SINGAPORE — Southeast Asia has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, but intertwined with that rise is a rare distinction: a shift toward the use of more coal.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is “the only region in the world where coal is expected to increase its share” of the energy mix, said Keisuke Sadamori, director of energy markets at the Paris-based International Energy Agency.
It’s a pattern that runs counter to worldwide efforts to fight climate change. And it’s one that has caught the attention of environmentalists and several global organizations, from the United Nations to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
All of them have urged Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and the six other nations that make up the 10-member ASEAN to pursue a different path, one led mainly by renewable power. U.N. chief António Guterres repeated that plea at the ASEAN leaders forum in Thailand.
“I am particularly worried about the future impact of the high number of new coal power plants still projected in some parts of the world, including several countries in East, South and Southeast Asia,” Guterres told reporters.
But standing in the way of more aggressive ASEAN action on climate change are several factors, some geographic, some economic. Then, too, is the allure of cities such as Singapore, which stands as a glittering crown jewel in the region, and whose wealth was built on fossil fuel use, including coal.
The city-state is far and away the most advanced nation in Southeast Asia, with an estimated gross domestic product per capita of more than $64,000, according to the World Bank.
Now its neighbors are determined to catch up, following a development path along the same lines as China, and that track is threatening worldwide efforts to rein in global warming.
And it could get worse.
ASEAN’s own secretariat believes the association will expand to become the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2030, and the Southeast Asian alliance is already a greenhouse gas heavyweight. Combined, the 10 nations of ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) release about 1.5 billion metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year, according to data compiled by the European Commission.