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What does COP28 leave Southeast Asia with?

Countries in the region join larger negotiating blocs in global climate negotiations, but face unique challenges in shedding fossil fuels and facing climate risks.

COP28 polluters pay 2
A protest at COP28 on Sunday, 10 December 2023. Image: Eco-Business/ Jessica Cheam.

COP28 has ended with an agreement to “transition away” from fossil fuels. Read our latest update here.

The COP28 climate summit is running overtime, as negotiators attempt to bridge huge chasms in their positions on fossil fuels, climate finance and a host of other issues – while some have engaged in finger-pointing, accusing counterparts of purposely stalling progress on contentious topics.

While much of the key issues hang in the balance, Southeast Asian nations have been busy signing deals on the sidelines. Advocates from the region have also been vocal in their demands for justice, equity and ambitious climate action.

Individual Southeast Asian country positions are often hard to track – the region prefers to join the much larger Group of 77 (G77) bloc of developing countries to amplify their voice. A few are also part of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), and the Least Developed Countries (LDC) grouping. There isn’t a culture of negotiating by media, nor organising regular press briefings, though some policymakers do engage the press at their national pavilions, or make positions known via speeches.

What goes down at COP28 matters to Southeast Asia, which is both on the frontlines of climate risks and a big and growing fossil fuel user. Here are the particularly important issues that the region has had to deal with:

Grappling with pressure to stand behind a fossil fuels phase-out 

Despite many Southeast Asian countries pledging net zero by 2050 as their climate targets, almost none of them have come forward with a strong position on phasing out fossil fuels at COP28. This is unlike other climate vulnerable states like the Pacific Islander and Latin American countries which released a joint statement early in the summit, calling clearly for an eventual end to fossil fuel use.

Countries in the region likely align to the G77 negotiating bloc, which does not support the phase-out language, as they say any final decision at COP28 needs to accommodate countries with fewer means to shift to clean energy.

However, Singapore falls under the AOSIS bloc which is pushing hard to phase out fossil fuels. The city-state has not declared its support for an outright phase-out given its role as a major global oil refiner, as with Malaysia which depends on about a quarter of its revenue from state-owned oil firm Petronas.

Indonesia is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal, which also accounts for around 60 per cent of the country’s electricity generation. Jakarta recently agreed to a just transition energy partnership, but it still does not have sufficient support in the climate deal to wean off its many industrial coal plants.

The Philippines comparatively produces only small amounts of oil, gas and coal, but still relies mostly on fossil fuels for its electricity. It has been criticised for being mum on its stance against oil, coal, and gas at the latest rounds of talks.

At the summit, Thailand announced its first climate change act to regulate emissions while coal-reliant Vietnam forged a plan with G7 governments to use an agreed multi-billion dollar funding to reduce its coal use, but both parties do not have a definitive stance on the negotiation text. 

Cambodia and Laos did not articulate clear support for a fossil fuel phase-out. Timor-Leste, however, wants a speedy transition as part of a “Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative”.

As the violence in Myanmar looks set to spill over into another year of intractable struggle, for the third year in a row, the country has missed COP.

Business deals fly amid slow UN rulemaking, but concerns on carbon market integrity remain

Singapore signed a carbon credit trading deal with biodiversity-rich Papua New Guinea at COP28, capping off a rapid year of negotiations after an initial letter of understanding changed hands at COP27. No actual projects have been announced.

It is the first of such bilateral “Article 6” agreements for Singapore, also only the third buyer country in the world after South Korea and Switzerland to score such deals. Under the pact, countries selling carbon credits cannot count them towards domestic emissions reductions, but can earn climate financing and conservation benefits.

The Singapore-Papua New Guinea deal incorporates some industry best practices. Two per cent of all credits sold will be automatically forfeited to stretch the climate mitigation potential of the trade, while five per cent of proceeds must go towards climate adaptation efforts in Papua New Guinea.

Singapore’s central bank also announced a pilot to use “transition” carbon credits to help retire coal plants and install renewables in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Bursa Carbon Exchange inked an agreement at COP28 with carbon credit certifier Gold Standard, which will help the national bourse with capacity building and development of project verification groups.

The deal could signal an expansion of standards eventually permitted by Bursa, which currently only recognises Gold Standard’s rival Verra. Since trading started on the exchange in September, transaction volume has quickly dropped to, and largely stayed at, zero.

Southeast Asia has some of the most intact and pristine forests in the world while also facing deforestation risks from agriculture and development, making the region a prime candidate for hosting forest carbon projects. The region could benefit from work progressing at COP28 on an international marketplace for carbon projects.

However, carbon projects also often come with risks to local communities unless strong rules are in place. Belgium-based nonprofit Carbon Market Watch highlighted that rules for bilateral “Article 6” trade still does not prescribe reviews before carbon credits are sold, nor specify rules around confidentiality – potentially allowing countries to redact large swaths of their trade details.

Will the Philippines get to host loss and damage meetings?

The archipelagic nation is lobbying to host the venue of the loss and damage fund.

As COP28 scores an early win to set up the disaster relief fund, it has been agreed the World Bank would be the interim host of the mechanism.

The Philippines, however, says it is qualified to host the fund, and has been actively calling for the fund secretariat and related meetings to be located in a Philippine city, an arrangement that is not unfamiliar. For example, South Korean international business district Songdo has been the seat of the Green Climate Fund. 

Malaysia’s minister of natural resources Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad said that the World Bank should not be the only one administering the fund.

He called on Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) and China-headquartered Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), as well as the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank Group, to get involved and be part of the legal framework to operationalise the fund.

He said this will ensure work “starts off on the right foot” and is “as transparent as possible”.

“No single institution should have a monopoly. We hope that adjustments can be made in the spirit of common sense and fair play.” 

Heat and health issues: Inaugural programme rallies funding

Health issues had its own spotlight at COP28. A declaration to strengthen healthcare policies against rising risks posed by climate change and reduce emissions from the medical industry has the support of 141 countries, which raised US$1 billion to help fund projects along with multilateral lenders and nonprofits.

An initial count of 123 early signatories included all Asean bloc members except Thailand and Singapore; it is not clear if they joined later.

The Asian Development Bank also announced a climate and health initiative to work on issues including building low-carbon health systems and facilitate tie-ups on animal-related challenges. An initial US$7 million of seed funding will be given out over the coming year, and the lender expects to crowd in US$10 for every dollar dispensed.

The United Kingdom is too committing US$22.6 million for research projects in Southeast Asia, along with South Asia and Africa.

A US$777 million initiative targeting neglected tropical diseases, however, will likely only be for African beneficiaries, not Southeast Asian.

Climate change is bringing sharper weather extremes and rising sea levels to Southeast Asia – phenomena that are expected to cause more severe heat injury and help infectious diseases spread faster. Falling crop yields from suboptimal growing conditions could also exacerbate hunger and nutrition issues.

Within the region, the National University of Singapore’s medical school has been designated the regional node for the Global Heat Health Information Network, run by the World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organization, at COP28. The medical school’s Heat Resilience and Performance Centre will help in research and policy work across Southeast Asia, and host a heat health forum next year.

Climate adaptation: Slow progress vexes developing states

Multilateral adaptation funding slid for the third year in a row – bad news for Southeast Asia sitting on the frontlines of climate risks.

While refills into the UN Adaptation Fund reached US$356 million at COP26 in 2021, just US$188 million was pledged this time round. Some suspect money is being diverted into the new loss and damage fund, despite calls for the two to be kept separate.

Both figures above are far shy of the billions needed every year to help the region better protect itself against storms, floods and droughts. Cyclone Mocha, which struck Myanmar in May, is expected to cost the country US$2.24 billion to recover from. The ADB has said the region needs over US$200 billion a year for growth, development and climate infrastructure.

Talks for a “Global Goal on Adaptation” have drawn criticism too, for failing to rally more finances and provide clearer direction of what exactly needs to be done to protect drinking water, food, nature, culture and livelihoods.

Over the weekend, the G77 group, which counts all Southeast Asia as members, said the adaptation deal needs to explicitly provide support and resources for developing countries. AOSIS, which counts Singapore, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea as members, asked the COP28 presidency to help speed things up and broker a “robust” agreement.

As it stands, the draft adaptation text continues to state that the conference “recognises” developing countries’ need for “means of implementation” – referring to finance, technology and capacity-building – but does not oblige any party to do more. The text reiterates a previous call to at least double adaptation finance from 2019 to 2025, an ask many have said is inadequate.

It remains to be seen what the next few hours bring for Southeast Asia, as negotiators worldwide attempt to find common ground on what the COP28 presidency has described as the “most demanding COP agenda of all time”. Outside the plenary hall, advocates are waiting and growing impatient.

“It is not enough to have these lofty goals in the agreement. There will be pronouncements that this was a historic COP. But for those of us who have looked at all the false solutions and claims by the developed countries in particular, who are doing too little too late…I want to say, enough of lying and hypocrisy,” said Meena Raman, head of programmes at Malaysia nonprofit Third World Network.

“People will not tire of pushing back against business-as-usual, here in the remaining hours of the climate talks and even beyond,” said Krishna Ariola, founding convenor of Philippines advocacy group Youth for Climate Hope.

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