Climate Security and Economic Development: Dual Challenges for Southeast Asia

The UNDP defines climate security as the impacts of the climate crisis on peace and security particularly in fragile and conflict-affected or conflict prone settings. But this definition is not necessarily limited to above settings but can also impact regions with high levels of potential human insecurities including food, water and energy insecurities that will be faced by vulnerable populations under changing climate scenarios. Southeast Asia is one of the regions that is most vulnerable to extreme as well as rapidly changing weather patterns. In the region’s case, it is less of conflict-related insecurities than human insecurities. Southeast Asia is home to millions of people employed in climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and the fishery industries. And although southeast Asia shows active economic vitality the region’s growing reliance on coal and oil, along with deforestation, are undermining national pledges to curb emissions and embrace cleaner energy sources. Between 1990 and 2010, southeast Asia had the most rapid rate of increase in carbon dioxide emissions among major world regions. Between facing the threats of climate change and the growing curbs to economic development necessary to reduce those threats, the between a rock and a hard place.

Climate change presents a major threat to long-term growth and prosperity, and undoubtedly it has a direct impact on the economic wellbeing of people and states. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that climate change would cost the southeast Asian region about 11 per cent of combined annual gross domestic product (GDP) by 2100. This is much higher than an earlier estimation by the ADB in 2009, of a 6.7 percent reduction. Meanwhile, the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights that the significantly increasing extreme weather events in the region will lead to food insecurity and increased migration flows, which can create economic instability. A large degree of economic activity in southeast Asia is concentrated in sectors that are particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change including agriculture, forestry and fishery industries. Not unlike a huge tanker trying to do a U-turn in narrow straits, energy transition policies to cleaner forms of fuel will take time and sustained will and effort in steering new directions. Although many countries in the region have respective plans to combat climate change, the nationally determined contributions of ASEAN member states to the Paris Agreement are modest. So how are we to push forward economic development so vital to peace and security in the region, not give up our place as a vital node in global economic connectedness, and all the while save our planet?

Here is a threefold solution to this conundrum. For one, development strategies must be altered from earlier eco-nomic practices that have worked so well, especially those that demand rampant energy use that contributes to greater CO2 emissions. That means decoupling, in all ways, shapes and/or forms, greenhouse gas emissions from GDP growth. In other words, ‘green growth’ – or promoting economic growth while safeguarding natural assets that continue to provide resources on which our well-being relies – is the solution to managing the challenges of climate insecurity and economic development. What this would mean has to be determined within each state’s parameters. Rarely is there a one-size-fits-all model for what ‘green growth’ would entail for each country, as should be the case, as nothing defeats ‘green growth’ faster than uniform policies applied to all regardless of contextual understanding.

A better understanding of economic security, not only of states but also of everyday people is equally important in any attempt to change economic growth models. While we are aware of the benefits to the planet and the sustainability of resources with new modes of production, attempts to make these changes must consider the impacts on labour in re-source extraction and connected industries. While most analysts speak of economic security at a macro-scale of nations, the microcosm of economically insecure communities and families should be equally important in policies looking to address these dual challenges in the region. That is why greater consultative processes must be de rigueur in future economic planning.

The atmosphere is singular. There are no multiple ‘airs’ in conventional understanding. But climate models treat all CO2 emissions the same without regard to how they are being generated. The emissions of a farmer looking to feed his family cannot be equated to those of a tourist taking a holiday flight. We cannot remove political, social and eco-nomic disparities underlying patterns of CO2 emissions. This provides vital information that should feed into climate models. Existing regional multilateral institutions should seek to understand these differences and use them as scaffolding moving forward in both regional climate security architecture and economic cooperation. Merging strategies in these two areas is the way forward to address these dual challenges.