This photograph taken on 22 January 2021 shows a worker pulling a cable along a floating solar power farm at sea, off Singapore's northern coast just across the Malaysian state of Johor. (Photo: Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)

Don’t Miss the Turning Point of ASEAN’s Energy Plan

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ASEAN’s Energy Plan is an empty fortress – dejected and under-delivered. But if done right, the region can turn a corner and do more to harness the power of renewables.

ASEAN countries have always understood that regional energy security cooperation is beneficial to them individually. Such an intention was first formalised in 1986 and then translated into a policy framework in 1999. The ASEAN Plan of Action on Energy Cooperation (APAEC) facilitated the consensus on building institutional capacities of ASEAN member states in the mid-2000s before the ratification of the current 2016-2025 plan. However, it has attracted a surprisingly low level of attention from the media, civil society, and academia over the last decade or so. The original architects of the Plan, some of whom are national energy officials, have let the Plan slip. The dejection stems from the belief that the Plan is never going to be transformational. Why bother? 

The Plan has a constellation of initiatives that support the development of policy capacities. Its scope is expansive, addressing almost every energy resource imaginable: gas pipeline, coal technology, hydropower, renewable energy, and even nuclear energy. Its ambition is high from a climate change perspective. In Phase I, the Plan aspires to achieve a renewable energy target of 23 per cent by 2025 and an overall energy efficiency target of 20 per cent by 2020. But it has failed spectacularly on the first target and performed way above and beyond for the second. Energy insiders lay the blame of the under-delivery on poor integration of climate considerations and targets across the heavily invested projects on the power grid and gas pipeline.

An empty fortress

Structurally, the Plan looks busy and robust. It comprises seven objectives and ninety action plans that include infrastructure development, awareness building and targeted studies. The top three activities are bureaucratic procedures like meetings, targeted research such as feasibility study of technology transfer, and networking like an information-sharing forum. Following closely behind is technical capacity-building, standard-setting on technology operation, awareness building around benefits of technology upgrades, and trend monitoring for adaptive governance. There are only a handful of activities in the areas of policy development at the national level and infrastructure development at the regional level. 

ASEAN energy and climate officials should get into more joint workshops and eventually into each other’s mind frames.

Substantively, the Plan at best can only provide a platform for stakeholders to update each other as they inch forward, buttressing the stereotype of ASEAN as a talkfest. Its main objective of establishing energy connectivity may be technically achievable, but its achievement so far has been limited by underperforming institutions. It can run the risk of being mere rhetoric, to be drummed out by other national priorities, and plagued by unchallenged visions from staunch allies and simplified models. These allies include energy authorities at both national and regional levels who have prized energy affordability over sustainability within their echo chamber. For too long, they have eyed the linear relationship between cheap fossil fuel and fast economic growth. But ASEAN actors need to wake up to the changing trends of renewable energy: greater affordability, easier deployment, and ready investors.

Window of opportunity

While the commitments for both phases of the Plan have been a severe disappointment to climate advocates, the current Plan suggests the emergence of a long-awaited turning point. The Phase I document has already acknowledged the adverse impacts of climate change and the ratification of the Paris Agreement. The word ‘climate’ is mentioned eight times in the Phase I document and 24 times in the Phase II documents. The word ‘decarbonisation’ is not even mentioned in the Phase I document, but it is stated eight times in the Phase II documents. The Phase II document took it further by framing existing efforts in promoting energy efficiency as a significant contribution to addressing climate issues. In addition, clean coal technology, though not ideal, has become the region’s primary response to climate transition as a result of reconciling global and regional pressures on the polity, economy and institution. 

The semantic changes in Phase II may be far from transformational, especially in the absence of material commitments to developing renewable energy capacity. However, the APAEC community has made several institutional adjustments that can be deemed highly favourable. First is the setting up of the ASEAN Climate Change and Energy (ACCEPT) project led by the ASEAN Centre for Energy, which aims to introduce the concept of climate-energy integration. The project has provided tools and training to prepare the energy actors for meeting the obligations of the Paris Agreement. Of greater substance is the addition of Action Plans 6.1-6.3 that specify policy learning activities for facilitating synergies between the climate and energy sectors.

Capture the moment

ASEAN energy and climate officials should get into more joint workshops and eventually into each other’s mind frames. The ASEAN Centre for Energy has every capacity to formalise the communication platform with the aim of developing an energy-climate integration framework similar to that in Europe. The central question in this momentous timeframe is not whether but how fast we should phase out coal. Leading up to the next iteration of the Plan, energy and climate officials must move beyond their echo chambers and work towards having emission reduction or energy decarbonisation clearly stated as the overarching goal of the APAEC 2026-2035.

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