Investment in renewables in Asean grew by 83 per cent between 2002 and 2012, according to the latest “Economic Insight” report by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.

The report said that renewable resources now accounted for just under half of the region’s entire electricity generation. However, Asean economies have not, in general, seen rises in the proportions of electricity generated through renewables.

Singapore and Malaysia have seen rises of just 0.1 percentage point each. The Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore estimates that the island nation could produce 10 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, but to do so, it must ensure renewable capacity is added more rapidly than fossil-fuel generation.

Meanwhile, nations in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have been rapidly growing their own shares. Progress in the United States appears slow but in fact has accelerated considerably since 2008, when the new administration discontinued the previous sceptical stance on climate change. Europe’s progress is more representative of OECD trends, exhibiting an increase of 9 percentage points in the renewable share of electricity generation between 2002 and 2012.

A “Data Insight” report finds that Southeast Asian clean-energy financing totalled US$1.8 billion (Bt60 billion) in 2014, having grown at an average of 8 per cent per year since 2010. More than half of this went to Thailand. The total is a small amount, especially spread over the entire region, and explains why renewables have been shrinking in Asean’s energy mix since 2002. The growth rate appears high, but 8 per cent is less impressive in Southeast Asian terms, where growth in gross domestic product often approaches that.

The research said that Asean economies had been adding generation capacity using coal power. Though Indonesian President Joko Widodo has made some high-profile environmental commitments, he plans to increase the use of coal power to overcome the country’s power shortage.

This is a stark reminder of the trade-off between environmental and developmental priorities in poorer countries: solar power is now cost-competitive with fossil fuels, after a long period during which it had to be subsidised. But Indonesia has large coal deposits that it already mines, and previously exported to China. Therefore Indonesia may well be able to produce electricity from coal more cheaply.

As China decarbonises its own supply, this cheap and abundant resource will likely prove impossible for Indonesia to turn down.

Other nations are interested: Thailand and Vietnam have signed a trilateral strategic cooperation deal relating to this and other resources, which will set back plans to increase renewable generation. Chinese lenders also plan to finance coal plants in various Asean countries.

Environmental public policy

The last decade saw climate change rise much further up the public-policy agenda. As well as better scientific models and predictions, it saw changes in public opinion driven by the Stern Report in Britain (2006), Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report (2007) and the Copenhagen Summit (2009). By 2010, most major economies had drawn up plans including targets for reducing emissions.

Thailand’s plans are relatively modest – it promises cuts in intensity of emissions (carbon dioxide produced per dollar of GDP) rather than in absolute emissions. While economies still have relatively low per-capita emissions, this approach is justifiable. But where oversight is weak and the emphasis on economic growth is necessarily strong, environmental policy can slip down the agenda and make even modest goals hard to achieve.

Environmental policy more broadly in Singapore has been characteristically effective, its limited

resources spurring action. The city-state gained fourth place in Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index worldwide ranking, boosted by high scores for water, air quality and health impacts.

However, Singapore is the only Asean state with declining per-capita emissions, likely derived from shifts in the economy towards services and cleaner manufacturing, which creates a more fundamental and powerful decarbonisation of the economy than policy does.

With the exception of Singapore, policy has so far made a marginal contribution to decarbonisation in Southeast Asia. Its role will grow as governance improves, but the shift to services is likely to play the pivotal role, albeit less visibly. – The Nation