The Asian Voice

Asean leaders must face climate change challenge head on: Jakarta Post contributor

The writer says that Asean's focus on trade should not overshadow the ultimate fight that humanity must face: climate change.

Asean leaders are seen on a screen as they attend the 4th Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Summit as part of the 37th Asean Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam on Nov15, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Despite being portrayed as a success, the 37th Asean Summit, recently held under the chairmanship of Vietnam, should be reframed and reconsidered in terms of the commitments made to combat climate change.

We wish we could have found, in the final declaration issued at the end of the conclave, some commitments, perhaps not as bold as we should expect from an ambitious regional bloc like Asean but nevertheless some signals, at least a symbolic decision, proving that the regional leaders are looking beyond trade and remain ready, despite the challenges, to fight for climate action.

Instead, trade was king, and because of it, the summit has been celebrated as an unprecedented success with the regional bloc able to present a joint front and sign a landmark trade agreement, creating the biggest free trade area in the world.

There is no doubt that trade can be a force for good in the region and for its people, provided that the way it unfolds in the years to come will really put workers and the most vulnerable segments of the Asean population at its core, something that, given the experiences of many other trade deals around the world, should not be taken for granted.

The economic impact of the pandemic is creating a desperate need to reactivate and boost what, less than a year ago, was the fast-paced development growth experienced by the entirety of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia.

Stronger and better trade relationships within the wider Asia Pacific region will be essential on this quest.

Yet a focus on trade should not overshadow the ultimate fight that humanity must face with all its determination and strength: climate change.

Here is where Asean is lagging behind not only in terms of resources needed to transition to a cleaner and more sustainable economy but also in terms of ambition and vision.

It is true that the regional bloc has created the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, but this ambitious legal tool was ratified by all the bloc's member-states in 2014, and we are well aware that it has not been as effective as everyone was hoping.

The latest official declaration on climate change by the regional bloc is the Asean Joint Statement on Climate Change to the 25th Session of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2019.

The moment to think boldly is now, and that's why the Asean Summit was a huge disappointment.

A few days ago, the Climate Ambition Summit was held, marking the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement, a "bridge" event toward COP26, which has been postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic.

At this event, UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres urged all UN member nations to declare a climate emergency.

The leaders of the nations most committed to fighting climate change were granted speaking slots to announce new pledges.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, for example, was denied a space because of his government's abysmal performance in the fight against climate change.

Ideally, Dato Lim Jock Hoi, a representative of Vietnam's 2020 Asean chairmanship and the Asean secretary general, should have been asked to talk as the European Union was.

It did not happen, and no one should be surprised, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore along with his counterparts from Lao PDR, Cambodia and Myanmar had the chance.

It is glaring how President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo missed out on this opportunity, together with his Malaysian and Thai counterparts. After all, these are the heavyweights of Asean, and we should expect more.

Unfortunately, we are still very far from bold and forward-looking zero-net policies in the region, and no one can, at the moment, make a regional pledge on behalf of all the people of Southeast Asia.

I am talking about speaking on behalf of people because reversing climate change will require the involvement and commitment of the region's citizens.

That's why the UN secretary general, in recent interventions, has talked about activating new forms of citizen engagement and participation to discuss possible solutions to climate change while promoting sustainable development.

This is the essence of localising the Sustainable Development Goals, and this is why citizens' assemblies are being created around the world to inform, involve and engage citizens in localised forms of public policy making.

Perhaps the suggestions and recommendations of these participatory bodies will not be taken on board by politicians, but Mr Guterres is talking about reshaping and reframing the way decisions are being made, and he is absolutely right.

Thanks to the support of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Asean has taken some important steps to align its strategies with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as proven by the recently released SDGs Indicators Baseline Report and an online database of SDG indicators.

Now it is up to the leaders of the region to show stewardship and solid commitment to move forward with ambitious action on sustainable development and climate change. If they want to be successful, involving citizens is going to be key.

Indonesia should use its power and influence within Asean to start difficult conversations with its partners in the bloc, creating an environment for bold and transformative decision making.

A silver lining of the summit was the voice of Josefina Belmonte, mayor of Quezon City, who spoke with the mayor of Los Angeles on behalf of the influential C40 group, representing major world cities committed to building back better - places that take climate action seriously.

Only taking the climate change challenge head on, rather than shying away from it, will show the extent of real leadership among the Asean leaders.

Last but not least, let's congratulate Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan for being elected as one of the vice chairs of the C40 group.

Climate action and sustainable development renewal should start with the people, and Jakarta could lead the way on engaging its own citizens with the challenges ahead.

We are looking forward to hearing when a Jakarta citizens assembly on climate change and sustainable development will be announced, and we are also looking forward to hearing which Asean member will be the first to officially declare a climate emergency.

The author is the co-founder of ENGAGE and writes on social inclusion, youth development, regional integration and the SDGs in the Asia Pacific context. The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.

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