Protesters march down a street during the Global Climate Strike in Jakarta on September 17, 2023. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Climate Action in Southeast Asia: Lagging Leadership, Passive People


Climate action initiatives have been rolled out in Southeast Asia, while a climate awareness survey has found that most Southeast Asians perceive governments as not doing enough. Few respondents are involved in active advocacy. The region has a long way to go.

Recent climate policies and initiatives to accelerate decarbonisation have offered hope to Southeast Asian countries in achieving their climate goals. On 19 August, the region’s economic ministers adopted the ASEAN Strategy for Carbon Neutrality, aiming to accelerate the transition towards a green economy. The strategy highlights eight areas, including greening the regional supply chain, connecting green infrastructure and market, enhancing common standards, and facilitating green talent development and mobility. This initiative adds to the long list of ASEAN’s climate commitments, such as the ASEAN renewable energy target and the ASEAN Taxonomy for Sustainable Finance.

Regional countries have also taken their own initiatives. The current ASEAN Chair, Indonesia, spearheaded a regional electric vehicle ecosystem. The country was recently in the spotlight after it launched a carbon exchange to mobilise the market to accelerate emissions reduction. Together with South Africa, Vietnam, and Senegal, Indonesia was selected by the G7 countries to join the Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETP), a multilateral initiative to assist developing countries in curbing their dependency on coal. Malaysia recently adopted a National Energy Transition Roadmap outlining its ambition to reach net-zero by 2050, and is currently drafting a Climate Change Act to be completed in 2025. As the only country currently imposing a carbon tax on all industrial facilities in its jurisdiction, Singapore is set to increase its carbon tax to S$25 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions (tCO2e) in 2024, from the current rate of S$5/tCO2e.

A climate awareness survey conducted by the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute found that Southeast Asians perceive national governments as most responsible for tackling climate change (86.9 per cent), followed by businesses and industries (61.8 per cent) and individuals (45.9 per cent) (Figure 1). It shows that the majority of Southeast Asians still think that climate change is a rather top-down measure where elite policymakers should be at the forefront of articulating more climate visions and regulations for their countries, despite businesses and individuals being more accountable for the greenhouse gasses they emit.

Figure 1: National governments are most responsible for tackling climate change

In your opinion, who are the top three groups responsible for tackling climate change in your country? (select three choices)

However, despite the expectation, the survey highlighted that Southeast Asians do not believe that their governments are doing enough, with 35.7 per cent of respondents in the survey stating that their government is aware of climate threats but does not allocate sufficient resources to address them (Figure 2). Respondents from Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia expressed this view more strongly. Meanwhile, only respondents from Singapore are optimistic about their government, with 44.1 per cent believing that their government considers climate change an urgent national priority and commits adequate resources to the cause.

While it is true that many climate policies led by national governments have been gaining ground, Southeast Asian citizens may want to see whether such policies are effective in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Figure 2: A majority of Southeast Asians think governments are not doing enough

How would you rate your government’s policies and actions taken in support of climate change?

Why does such a seeming gap between lofty policy announcements and wary public assessments exist? While it is true that many climate policies led by national governments have been gaining ground, Southeast Asian citizens may want to see whether such policies are effective in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. If they can feel immediate impacts on the ground, such as reductions in extreme weather events and improved air quality caused by reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels, they are more likely to think that their governments have been doing enough. Unfortunately, some analyses indicate otherwise. Climate Action Tracker rates ASEAN countries between “insufficient” and “critically insufficient” for their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to emissions reduction. ASEAN also acknowledged that there are significant gaps in implementation and goal-setting across its member states. Additionally, the national climate initiatives might be too recently launched to become widely known by the public, or poorly communicated by governments.

When asked who is the most active in pursuing climate goals, just over one-third of Southeast Asians in the survey regard governments as the most active agents in tackling climate change, with some variation by the level of government (27.3 per cent national; 6.9 per cent subnational). Notably, civil society, at 30.2 per cent, is the largest among the categories displayed in Figure 3 – even exceeding national government, and despite being assigned a much lesser responsibility for climate action. The positive view of civil society’s role resonates well with respondents from Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines — countries with relatively strong civic engagement culture. Civil society might be perceived as filling the gaps when governments cannot mobilise sufficient expertise and resources, given that climate policies are rather technocratic, dynamic, and wide-ranging in nature.

Figure 3: Civil society’s highly regarded role in pursuing climate action

In your opinion, who has been the most active in tackling climate change in your country?

While Southeast Asians are rather pessimistic about their governments and optimistic towards civil society, unfortunately, most do not think individual roles count for much in the grand scheme of things. When asked who should be responsible for climate actions, Only 45.9 per cent of respondents attributed responsibility to individuals (Figure 1). Southeast Asian respondents in the survey also tend to be passive in the green transformation journey (Figure 4). Most of them follow news and share information about climate change (75.2 per cent) and adopt more sustainable lifestyle options (49.9 per cent). Less than a quarter of them are involved in tokenistic participation, such as donating to environmental organisations, joining climate movements, and signing petitions. Only a tiny fraction of them are involved in active advocacy, such as mobilising projects, contacting local political representatives, and attending protests on climate change.

Figure 4 Southeast Asians Are Passive Participants in the Green Transformation Journey

Which statement below best describes your level of participation in climate advocacy (check all that apply)

The survey results canvassed an outlook on Southeast Asian society’s perceptions of who should be charting climate actions. Climate change is indeed a global problem that requires coordinated efforts. Southeast Asian society sees their national governments playing a central role in projecting their nationwide strategy to decarbonise and looks to civil society to fill technical gaps, but individuals too can increase their impact through activism and political pressure. It is critical for Southeast Asia to spread consciousness on the multiple parties that contribute to the climate transformation journey, and how collective participation should be more energised and aligned.


Melinda Martinus is the Lead Researcher in Socio-cultural Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.