Despite being uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, Southeast Asian nations are missing an opportunity to use the COVID-19 pandemic to promote a transition to greener economies, according to a new report.
The report by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), released yesterday, argues that despite the region being among the world’s most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, its governments have failed to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by COVID-19 to promote a greener economy. Indeed, many have enacted measures that make such a transition more difficult.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent economic recession have revealed the failure and fragility of our current economic system,” the report stated, “which has prioritized business interests over the well-being of people and the environment, deepened inequalities and failed to protect the most vulnerable.”
Southeast Asian nations recognize the extent of the risk. In its ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework, formulated at the end of 2020, the 10-nation Southeast Asian bloc explicitly stated that climate change poses a “fundamental risk” to the region and that “actions to mitigate the impacts of climate change should be taken immediately.”
The report, which evaluates the recovery measures taken in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Timor-Leste between February 2020 and April 2021, shows that the green policy measures adopted as part of their national COVID-19 recovery plans have fallen far short of the opportunity afforded by the pandemic.
Between April 2020 and April of this year, the 11 nations of Southeast Asia have spent an estimated $1.15 trillion on COVID-19 recovery packages – a rare mobilization of financial resources.
Using this to promote a green transition, the report argues, would bring a host of mutually reinforcing benefits. In addition to limiting global warming, it can help offset the economic costs of extreme weather events due to climate change, mitigate the region’s looming debt crisis, and “accelerate economic recovery through job creation in climate-friendly sectors.”
“A green recovery would have huge benefits for our region,” Pita Limjaroenrat, a Thai MP and APHR member, said in a statement accompanying the report’s release. “Not only would it help limit global warming, but would also help us to recover quicker from the pandemic, as well as build an economy that is more resilient.”
The report notes that some nations have introduced measures such as investment in clean transport and energy infrastructure and the subsidies and tax breaks for environmentally friendly products. In general, however, they have stopped short of the structural and systemic changes required to make a meaningful transition away from fossil fuel-based economies.
Indeed, the report argues that many nations’ pandemic recovery policies have actually reinforced their current reliance on carbon-based sources of power, complicating any future green transitions. Some governments have subsidized environmentally harmful products and industries, while Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore have provided a total of $50 billion in no-strings-attached bailouts for businesses that are high greenhouse gas emitters.
Singapore has probably been the most proactive in pushing for a green transition: the city-state has supported building upgrades and the construction of new green housing, provided vouchers for energy- and water-efficient appliances, and offered incentives for people to purchase electric vehicles. The report identifies the Philippines and Indonesia as the two nations with the most “brown policies” that have bolstered carbon-rich sectors of the economy.
Much of this can probably be put down to the short-termism of the COVID-19 era: the scrambling efforts of governments to provide immediate support to economies, however unequal their effects. In the climate of urgency around the spread of COVID-19, it is unsurprising that governments policies would build on what is already there, rather than pioneering new and greener growth alternatives.
But to recognize the reasons for a failure is not to excuse it. The report convincingly argues that COVID-19 has offered a rare opportunity to mobilize the finances and political resources necessary to begin the long transition away from fossil fuels. Whether or not Southeast Asia still has an opportunity to make up for lost time, or whether the window of opportunity has already slammed shut, remains to be seen.