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.