Is Regionalism a New Answer in Tackling Climate Change?
Photo Credit: Emaze
By Aleksandra Skorek

Is Regionalism a New Answer in Tackling Climate Change?

Jul. 07, 2017  |     |  0 comments

Recently, Donald Trump declared his willingness to pull the US out from the Paris Agreement (PA) which aims at stopping the global average temperature rise at 2 degrees. The US was also one of the biggest donor to the Green Climate Fund. That sparked opinions that China, already a pioneer in renewable energy sources (RES), will take the lead in climate change mitigation together with the EU. Those assumptions seem to be affirmed at the recent EU-China summit in Brussels. The EU and China are pioneering climate change legislation and clean technology, and therefore have the highest stakes in keeping the climate change mitigation trajectory. But how feasible is the country-to-country approach in climate matters, especially in the light of the sensitive issue of national energy security? Is bilateral cooperation between states, or between states and regional organizations, a new answer to climate change?

EU: Fading Regional Climate Bellwether

On June 5, 2017, Donald Trump declared that the US will not participate in the PA as moving away from coal and oil extraction and utilization will harm the American economy. He also decided earlier to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership and development aid, seemingly moving the US towards greater protectionism and leaving a void in the international arena in those fields. Technically, the PA withdrawal can only take place in 2019 as the PA imposes a three-year delay on such decisions. Nevertheless, the rest of the 146 countries which ratified the PA will need new leadership, and at the moment the EU-China partnership seems to be the most probable one.

The EU is already a bellwether in climate change action, and has great legal and judicial instruments to impose climate directives on its member states. The EU Climate Policy negotiated in 2014 is vastly consistent with the PA, and its adoption was conditioned upon PA enforcement. It requires at least 27 percent of RES in the energy mix by 2030, and decreasing CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2030, 60 percent drop by 2040, and 80 percent by 2050. Recently troubled with Brexit, immigration policies, and the Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) lobbying for more lenient CO2 regulations, the EU’s environmental regime looks more and more dubious.

The EU was especially successful in bringing Poland, the 4th largest coal extractor in the OECD, in alignment with the EU’s environmental directives. This pattern seems to have changed recently, as the Visegrad countries which are struggling with energy insecurity are trying to relax the energy saving law. Additionally, Poland, a heavily coal-dependent country with a new conservative-populist government, has aligned itself closer to the United States than to the European Union in terms of supporting the coal industry and anti-immigrant policies. Personal animosity between the Polish leading party and the President of the EU Council has also played an important role. Together with Hungary, led by Victor Orban, Poland has drifted further away and is now ostracized by the rest of the EU member states.

The reason behind state compliance with EU regulations is the economic benefit of membership. In the energy and environment protection field, Poland and other East European countries had been brought to the Court of Justice by the European Commission for their failure of environmental law transposition, which in 2012 accounted for 12 cases. However, as the current and previous governments have repeated: coal covers 60 percent of energy and over 90 percent of heat demand. Furthermore, due to the post-communist legacy of powerful mining trade unions, the government continues to subsidize state-owned mines, of which 50-80 percent are unprofitable. Poland plans to build a new coal power plant with capacity of 11 MW till 2020.

ASEAN and China-ASEAN Cooperation

China has taken grand steps in launching its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) announced in 2013. It is the biggest trading partner for ASEAN countries. It also has the biggest amount of aid and development projects in ASEAN countries, which is welcomed by some and observed with caution by the others. China has invested record sums in RES, and has gone from almost zero capacity in 2005 to the largest wind capacity a decade later. In photovoltaics, it is interdependent with the EU. EU-China cooperation dates back to 2005 and China has developed a pilot emissions trading system in few provinces and cities. It is expected that China’s cooperation in the region in the field of climate change will further tighten alongside the BRI.

China has well-developed indigenous RES technologies which it can export.

Just like in the case of the European Union, the environment was not a priority when ASEAN was established, and was only subsequently incorporated into the agenda. In ASEAN, focus is put onto respecting national sovereignty and practicing the “ASEAN way” of non-interference, therefore there is no proper cooperation in terms of data collecting and funding. ASEAN also lacks a dispute resolution mechanism. It also often lacks a united voice in international relations. ASEAN’s blueprint on climate change dates back to 2009 and involves expert meetings and encouragement for public-private partnerships. The structure is vastly different from that of the EU, and ASEAN member states submitted their nationally determined contributions separately. ASEAN nevertheless has success in meeting the RES capacity targets (2004-2009).

China and ASEAN established cooperation on environmental issues in 2009, promoting green industry development, capacity building, environmental technology, and public-private partnerships. Cooperation is facilitated through various channels: the China-ASEAN cooperation center, the ASEAN-China environmental cooperation forum, and the ASEAN-China cooperation fund. The first action plan was adopted in 2009. The ASEAN-China Cooperation Framework for Environmentally Sound Technology and Industry was launched in 2014. Also, the ASEAN-plus-3 platform has been active in tackling climate change and climate disasters.

In ASEAN, Indonesia is the most coal-dependent country and troubles its neighbors with its annual haze outbursts. Forest fires are the biggest reason behind Indonesia’s high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is the fifth-largest coal extractor, and the fourth most populous country in the world. It exports the majority of its coal extraction (BP 2016), but domestic consumption has risen quickly, together with falling exports due to low demand from India and China. The government wants to increase the number of coal-fueled power plants by one hundred to meet the acceleration in domestic coal demand (BP 2016) and to sustain the economy. This plan is also consistent with the 35 GW Program from 2015-2019 to achieve higher electrification, of which 60 percent is to be provided by coal-fired power plants. Also, coal is to account for 66 percent in the energy mix till 2050.

Indonesia has abundant renewable energy sources which, quite ironically, are the main sources of its GHG emissions (60 percent in 2010), due to extensive forest logging (CO2 absorption reduction) and forest fires mainly through slash and burn agriculture, which causes neighboring countries to choke with haze (predominantly health hazardous particulate matter). Forests cover 86 percent of its territory (30 percent> canopy density, Global Forest Watch), and fossil fuel combustion accounts for only 19 percent of its GHG emissions. Indonesia waited ten years for the ratification of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution due to national sovereignty concerns. Its deforestation rate jumped from 3 percent during first 5 years of the 21st century to almost 5 percent in the following 5-year period and the REDD+ proved to be a fiasco due to wrong institutional targeting. Indonesia also imposed a ban on unprocessed mineral and coal exports in 2014, which was subsequently lifted in January 2017 to mitigate the adverse economic situation. The central government lacks the capacity and, in case of the forestry issue, jurisdiction over environmental matters.

China is the third biggest investor in Indonesia and almost a quarter of Indonesian electricity is generated by power plants built by China. The Philippines, under President Duterte, is also seeking more Chinese investment. It seems that in terms of electric grid and electric efficiency China has a green light in the aforementioned ASEAN states. In Myanmar, the most climate change prone country between 1994 and 2016 (German Watch), China faces much more civil opposition, including a halt in the building of the Myitsone hydropower dam.


In recent years, regionalism, for example the EU, seemed to be the right answer to tackle environmental matters, as it provided the means of legislative homogeneity and judicial coercion. This year, however, the EU is losing its momentum, and EU-China cooperation on climate issues, which dates back to 2005, is beneficial for both sides for various reasons. China is steadily building its image of stable and balanced governance, in contrast to the young democracies.

The areas of international aid, humanitarian relief, and climate action pose China as an active and responsible player in the international arena, something it had avoided for many years. China has well-developed indigenous RES technologies which it can export. Moreover, climate action stands in line with its economic interests, and clean energy sources and climate action still need substantial initial investments. What does it mean for ASEAN countries hungry for foreign direct investment in their electricity grids, energy efficiency, and RES? Is it possible for international energy cooperation to silence the energy security issues in ASEAN? Would China’s economic involvement be an answer to ASEAN’s climate change mitigation struggles?

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