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Accelerating the sustainability pivot: why ASEAN needs its own COP now

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By Alex Hong

· 18 min read


I. Introduction

Climate change is an existential problem that requires immediate and collective action. The need of combating climate change cannot be emphasised, particularly given the vulnerabilities that ASEAN member states confront. These countries are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, which include extreme weather events such as typhoons, floods, and droughts, as well as the threat of rising sea levels, which directly affect the livelihoods of millions of people in the region.

ASEAN, which is made up of ten different countries (soon eleven with the inclusion of Timor Leste), confronts a unique mix of challenges and opportunities in terms of climate change. With a combined population of nearly 650 million and an economy primed for continuing growth, the area is at a tipping point where urgent action is required to limit environmental concerns while supporting sustainable development.

One viable option for addressing these difficulties is to convene an ASEAN Conference of the Parties (COP) committed to fostering collaboration, innovation, and regional commitment to sustainability. An ASEAN-specific gathering, similar to UNFCCC COP meetings, would provide several benefits suited to the region's requirements.

Vulnerabilities of ASEAN Member States

The ASEAN member nations' vulnerability to climate change is clear and diverse. For example, the region is particularly vulnerable to harsh weather events. Natural catastrophes in ASEAN countries have been more frequent and intense over the previous two decades. Typhoon Rai wreaked havoc in the Philippines in 2021, while flooding destroyed sections of Malaysia and Vietnam, highlighting the region's vulnerability to climate-related disasters.

Moreover, rising sea levels pose a substantial hazard to ASEAN countries, with coastal areas and low-lying islands at risk of flooding. The Mekong Delta in Vietnam and sections of Indonesia are already seeing seawater intrusion, threatening agriculture, freshwater resources, and displacing communities.

Furthermore, the region's economy relies largely on industries that are vulnerable to climate change, including agriculture, fishing, and tourism. Disruptions in these industries caused by irregular weather patterns have a direct influence on food security, livelihood, and economic stability.

The Case for an ASEAN COP

The establishment of an ASEAN COP provides a rare opportunity for member states to address these concerns together. This platform would facilitate the following:

  1. Regional Collaboration: The COP will bring together ASEAN states to share best practices, technology breakthroughs, and resources customised to their individual requirements. International collaboration could strengthen resilience and adaption strategies.

  2. Policy Alignment: An ASEAN COP may harmonise member states' climate policies, guaranteeing a consistent approach to emissions reduction, renewable energy uptake, and climate resilience initiatives.

  3. Investment and Financing: The COP has the potential to attract investments and finance for regional sustainability projects. Joint efforts could use international finance and private sector participation to speed up the transition to a low-carbon economy.

  4. Capacity Building: A specialised forum would promote information exchange, capacity building, and skill development, allowing ASEAN countries to adopt successful climate solutions.

An ASEAN COP is a critical step towards catalysing regional action on climate change. By harnessing collective strengths, promoting collaboration, and tackling shared vulnerabilities, ASEAN member states can chart a sustainable and resilient path to a greener future.

II. Importance of Regional Agreements and the Case for an ASEAN COP

Limitations of a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

While global climate agreements are important, they frequently fail to address the complex issues confronting varied regions such as Southeast Asia. A one-size-fits-all strategy ignores the differences in socioeconomic conditions, geographical qualities, and developmental phases between nations. For example, uniform carbon reduction targets may fail to take into account the developmental needs of ASEAN's emerging economies, thus limiting their economic trajectory.

Furthermore, global accords frequently lack the flexibility required to adapt quickly to localised difficulties. The ASEAN region includes countries with widely varying levels of economic development, cultural settings, and environmental risks. As a result, a single global framework may not effectively address the individual needs of each ASEAN member state, limiting effective climate action.

By creating agreement or a plan of action regionally, we may help accelerate the global agenda or at least present a more united front to facilitate discussions. 

Need for Regional Collaboration in Southeast Asia

The challenges and potential in Southeast Asia demand targeted regional cooperation. The region's common vulnerabilities to climate change, such as rising sea levels and extreme weather events, necessitate collaborative response. Furthermore, ASEAN's variety creates unique chances for information sharing and new solutions. For example, Singapore's advances in sustainable urban planning can provide useful insights to other ASEAN countries dealing with increasing urbanisation.

The ASEAN single-use plastic problem, for example, needs to be further contextualised in order to be the catalyst of behavioural change. A typical 1st world approach will not work for most ASEAN challenges and much dialogue, education and empathy need to be at play to seek community buy-in towards mindset changes. 

Furthermore, ASEAN nations' interconnection via trade, migration, and environmental resources emphasises the significance of a coordinated strategy. Collaborative actions can help to address transboundary challenges such as deforestation, pollution, and water scarcity, which affect numerous countries at once.

Successes of Existing Regional Agreements and Potential Amplification

ASEAN has a track record of successful regional collaborations, which can serve as the framework for an ASEAN COP. Initiatives such as the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution have shown the effectiveness of regional accords in tackling common environmental challenges. This agreement seeks to address the periodic haze issue caused by land and forest fires, emphasising the importance of joint action and information sharing among member states.

Additionally, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is a significant example of regional collaboration. It enables Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to manage the Mekong River together, thereby promoting sustainable development and water resource management. These efforts demonstrate the potential for effective collaboration and resource management within the ASEAN framework.

An ASEAN COP may build on these gains by concentrating on regional issues such as deforestation, renewable energy uptake, and climate-resilient infrastructure. It may combine member states' strengths, encouraging innovation and hastening the transition to a low-carbon economy.

While global climate agreements are essential, regional cooperation, such as an ASEAN COP, are equally important. Tailored approaches that recognise the region's uniqueness and encourage collective action can successfully address Southeast Asia's specific vulnerabilities and potential, guiding the region towards a more sustainable and resilient future.

III. Pros and Cons of an ASEAN COP

Pros

  1. Enhanced Regional Cooperation: An ASEAN COP will encourage stronger collaboration among member governments, allowing for collaborative efforts towards climate resilience and sustainability. By integrating policies and tactics, the area may address common concerns more effectively.

  2. Platform for Knowledge Sharing: The COP would act as a hub for sharing best practices, technology breakthroughs, and research discoveries related to ASEAN's climate vulnerabilities. This knowledge exchange could speed up the deployment of effective solutions.

  3. Customised solutions for unique challenges: Addressing region-specific concerns such as increasing sea levels, biodiversity loss, and sustainable energy transitions necessitates tailored solutions. An ASEAN COP would allow for individualised initiatives that take into account the various demands of member countries.

  4. Increased Visibility for ASEAN's Climate Leadership: A dedicated COP will highlight ASEAN's commitment to climate action, elevating the region's worldwide profile as a leader in sustainable development and climate resilience measures.

  5. Potential for International Investment: The COP has the potential to attract international investment for ASEAN-led sustainable development projects. The region might gain funds for green programmes and infrastructure development if it demonstrated a unified commitment to climate goals.

Cons

  1. Logistics and Cost Considerations: Hosting a COP requires significant logistical and financial resources. Member governments may encounter difficulties in organising and funding such an event, particularly given the region's disparate economic capacities.

  2. Political and economic disagreements: Differences in ASEAN countries' political priorities and economic interests may impede agreement on crucial issues during COP negotiations. Balancing national interests and regional ambitions may prove difficult.

  3. Balancing National Interests and Regional Goals: Member states may prioritise individual national interests above collective regional ambitions, making it difficult to gain consensus on ambitious aims or commitments.

While an ASEAN COP has significant benefits, overcoming these issues will be critical to its success. Overcoming logistical and financial restrictions will necessitate joint funding arrangements and shared responsibility among member nations. Furthermore, resolving potential conflicts necessitates diplomatic conversations and a commitment to finding mutually beneficial outcomes.

Balancing national interests with regional aims requires a spirit of cooperation and compromise. To reduce conflict, a transparent and inclusive decision-making process inside the COP framework is required. Emphasising the benefits of group action in achieving long-term sustainability goals might help individuals connect their priorities with the larger regional vision.

While an ASEAN COP presents numerous opportunities to advance regional sustainability and climate resilience, a thorough evaluation of the underlying difficulties is required. By proactively addressing these drawbacks, ASEAN member countries may maximise the benefits of collaboration and speed the transition to a more sustainable future.

IV. Immediate Benefits of an ASEAN COP

Establishing an ASEAN Conference of the Parties (COP) has the promise of immediate and practical advantages that can help the region transition to sustainability. An ASEAN COP can bring numerous immediate benefits to member states by emphasising collaborative action and common projects.

1. Accelerated Progress towards Net Zero Targets

An ASEAN COP might establish aggressive regional goals that are consistent with the Paris Agreement's objectives, accelerating member nations' progress towards their net zero targets. This shared commitment would drive coordinated efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourage renewable energy adoption, and implement sustainable practices across industries. For example, setting high targets for renewable energy capacity expansion could greatly help to reduce carbon emissions in the region.

2. Enhanced Climate Resilience

The COP would increase climate resilience across ASEAN nations by sharing expertise and mobilising resources. Shared information on adaptive methods, disaster risk reduction, and innovative solutions could assist to reduce the effect of climate-related hazards such as extreme weather events and rising sea levels. Pooling resources for cooperative research and early warning systems will improve readiness and reaction processes, thereby protecting communities and key infrastructure.

3. Fostering Innovation and Green Technology Development

An ASEAN COP might act as a catalyst for promoting innovation and the development of green technologies in the area. Collaborative research projects, technology transfer programmes, and cooperative investment in sustainable innovation could spur the development and implementation of environmentally friendly solutions. For example, joint efforts to develop and implement climate-smart agricultural methods could improve food security while lowering agriculture's carbon impact.

4. Increased Regional Economic Opportunities

Investments in sustainable infrastructure and green businesses spurred by the COP might open up significant economic prospects for ASEAN countries. By attracting investments in renewable energy projects, eco-friendly infrastructure, and sustainable practices, the region has the potential to create new jobs and boost economic growth. Furthermore, creating a favourable climate for green businesses such as eco-tourism, sustainable manufacturing, and circular economy projects may improve regional economic prospects.

The immediate benefits of forming an ASEAN COP are numerous and significant. ASEAN member states may expedite their sustainability pivot by pursuing ambitious goals, building resilience, encouraging innovation, and capitalising on economic possibilities. The COP would serve as the foundation for coordinated action, moving the region towards a more resilient, low-carbon, and economic future.

V. Signalling to the World: ASEAN as Champion of the Global South

In the midst of the global climate crisis, an ASEAN Conference of the Parties (COP) will not only empower the region but also position ASEAN as a pathfinder and advocate for the Global South's interests in climate change mitigation. The formation of an ASEAN COP has enormous potential to indicate regional leadership and inspire other poor countries to increase their climate action.

1. Showcasing Regional Leadership and Inspiring Action

An ASEAN COP would provide a venue to highlight ASEAN's commitment to sustainability and regional leadership in addressing climate change. By establishing ambitious goals, implementing creative solutions, and encouraging collaboration, ASEAN can show the world that poor countries are proactive and capable partners in the global fight against climate change.

The success stories that emerge from ASEAN's coordinated efforts can serve as inspiration for other developing countries confronting comparable issues. For example, if ASEAN countries commit to considerable renewable energy expansion or sustainable land use practices, it may inspire and push other countries to follow suit.

2. Advocating for Global South's Needs in International Negotiations

ASEAN's COP, as a collective organisation representing varied developing states, has the potential to advocate for the Global South's particular interests and concerns in international climate negotiations. This platform would provide a stronger voice to emphasise concerns like climate justice, adaptation financing, and technology transfer, ensuring that developing countries' objectives are recognised and addressed on a global scale.

ASEAN's collective lobbying could help to achieve more equal outcomes in global climate discussions by emphasising the distinct responsibilities of developed and developing countries and arguing for fair and just solutions that address the Global South's developmental requirements.

3. Demonstrating Economic and Social Benefits of Sustainable Development

An ASEAN COP can highlight the economic and social benefits of sustainable development to underdeveloped countries. By demonstrating successful instances of sustainable practices that lead to economic growth, job creation, poverty reduction, and enhanced quality of life, ASEAN countries can demonstrate that pursuing sustainability is more than just an environmental imperative; it is also a path to wealth.

Investing in green businesses, renewable energy, and sustainable infrastructure within ASEAN could serve as an example for other developing countries, demonstrating the possibility for economic progress while also addressing environmental concerns.

The establishment of an ASEAN COP would not only position ASEAN as a champion of the Global South, but would also enable the region to promote significant change on a global scale. By exhibiting leadership, advocating for the needs of the Global South, and highlighting the benefits of sustainable development, ASEAN can inspire and catalyse broader global action towards a more sustainable future.

VI. Why Waiting for "Loss and Damage" is Not an Option

The importance of tackling climate-related "loss and damage" cannot be stressed, particularly in vulnerable regions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The current global system's constraints, as well as the slow pace of establishing a dedicated "loss and damage" fund, present substantial hurdles, making waiting for external solutions unfeasible and potentially fatal for places currently dealing with climate impacts.

1. Limitations of the Current Global System and Slow Fund Establishment

While the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognises worldwide procedures to address "loss and damage" caused by climate change, progress has been slow. The creation of a specialised fund to remedy "loss and damage" has been hampered by funding restrictions, disagreements about accountability, and difficulties in implementing the system.

Efforts to mobilise financial resources for "loss and damage" have been inadequate, with developed countries frequently unable to commit to significant support. Furthermore, defining the scope of "loss and damage" and determining accountability are difficult challenges, preventing the development of an effective framework to address these concerns on a worldwide scale.

2. Disproportionate Impact on Vulnerable Regions like ASEAN

ASEAN countries are experiencing disproportionate and acute effects of climate change, such as extreme weather events, increasing sea levels, and ecosystem disruptions. The region's vulnerability to climate-related disasters, as well as the interdependence of its economies with sectors vulnerable to environmental change, heighten the risk of severe "loss and damage."

ASEAN member countries with a large number of small islands, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia, are especially vulnerable to the negative consequences of climate change. Rising sea levels endanger the survival of many countries, displacing millions of people and causing them to lose their livelihoods.

3. Emphasizing the Need for Proactive Regional Action

Given the slow progress towards developing a robust global system to manage "loss and damage," ASEAN cannot afford to wait for external answers. Proactive regional effort is required to mitigate climate impacts and increase resilience in the region.

ASEAN countries must take strong action to build their own mechanisms for adaptation, mitigation, and disaster risk reduction. By pooling resources, exchanging expertise, and adopting creative solutions, ASEAN can strengthen its resilience and capacity to deal with the effects of climate change.

Regional disaster risk reduction frameworks, investment in climate-resilient infrastructure, and community-based adaptation programmes are critical to ASEAN's preparedness and response to climate-induced "loss and damage."

The delayed pace towards developing a worldwide "loss and damage" mechanism emphasises the importance of ASEAN taking proactive actions. Waiting for external solutions is not an option given climate change's disproportionate impact on disadvantaged areas. ASEAN can limit the effects of climate change and build resilience by taking proactive regional action, giving its member nations a more sustainable and secure future.

VII. Call to Action: A Viable ASEAN COP is Now

The need for regional action to combat climate change cannot be stressed, especially in the context of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The formation of an ASEAN Conference of the Parties (COP) represents a critical step towards accelerating progress towards net zero emissions and promoting regional sustainability. It is critical to encourage ASEAN member states to commit to the formation and successful implementation of an ASEAN COP.

1. Urgency of Regional Action and Potential of an ASEAN COP

The effects of climate change are becoming more visible across ASEAN, with rising sea levels affecting coastal populations and extreme weather events impacting livelihoods. The urgent need to reduce these effects and move to net zero emissions needs regional cooperation.

An ASEAN COP has enormous potential to catalyse action by encouraging collaboration, establishing ambitious regional goals, and promoting the exchange of best practices. ASEAN can make a substantial contribution to the global fight against climate change by working together to adopt renewable energy, construct sustainable infrastructure, and implement climate-resilient practices.

2. Call upon ASEAN Member States for Commitment

It is critical that ASEAN member states make creating an ASEAN COP a top priority on their sustainability agenda. This commitment necessitates active participation, political will, and a common vision for regional climate action. Member states must recognise the initiative's urgency and relevance, realising that concerted action is required to address common vulnerabilities and ensure the region's long-term viability. 

Climate challenges transcend national boundaries and strategic economic interests. It is through what is deemed “coordinate collaboration” that ASEAN can contextualise the challenge to accelerate the sustainability pivot in order to provide dignified livelihood for the 650 million individuals living in the region. It is the cumulative ambitions and dreams of these people that ASEAN leaders will have to shoulder the immense responsibility towards a viable future in harmony with the environment. 

3. Concrete Suggestions for Stakeholder Engagement and Agenda Setting

To support the successful development and administration of an ASEAN COP, strong stakeholder participation and agenda setting are required. Member nations should hold high-level discussions that include government officials, policymakers, industry leaders, academics, civil society, and indigenous groups. This inclusive approach will encourage varied perspectives and ownership of the COP's goals.

The agenda for the ASEAN COP should prioritise critical issues concerning the region's sustainability, including renewable energy adoption, climate adaptation methods, sustainable urban design, and biodiversity conservation. It should also address the needs of ASEAN's most vulnerable communities and industries in the face of climate change.

4. Securing International Support

ASEAN member states should actively seek international support and partnerships to ensure the ASEAN COP's success. Collaboration with international organisations, climate funds, development agencies, and technology companies can help to facilitate knowledge exchange, capacity building, and access to financial resources for long-term regional efforts.

By forming relationships with global climate action partners, ASEAN can magnify its efforts, attract investments, and harness the expertise and resources required for a successful ASEAN COP.

The development of an ASEAN COP is not only necessary, but also attainable via concerted commitment and coordination among ASEAN member nations. This call to action encourages regional leaders and stakeholders to prioritise and expedite the formation of an ASEAN COP, assuring a concerted and determined effort towards a sustainable future.

VIII. Conclusion

The formation of an ASEAN Conference of the Parties (COP) is an urgent and practical alternative to accelerate the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) towards its regional sustainability goals and to lead the Global South in unified and determined climate action.

The need to address climate change and its negative effects on ASEAN countries cannot be emphasised. The region has distinct vulnerabilities, ranging from existential threats posed by increasing sea levels to immediate risks from extreme weather events and ecological changes. The time for action has come, and the ASEAN COP stands out as a beacon of hope, embodying the region's combined will and commitment to construct a sustainable future for itself.

An ASEAN COP is a necessity, not a desire. It enables ASEAN member states to collaborate, develop, and establish ambitious goals based on the region's distinct requirements. Through this platform, ASEAN can accelerate progress towards net zero emissions, strengthen climate resilience, and demonstrate leadership to the Global South.

The power of coordinated collaboration is what makes an ASEAN COP viable. By bringing varied viewpoints together, using common resources, and encouraging innovation, ASEAN can pioneer long-term solutions that benefit not only the region but also inspire and lead other emerging countries experiencing similar issues. For it is not enough to collaborated, we need to be well coordinated in this time of need to make things right. 

Let optimism and dedication guide us on this journey to a more sustainable future. Each move taken to establish an ASEAN COP brings us closer to a world in which people thrive, wildlife flourishes, and economies prosper sustainably. It is a proclamation of our commitment to leaving a legacy of resilience and peace for future generations.

In solidarity, let us take this opportunity to make history—a history of collaboration, invention, and a common vision of a brighter, greener future. The ASEAN COP is more than just a regional milestone; it is also a source of inspiration for the rest of the globe, demonstrating the power of unity in facing our time's defining challenge.

Let us face this moment with unyielding commitment and unified determination. ASEAN can lead the march towards a more sustainable tomorrow by establishing an example that resonates well beyond our borders and paving the way for a world where sustainability is more than a choice, but a way of life.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

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