The Latest on Southeast Asia: November 12, 2021

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26, kicked off in Glasgow on October 31. Most of the world leaders have come and gone, but the delegates at the conference will continue their effort to build on the Paris Climate Accord until the summit ends today.

One major development at the conference has been the pledge by more than 100 countries to end deforestation by 2030. But only two countries in Southeast Asia have signed on so far. One of those is Indonesia, home to a huge portion of the world’s rainforests. But just days after signing, Indonesia’s environment minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar walked back her government’s pledge and dismissed the plan as “clearly inappropriate and unfair.” She added, “The massive development of President Jokowi's era must not stop in the name of carbon emissions or in the name of deforestation.” Indonesia is the world’s largest producer and exporter of palm oil, which is a major contributor to deforestation in the country. The industry accounts for between 1.5 and 2.5 percent of GDP.

More constructively, Indonesia last week announced that it would impose a new tax on carbon, becoming just the second Southeast Asian country to do so after Singapore. However, the rate of Indonesia’s new tax is lower than expected, at just above $2 per metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent. Singapore’s is priced at just under $4 per metric ton.

Another major agreement from COP26 is the Global Methane Pledge, a commitment to cut emissions of methane 30 percent compared to 2020 levels by 2030. More ASEAN countries signed onto this pact, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam. But many countries in Southeast Asia have yet to sign up, largely because methane can be useful for growing rice in flooded paddy fields. Meanwhile, the largest source of global methane emissions is from agriculture.

The United Kingdom also was able to secure a coalition of countries to pledge to phase out coal power and not build or invest in new coal power plants. But in Southeast Asia, only Vietnam has signed on to that commitment. Coal use in the region is projected to soar in the coming decades as demand for electricity rises.

Underlying Southeast Asia’s inaction is a feeling that developed countries have historically been the world’s biggest polluters and should therefore bear the brunt of the responsibility. However, Southeast Asia’s growing population and energy consumption needs will mean that it will comprise an ever larger share of greenhouse gas emissions in the future. Additionally, Southeast Asia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The region is home to nearly 15 percent of the world’s tropical forests, but has one of the fastest rates of deforestation. And with 9 out of 10 ASEAN states touching the sea, Southeast Asia is especially susceptible to sea level rise, plastic pollution, and even potentially mass migration as coastal lands become uninhabitable. Southeast Asian inaction at COP26 therefore comes at its own peril.

For more updates on the region’s ongoing struggle with the pandemic, visit our online Tracker.