and practices as well as groups of affected people who struggle with the everyday impacts of climate change. In Timor-Leste, the government needs to recognize rural customary systems, knowledge practices, and deep relations with nature to avoid conflicts over or refuse state-driven climate action. In Laos, peasant farmers deal with climate change on a daily basis. Yet, climate adaptation programs are often disconnected from their needs and experiences. In Cambodia, while state and professional non-state actors accumulate funding for climate change capacity building, people in villages and rural areas remain neglected.

Singapore's prime minister marked the 50th Earth Day in 2020: Some countries promote the idea of environmental authoritarianism, issuing top-down climate measures with little room for critical debate (Credit: @leehsienloong on Twitter)

Government regulations vs market forces

Market conditions and actors shape climate change governance in Southeast Asia in many ways. Financial incentives for climate-friendly technologies, such as renewable energy, were introduced across Southeast Asia, most notably in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. While external actors and foreign donors often support these market-based mechanisms and financial incentives, policies rarely trigger an energy transition. Instead, policymakers and businesses would integrate climate-friendly solutions into established fossil fuel-dominated systems. 

Among other motivations, in many Southeast Asian countries, this has to do with the vested interests controlling the market, the political economy of decarbonization, and colonial legacy. For example, while the Philippine energy sector is highly liberalized, it is still dominated by a few influential, well-connected family businesses. Incumbent networks continue to prefer and support large-scale coal power facilities over decentralized and locally-owned renewable energy sources. Less liberalized economies such as Brunei also struggle to balance the need to diversify their economies with climate action. 

Coordination between governments and private actors is a particular challenge for climate change policy implementation. Malaysia and Singapore, for example, have prioritized efficiency gains and measures with a pro-economic growth agenda and avoided the trade-offs between mitigation and economic growth. Not surprisingly, international organizations would often prioritize market-driven mechanisms to drive climate action. Climate change governance assemblage in Cambodia, meanwhile, is a product of Western forms of finance and managerialism rather than a response to the domestic context. In Laos, donor-driven climate action is considered apolitical, technical and managerial, which has led to the neglect of the socio-economic contexts that constitute climate change politics. 

What's your NDC?: Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha (center) with British counterpart Boris Johnson (left) and UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 2021 climate conference in Glasgow (Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Thailand)

What's your NDC?: Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha (center) with British counterpart Boris Johnson (left) and UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 2021 climate conference in Glasgow (Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Thailand)

The importance of market- and competition-oriented rationales is also reflected in the conditional commitments outlined in NDCs across Southeast Asia. To avoid economic disadvantages, countries such as Indonesia or Thailand have demanded financial support and access to new technologies if they were to be more ambitious in their climate commitments. 

Overall, Southeast Asian governments offer different responses to the climate crisis. The Climate Action Tracker, a consortium evaluating NDCs worldwide, has rated some of these climate responses, ranging from “critically insufficient” to limiting global warming to 1.5°C (Vietnam) to “2°C compatible” (the Philippines). Yet, operationalizing and comparing NDCs in this manner is a limiting exercise as it only partly accounts for country-specific contexts and conditions.

Outlook and cautionary trends

All Southeast Asian countries have adopted the Paris Agreement and developed their NDCs to outline future climate actions. Many of them, most notably in the Philippines, have long formulated solid and comprehensive climate legislation. The biggest challenge remains, however: How can Southeast Asian countries effectively implement these policies and institutionalize climate action beyond the framework provided by the international climate change regime?

Challenges arising from complex, multilevel governance arrangements and the contestations between national and subnational authorities are most evident in decentralized countries like Indonesia. Still, countries with central governments, e.g. Laos, often lack the institutional capacity to implement, monitor, and evaluate their own climate plans and policies. As observed in countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines, these institutional challenges are exacerbated by corruption, populism, or even military intervention. 

Southeast Asia has seen dramatic, and at times, violent political shifts over the last decades, reflecting the region’s history of political instability. Yet, there are also signs of hope with peaceful and democratic transitions of power, as experienced in Indonesia, Malaysia and, at one time, the Philippines. Political stabilization processes are essential in developing legitimate and predictable climate action.

In Southeast Asia, established democracies with vibrant civil societies stand side by side with more authoritarian governments including Singapore, Brunei, Laos and Vietnam. Ironically, political stability can also obstruct more progressive climate change action. The strong connections between political elites and established fossil fuel-dominated industries can be problematic for inclusive and just transitions to less carbon-intensive economies. Mobilizing towards climate justice will be vital in generating acceptable climate action in a region with growing inequalities and disadvantaged groups that are disproportionally vulnerable to climate change. In addition, transnational climate initiatives and regional climate change governance fostered by ASEAN could also facilitate a regional response to climate change.

The challenges outlined above leave us with three cautionary notes.

First, we observe a trend towards reducing climate change governance to purely technical processes and apolitical arguments, as evidenced by the preponderance of measurable commitments and emissions reduction targets in climate change policymaking in contrast to the socio-political conflicts they entail. This understanding risks neglecting the social and political dimensions of climate change governance and avoids discussions about the winners and losers of the transition. While a democratic setting might not provide more effective climate change policies in the short run, it does offer room for public debate and participation that could increase legitimacy and the pressure on powerful elites and vested interests. 

Second, there is a clear trend towards stakeholder engagement, although these modes of participation also limit the role of state actors in climate action. Informal networks can serve as forums for political debates where narratives may form around climate action, but we should not construe this to mean that the state does not lead in its responsibility. 

Third, we observe a trend towards the use of market-based solutions to tackle climate change, including carbon pricing and incentive structures like feed-in tariffs for renewables. These attempts for one-size-fits-all solutions neglect historical path dependencies and established market structures that are upheld by vested interests in favor of fossil fuel economies. While market solutions are important, stronger regulations and public funding towards climate action should also contribute to climate change governance.

With its growing economic power, political influence, and contribution to global emissions, Southeast Asia will inevitably become an important region in international climate change governance. A better understanding of domestic contexts and circumstances will help us identify the challenges and opportunities for climate action in this region, while providing us a critical reflection of how the globalized climate change narrative pans out regionally, nationally, and sub-nationally. 

Our new book about climate change governance in Southeast Asia provides insights into each Southeast Asian nation, opening up the black box of the nation-state by revealing deep societal struggles, political conflicts, and inequalities. The authors thereby demonstrate how governing climate change remains a highly context-specific endeavor and varies in terms of relevant actors, political institutions, and societal contexts. We hope that more scholars, especially from Southeast Asia, will continue these conversations and advance our understanding of climate change governance in this vibrant part of the world.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Jens Marquardt

Jens Marquardt

Institute of Political Science, Technical University of Darmstadt

Jens Marquardt is a research associate at the Institute of Political Science at the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany. He has previously worked on non-state climate action at the Department of Political Science at Stockholm University after conducting research on the relation between climate science and politics at Harvard University’s Program on Science, Technology and Society. His research interests include environmental governance, power relations, and issue of contestation around climate change politics. Jens is the author of the book How Power Shapes Energy Transitions in Southeast Asia (Routledge) and is currently committed to a joint research project on how to institutionalize climate change mitigation in the Global South.

Laurence L Delina

Laurence L Delina

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Laurence L Delina is an assistant professor in the Division of Environment and Sustainability at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). His research looks at accelerating just and sustainable transitions, especially of sociotechnical energy systems, in developing Southeast Asia. He is the author of Strategies for Rapid Climate Mitigation: Wartime Mobilisation as a Model for Action? and Accelerating Sustainable Energy Transition(s) in Developing Countries: The Challenges of Climate Change and Sustainable Development (both published by Routledge), as well as of Climate Actions: Transformative Mechanisms for Social Mobilisation and Emancipatory Climate Actions: Strategies from Histories (both published by Palgrave Macmillan).

Mattijs Smits

Mattijs Smits

Wageningen University & Research

Mattijs Smits is an assistant professor at the Environmental Policy Group of Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. He researches and teaches in the fields of (renewable) energy policy and politics, environment, sustainability, (rural) development, and climate finance. During his academic and professional career, he spent extended periods living and working as a researcher and consultant in Southeast Asia, notably in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. He holds degrees from four different universities on three continents: a BSc and MSc from the University of Utrecht and Wageningen University, and PhD degrees from The University of Sydney and Chiang Mai University. He is the author of the book Southeast Asian Energy Transitions: Between Modernity and Sustainability (Ashgate).

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