This article is the sixth in a 10-part series collectively themed “Fostering Democracy Movements,” an Asia Democracy Network special 10th anniversary report produced by the Asia Democracy Chronicles. The release of this series is also in commemoration of Human Rights Day on December 10, 2023. The entire report can be downloaded here.
t was as if the clouds had descended on Malaysian cities and towns, but almost everyone knew the blanket of haze was far from being heavenly. In fact, that day last October, Malaysian authorities saw fit to send nearly four million students from more than 2,500 schools home – the better to protect young lungs from pollution.
Much of the thick, low-lying smog, however, was not from local sources. Rather, the haze had traveled from the neighboring islands of Kalimantan, Sumatra, and Borneo in Indonesia.
Since the 1960s, “transboundary haze” from Indonesia’s palm oil fields has been forcing schools and businesses to shut down, as well as paralyzing city centers in Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. During certain years, it has also brought similar trouble to Thailand and the Philippines.
Despite repeated commitments by both the Indonesian government and palm oil industry moguls across Southeast Asia to reduce haze, this environmental scourge has only gotten worse. This year alone, cinders from 267,900 hectares of forest fires and burned peatlands generated weeks worth of haze, reaching hazardous levels that have not been seen since 2019.
But the Indonesian environment and forestry minister denied that her country was responsible for the most recent haze enveloping towns and cities outside of its borders, despite experts pointing to the contrary. Indonesia’s vice president even reprimanded neighboring nations for “blaming” Indonesia for the pollution.
Indeed, the most vulnerable in the region bear the brunt of the unfolding climate catastrophe, while the levers necessary to alter its course lie in the hands of an increasingly unaccountable few. This includes having to deal with the impacts of climate change that, for Asia’s teeming poor and vulnerable, isn’t a concern for 2050 or even 2030; it’s an unfolding catastrophe looming more deadly by the year.
In Pakistan, flash floods have put a spotlight on the human rights crisis embedded in the climate emergency. Last year, about a third of the South Asian nation was submerged, killing around 1,700 people in a span of just two months.
The country, contributing minimally to global emissions – and only one percent to those in Asia – faces disproportionate impacts from climate change.
Across Asia typhoons and floods are becoming more intense. Long coastlines and heavily populated low-lying areas are among the world’s most vulnerable places to weather extremes and rising sea levels associated with global warming.
The growing frequency, intensity, and unpredictability of recent natural disasters such as flash floods, landslides, and storms in vulnerable communities in developing Asia are taking a greater toll by the year. Based on data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, at least 18.8 million people in the region were internally displaced by natural disasters, with almost nine in 10 coming from only seven countries, namely, China, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. In 2021, almost 8.5 percent of Nepal’s population of around 30 million were forced out of their homes due to natural calamities.
While richer countries have well-funded public programs to mitigate disaster risks, people living in developing Asia have little to no protection against the impacts of climate change. To illustrate, at least six percent of the population in the Philippines on average were displaced in a year, compared to 0.71 percent in Japan, despite seeing a comparable number of typhoons.
|Graph 1: The extent of displacement of affected communities due to natural calamities per carbon emissions (in million metric tons) shows disproportionate impacts on countries emitting less carbon dioxide emissions. (Used only to illustrate the unequal impact.)
These calamities also deepen socio-economic inequalities, as the majority of those displaced are rural communities that directly depend on land and the environment. Meanwhile, the affluent lifestyles of the richest 10 percent are responsible for half of the world’s emissions.
One step forward, big leaps backward
In the past few years, environmental advocates have had some success in pushing for the closure of coal mines in the region. But there are still 8,600 operational mines in Asia today, with six percent of these excavating lignite, the most hazardous to human health and the environment.
|Graph 2: Thousands of coal mines are still operational around Asia, despite global collective efforts for a greener future.
In truth, despite international commitments to reduce emissions, Asia is witnessing a concerning trend. Countries are replacing coal with gas, promoted by top emitters China, the United States, and Japan as a “transition fuel” despite experts’ warnings.
China, now the largest carbon emitter, plans to more than double its current liquefied natural gas (LNG) import capacity and is proposing 90 GW of new gas plant projects. Similarly, Indonesia is developing US$32 billion in new gas-fired power plants and infrastructure, while Vietnam, Bangladesh, and the Philippines are significantly increasing their reliance on gas.
|Graph 3: Gas plants are still operational in some Asian countries, with at least 600 more of these facilities under development.
These developments conflict with the International Energy Agency's warning that halting all future fossil-fuel development is crucial for keeping global warming below 1.5°C. The planned gas expansion in Asia threatens to delay achieving a net-zero power system by decades and could lock in emissions well beyond the 2050-2060 carbon-neutral targets.
Moreover, much-needed climate financing to wean economies away from carbon-intensive energy remains insufficient, possibly misrepresented, and largely concessional. Most of it also come in the form of debt.
Ambitions and divisions
More recently, climate financing has been increasingly mired in the growing geopolitics in the region.
In a recent U.N. Security Council meeting, China made strong comments regarding the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Touting itself as a climate champion, China harped on its role leading the successful push by the Group of 77 — a coalition of 135 developing countries — for loss-and-damage funds at the climate conference last year.
For its part, the United States has been making climate accords throughout Asia, especially since its strategic pivot in 2022.
Indonesia’s recent US$21.5-billion climate deal with the United States — the largest of its kind — to reduce its emissions is under threat of collapse as Chinese companies come into the picture, however. Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, Luhut Pandjaitan, a coal and mining mogul, is pressing the United States to whitelist nickel to be eligible for funding.
Indonesia has the world’s largest reserve of nickel, a metal needed to power electric vehicles, and its government is eager to leverage the funds to open new mines. But the United States says that doing so will only “subsidize Chinese companies” operating these mines.
Similarly, Vietnam’s US$14-billion climate deal with the European Union hit a snag as the EU criticized the former’s arrest of climate activists.
An increasingly multipolar world and authoritarian regimes may be ill-equipped to solve the existential threat of climate change; both its impacts and missteps in the energy transition may pose emergent threats to the region’s people and the planet.
Harmful false solutions
As it is, even ongoing climate-related projects in the region are rousing concerns. In India and Bangladesh, afforestation projects, often touted as sustainable solutions, are displacing Indigenous communities.
The rush toward electric vehicles (EVs) and other 'green' solutions is also posing challenges. In Myanmar, new lithium mines for EV batteries that have cropped up since the military coup in February 2021 have raised concerns about environmental degradation and community displacement.
Meanwhile, the rush for biofuels as a replacement for fossil fuels, especially those from palm oil, is encouraging deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia. Recent studies show that sites rich in cobalt and rare earth metals such as lithium, as well as areas suitable for growing oil palm trees, are at the highest risk of land grabs.
|Graph 4: Mining, palm oil, and export crops in Asia bear the most risk of displacing communities in Asia.
Energizing democratic participation
From many angles, the overall picture is far from appealing. As the most vulnerable grapple with the impacts of climate change, climate action is being filtered through a complex labyrinth of geopolitical influences, authoritarian elites, and disastrous collusions.
Yet, the climate agenda has also opened up new avenues to converge and disrupt autocratization, energizing new movements and new solidarities to foster a more inclusive and sustainable model of the future. The escalating urgency of the climate crisis, on the one hand, and the increasing attacks of authoritarians against activists in Asia, on the other, are catalyzing an unprecedented convergence of advocacies.
Farmers, Adivasis (Indigenous and tribal people), and national minorities in India, for instance, are finding new allies against mining companies and land-grabbing among environmentalists. In Sri Lanka, climate activists who are still facing raps today were among those at the forefront of the historic anti-corruption movement that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of the presidential seat in 2022.
In the Philippines, which has gained notoriety for being the deadliest country in Asia for land and environmental activists, youth organizations have led at least 120 “climate strikes” between 2018 and March 2023 alone.
Led by the youth, a new wave of climate justice activism that encompasses climate action, gender equity, human rights, and socio-economic rights is carving new pathways for democratic participation in Asia. ◉