Ideal time to paint a greener future

Hakim Hayat

Many of the most polluted cities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states have been enjoying cleaner air as a result of lockdown measures to combat the spread of COVID-19.

However, as governments begin to lift restrictions to pave way for the return of business activities, the demand for energy will also go up.

As a matter of fact, economic recovery efforts could see the level of carbon dioxide emissions bouncing back very quickly, said Senior Energy Economist Han Phoumin at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) in a recent correspondence with the Bulletin.

With all the tragedies caused by the pandemic, he said, “there can be a silver lining, in terms of how ASEAN can navigate energy transition. COVID-19 seems to be accelerating the adoption of several pre-pandemic trends like digitalisation and robotics. Perhaps decarbonisation can be another”.

He believed the post-coronavirus economic recovery will drive increased energy demand, with ASEAN’s energy relying on fossil fuel, which is a significant source of carbon dioxide emission.

“To ensure the region’s energy sustainability, development and healthy environment, the rapid increase in demand will need coordinated management and appropriate energy supply infrastructure and investment,” he said

He added that investing in renewable energy and clean technologies can be expensive, thus energy policy targets and clean technology penetration into energy systems will need to be promoted by ASEAN leaders.

“Investments in clean technologies and renewables are key to managing the energy transition towards cleaner use of energy while addressing emission issues,” he said.

The second phase of the ASEAN Plan of Action of Energy Cooperation (APAEC), which is awaiting endorsement at the ASEAN Ministers on Energy Meeting 2020, will set key energy policy targets which will be significant for energy infrastructure-related investments in the region.

Among the key areas includes a revision of the energy efficiency and conservation target – from 30 per cent energy intensity reduction to 35-40 per cent, from 2005 to 2025.

It will also establish a new sub-target for the share of renewables in installed power capacity to complement the existing target of 23 per cent in the Total Primary Energy Supply by 2025.

In addition, the APAEC Phase 2 will see the pursuit of smart and renewable energy grid integration as well as measures to address emerging and alternative technologies.

A smart grid system, he said, comprises a complex arrangement of infrastructure and digital technologies whose functions depend on many interconnected elements.

With these initiatives in the pipelines, Phoumin said ASEAN leaders will need to lay out clear energy transition strategies to bridge the gap between fossil fuel and newer technologies.

“While growth has increased the affordability of renewable energy around the world, many emerging economies are still at the early stages of development and may not have the necessary funds,” he said. “For ASEAN member states that can afford the investments, an important concern is the electricity storage and smart grids to support the higher renewable energy penetration into the electricity sector.”

He added that as renewable energy technologies are still in their infancy, they are vulnerable to both technical and non-technical risks. As a result, “renewable energy growth will be constrained by infrastructure development as well as the evolution of technology, including the capacity to assess and predict that availability of renewable energy sources”.

In terms of global climate, renewable energy provides a promising prospect for the energy sector of the world.

According to the economist, ASEAN should follow in the footsteps of the rest of the world and expand their renewable energy industries.

“Due to technological advancement, renewable energy can be sourced from wind, solar and biofuel,” he said.

Among the ASEAN economies, he believed, there is an ample room for growth in hydroelectricity, particularly in relatively less developed countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. With the introduction of renewable energy, Phoumin predicted a huge reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the region.

However, he added, to realise the high penetration of renewables into the power system, it will require a large investment in integration to coordinate the balance between distributed power generation, market systems, response technologies and information technology.

To bridge the current energy system to a cleaner version in the future, Phoumin said ASEAN will need to consider a cleaner use of fossil fuel as well as innovations that are capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Given that the energy sector accounts for two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions, he stressed on the need to decarbonise it through the development of a low-carbon economy, which requires the deployment of fossil fuel for renewable energy development.

“ASEAN leaders will need to act boldly to increase renewable energy investment,” he said. “Complacency and the lack of bold actions will likely lead to energy consumption and its resultant emissions to surpass the pre-pandemic level.”