This picture taken on 9 November 2021 shows a man working in a coal yard in Hanoi. (Photo: Nhac Nguyen / AFP)

Ending Our Toxic Relationship with Coal


The recently published 2022 Southeast Asia Climate Outlook indicates a growing consensus on ending coal consumption. But perceptions vary across countries, socio-economic classes and education levels of respondents.

The use of coal in electricity generation is one of the biggest challenges to sustainable development in Southeast Asia. Currently, coal makes up the lion’s share of the region’s energy mix. Southeast Asia’s electricity demand is expected to almost triple by 2040, increasing from 1,002 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2017 to 3,123 TWh. In a business-as-usual scenario, coal will account for the largest share of electricity generation in the region, a whopping 25.7 per cent, causing ASEAN’s CO2 emissions to increase from 1,686 metric tonnes (Mt) to 4,171 Mt by 2040.

In addition to environmental concerns, the use of coal has important ramifications for Southeast Asian citizens. On the one hand, the coal industry generates significant direct and indirect jobs, while enabling access to relatively affordable electricity. On the other hand, air pollution caused by coal use is expected to cause approximately 70,000 premature deaths per year by 2030. The perceptions of Southeast Asians regarding coal should therefore be considered when formulating national and regional approaches to decarbonisation. The recently published survey findings in the 2022 Southeast Asia Climate Outlook indicate that while there is growing consensus on ending coal, perceptions vary across countries, socio-economic classes and education levels. 

As shown in Figure 1, a little more than 60 per cent of Southeast Asians who took the survey believe that regional countries should immediately stop building coal power plants. This perception is strongest in Cambodia, followed by Malaysia and the Philippines. Myanmar and Vietnam respondents make up the largest groups who do not want coal plants to be scrapped immediately.

Energy capacities and energy access in Southeast Asia can provide clues into what motivates different regional views on coal, but leaves some questions unanswered. In Cambodia, coal accounts for 23 per cent of installed power capacity, while in Myanmar the share is only 1.7 per cent. Cambodia respondents may desire to see a moratorium on coal given that the fossil fuel continues to play a significant role in the country’s energy generation, despite enormous hydropower resources. Myanmar respondents may feel that given that almost 30 per cent of the country’s population does not have electricity access, new coal plants are one option for increasing electrification. Yet this assumption does not explain why respondents from countries with higher electrification rates, such as Vietnam or Thailand, do not feel more strongly about stopping new coal plants.

Figure 2 demonstrates that more than 60 per cent of Southeast Asians express a strong sense of urgency on timelines for ending coal consumption, with opinions divided almost equally between those who want it to be phased out immediately and those who think this should be completed by 2030. More than 44 per cent of Indonesian respondents believe that coal should be phased out immediately. This finding is important as Indonesia is the region’s largest coal producer and consumer. A majority of respondents from Vietnam and Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s second and third largest coal consumers respectively, chose the 2030 deadline.

Deeper analysis into the profile of respondents reveals that those with basic levels of education show the strongest support for ending consumption immediately, while those with doctoral degrees are most likely to agree with ending coal by 2040 (Figure 3). This may indicate that respondents with basic levels of education prioritise the environmental benefits of phasing out coal, while those with higher levels of education are concerned about the potentially negative economic impact of such policies.

Almost 80 per cent of respondents believe that reducing dependence on fossil fuels will bring long-term benefits to ASEAN economies. Respondents in Cambodia and Vietnam display high levels of agreement about the benefits of ending fossil fuels. Such perceptions correspond to broader research on green transition, which shows that shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy will create a net increase in jobs, while contributing US$12.5 trillion to Southeast Asia’s economy by 2070.

However, fossil fuel exploitation offers lucrative benefits in the short term. Between April and July 2022, Myanmar earned US$800 million from gas exports. Unsurprisingly, respondents from the country expressed the highest level of disagreement regarding the benefits of reducing fossil fuel dependence.

… a little more than 60 per cent of Southeast Asians who took the survey believe that regional countries should immediately stop building coal power plants.

Positive perceptions about reducing fossil fuels are less in 2022 compared to the results of the 2021 survey and only slightly higher than 2020. This may indicate that increases in energy commodity prices caused by the Russia-Ukraine war have made respondents sceptical about the benefits of reducing fossil fuel dependency.

Figure 4 shows that people at the lower ends of the socio-economic spectrum express more scepticism of the benefits of ending fossil fuels, indicating that policies on reducing fossil fuel dependency cannot be separated from socio-economic priorities.

Southeast Asians express strong sentiments toward ending the use of coal, despite projections of increased fossil fuel consumption. The recently released 7th ASEAN Energy Outlook demonstrate that effective policies can lead to a decrease in the share of coal in primary energy supply by as much as 49 per cent by 2050. The survey results highlight that phasing out coal not only has environmental benefits but may also align with the perceptions of citizens in Southeast Asia. The challenge, however, would be implementing the policies necessary to see the back of the dirty fossil fuel.


Mirza Sadaqat Huda is Lead Researcher in the Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.