When almost 200 countries defied the odds to ink the first universal deal to fight climate change in Paris last December, sustainable development advocates all across the world cheered the news as the ushering of the renewables era and the end of the fossil fuels age.
Scientists noted that capping global temperature rise at two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels - as demanded by the Paris deal will require massive investments into clean energy projects, the innovation of new sustainable technologies, and bold policies to shift countries away from carbon-intensive energy sources like coal and oil.
Nowhere is this need more crucial than in Asia, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which says that rapid economic and population growth are “shifting the centre of gravity of the global energy system” to the region.
Energy demand in India, China, and the 10 countries which make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is growing at one of the fastest rates in the world, says IEA. The ten Asean states are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Southeast Asia’s energy demand has expanded two and a half times since 1990, and with a fifth of its 600 million population yet to gain access to electricity, IEA predicts that its energy demand will increase by over 80 per cent between 2013 and 2035, a rise equivalent to Japan’s current energy use.
This, in turn, would double the region’s carbon dioxide emissions from 1.2 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2011 - 3.7 per cent of the global total - to 2.3 Gt by 2035.
With many of the region’s low-lying, coastal cities and agricultural economies being highly vulnerable to climate change, Southeast Asia’s leaders are acutely aware of the need to drive down greenhouse gas emissions even as they increase energy production.
But individual countries’ targets vary widely. The Philippines, for example, aims to meet half its energy needs with renewables by 2030, while Vietnam aims - by the same year - to source only six per cent of its energy supply from wind, solar, hydro, and other clean sources.
In a bid to achieve greater energy security and integration in the region, Asean has also embarked on multi-billion dollar projects such as the Trans-Asean Gas Pipeline, a massive effort to link up the gas reserves of member countries through undersea pipelines.
While bilateral connections have been made between countries like Indonesia and Singapore, the regional integration goal, which was announced in 1999, remains incomplete.
A separate project, the Asean Power Grid, is a US$6 billion venture which will connect the power grids of individual countries in the region with one another, and eventually achieve a totally integrated Southeast Asian power grid system. The project was announced in 1997, and is still underway today.
But Tatchai Sumitra, former president of Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, notes in a statement that the promised benefits of such regional integration projects - increased market competition, lowered consumer prices and increased energy security “have not materialised”.
“Energy policy across Southeast Asia varies considerably, reflecting differences in political direction, economic development and natural resource endowments,” he says.
“Additional action is required to help the region’s economies flourish while ensuring that energy remains affordable despite growing demand,” he adds.
Energy policy across Southeast Asia varies considerably, reflecting differences in political direction, economic development and natural resource endowments.
Tatchai Sumitra, former president, Chulalongkorn University
Leading Asean’s clean energy push
Thailand has been recognised by many experts as Asean’s leading driver of clean energy adoption. The kingdom nation is Southeast Asia’s second largest energy consumer after Indonesia, and has set a target for a quarter of its energy consumption to be powered by renewable sources by 2021.
It has rolled out generous policy measures such as investment grants and tax exemptions to support this push.
Thailand also garnered the highest investment in renewable energy across Asean in recent years. According to a research report released by United States-based research group Clean Energy Pipeline last February, 55 per cent of all clean energy project financing in Southeast Asia between 2010 and 2014 took place in Thailand.
But at the same time, the rapidly developing country grapples with energy challenges of its own.
It currently imports huge amounts of energy energy - it spent 528 billion baht (US$14 billion) to meet its growing power needs between January and July this year alone - and is set to rely on both coal and nuclear for the foreseeable future to keep up with its growing energy consumption.
These are challenges that every government agency in Thailand is committed to addressing, but energy security for Thailand and the rest of Asean also depends on “international collaboration in order to meet our carbon emission responsibilities as a region”, says Twarath Sutabutr, director of the Energy Policy and Planning Office, Ministry of Energy.
To promote more dialogue on sustainable energy strategies domestically and within Asean, the Thai government is hosting an inaugural conference which will bring together 5,000 policymakers, investors, businesses, and academics from 15 countries this March.
Collaboration opportunities abound
The three-day event, called Sustainable Energy & Technology Asia (SETA) 2016, is co-organised by Thailand’s energy ministry and the Nuclear Society of Thailand. It consists of a trade exhibition, conference, business matching sessions and networking opportunities.
It will be held at the Bangkok International Trade and Exhibition Centre from 23 to 25 March.
Areepong Bhoocha-oom, permanent secretary, Thailand’s Ministry of Energy, notes in a statement that “Thailand has been at the heart of leading the discussion in alternative and sustainable energy”.
By organising the conference, “we are delighted to be able to contribute to the debate on the future of the region’s energy security”, he says.
The event is also the first major opportunity after December’s climate change conference for leaders from Asean as well as key Asian economies like China, India, and Japan to discuss how the climate agreement will affect the region’s energy future, and how to meet the global emissions reduction goals.
Rajendra Pachauri, executive vice chairman of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in India and former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who will be speaking at SETA, adds that the event “would be an extremely important occasion for providing substance to the Paris agreement on climate change and for assessing the potential of renewable energy in the coming years”.
Themed ‘Securing Asia’s energy future”, the conference will focus on four key issues: energy policy, electricity generation technologies, alternative transport solutions, and sustainable and renewable energy.
Keynote speakers at SETA 2016 include top Thai officials including the country’s ministers for transport, energy, and science and technology, as well as regional figureheads like Le Luong Minh, Asean Secretary General.
Other international speakers include Laotian vice minister for energy and mines, Viraphonh Viravong, and Hidetoshi Nakamura, president of Jakarta-headquartered international organisation Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia (ERIA).
With its international participants and high-profile line-up of speakers, Sumitra notes that the conference “will be an ideal platform for participants to share views and experiences as well as to discuss the practical approach to sustainable uses of energy in the region”.
“It will focus on issues that both Asia and the world are paying great attention to,” he adds.
The inaugural Sustainable Energy & Technology Asia exhibition & conference will bring together international, government and industry leaders to collaborate and develop sustainable energy policies for the region’s future economic development. The event includes business matching sessions, networking opportunities, a conference, and an integrated exhibition. The event will be held from 23 to 25 March at the Bangkok International Trade and Exhibition Centre.
Click here to find out more about SETA 2016 and register for the conference and exhibition.