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  • Writer's pictureDr Hezri Adnan

Building a Greener India-ASEAN Relations

Eminent Chairman, Honorable Minister of Renewable Energy of India, distinguished panellists and learned participants of the Delhi Dialogue, greetings of peace, greetings of solidarity.

Let me begin by expressing deep gratitude to the organisers of the Delhi Dialogue, especially Professor Sachin Chaturvedi, for inviting me to this discussion.

The theme of the Delhi Dialogue is very apt. The bridge we want to build is a natural bridge because we share a common destiny, geographically and historically. Personally, I prefer to refer to Southeast Asia as Bumantara. Bumantara is short for ‘Bumi di Antara’ or ‘the land in between’. It is the land between the great civilisations of China and India. This term was popularised a few decades ago by the famed Indonesian intellectual, the late Sutan Takdir Alishahbana. Last night during dinner, we were reminded of the immense soft power of India on the peoples of ASEAN through faith traditions, literature and diaspora connections, not to mention the popular culture of Bollywood.

India's engagement with Southeast Asia is profound, having passed through ancient, mediaeval, colonial and post-colonial phases. Today, Bumantara, or Southeast Asia, lies geographically and strategically at the centre of the Indo-Pacific.

But the Indo-Pacific is not only a strategic space; it is also a theatre of climate insecurity. It is already the region most exposed to climate hazards globally. According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021, Myanmar and the Philippines are the second and fourth most vulnerable countries in the world to extreme weather events from 2000 to 2019. Thailand and Vietnam are also among the ten countries worldwide that have suffered the most from climate-related events, both humanly and materially.

For the economies of the ASEAN countries, even a slight rise in sea level poses a serious threat. In countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, with over 90,000 km of coastline, populations are at risk from coastal erosion and flooding due to rising sea levels. Storm surges and coastal flooding increasingly threaten coastal megacities that are less than one metre above sea level. The loss of important low-lying agricultural areas such as the Irrawaddy Delta and the Chao Phraya Delta would severely impact food production.

Natural disasters in the Indo-Pacific region are becoming more frequent and devastating. Between 2008 and 2018, 1,831 disasters were recorded in Asia and the Pacific, affecting more than 1.5 billion people. Of the people affected, about 210 million or 15%, were displaced by disasters in the region. These developments exacerbate poverty and social inequality. They could also fuel conflict and instability.

That is my first point: the Indo-Pacific is a high climate risk region; therefore, we need to build green bridges to manage the risks. In the next few minutes, I would like to make two more points on this panel about energy and climate challenges in the next decade. One is on climate change, and the energy transition, and the other is on partnership in climate adaptation.

First, I would like to talk about the implementation of climate change mitigation among ASEAN members. Of course, we are encouraged by the many ambitious pledges made in the run-up to COP26. Eight out of ten ASEAN members have now committed to Net-Zero targets. There is a lot of excitement about environmental protection these days. They say "RE is the new coal, battery is the new fuel and IoT is the new power grid." Among ASEAN member countries, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and others have steadily increased their installed capacity for wind and solar energy. In Vietnam, solar PV has increased sharply in 2019..

But if we look at the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of the Paris Agreement, that is, ASEAN member states' contribution to mitigating climate change, I would say that our solutions are disproportionate to the threat of climate change poses to us.

We are dealing with a 60% projected increase in Southeast Asia's carbon emissions to 2400 Mt CO2 by 2050. To align to the 1.5oC pathway, Southeast Asia faces the challenge of closing the emission gap of about 3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030[1]. From 2000-2018, fossil fuels accounted for 85% of the growth in primary energy demand among ASEAN member states. The share of renewables in the primary energy mix stagnated. We also see a rapid expansion of coal power in the energy mix.

Since the so-called fourth energy transition will not happen overnight, international cooperation is essential. It has taken the world 50 years to provide 40% coal (since 1840); 50 years to provide 30% crude oil (since 1915); 50 years to provide 20% gas (since 1930). And modern renewables meet only 5% of global demand (as of 2015).

For the fourth energy transition to happen, Southeast Asia needs US$3 trillion in green investments to build energy infrastructure and nature-based solutions to close the 3 gigatonnes gap. So far, only less than 1% has been invested. Since 2020, the region has attracted US$15 billion in green capital. About US$11 billion of the green investment has been made by the corporate sector in solar and wind (US$6.5 billion), other renewables (US$2.5 billion) and built environment (US$1 billion).

Of course, there is already much international cooperation on energy within the Asia Pacific. It has helped Indonesia and Vietnam transition from oil to coal through coal-fired power plants. These FDI projects were wholly or partly financed with Chinese loans and developed mainly by contractors from China. The cooperation has also helped close the energy access gaps in Southeast Asia. The coal-based investments abroad have also allowed China to calm domestic frustration about pollution, especially among the middle class. However, it also means that China has exported a significant amount of its CO2 emissions to Southeast Asia since 2005.

Moving forward, the Indo-Pacific region needs cleaner and greener energy cooperation. Last night, the Indian Foreign Minister mentioned two mechanisms under India's leadership - the ASEAN-India Green Fund and the International Solar Alliance. Only Myanmar and Cambodia are signatories to the ISA, along with 104 other countries of the ASEAN member states. Attracting more ASEAN members would be the next logical step toward building the green bridge.

In recent years, there has also been a euphoria in the investment and business world about ESG risks and opportunities. Many Indian corporate giants like Mahindra & Mahindra and Tata Motors have joined the RE100 movement and voluntarily committed to sourcing their energy from renewable sources. On the capital market side, Infosys, Godrej Consumer Products, Havells India, Glenmark, Hindalco Industries and Wipro have been included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. By the same token, the "old-world economy" companies in ASEAN countries are also rapidly moving to new business models that prioritise green and inclusive bottom lines. The question is, how can we connect green businesses in India with those in ASEAN? What platform should we create or use so that the private sector on both sides can work together?

My final point is this. We need to build a bridge between India and ASEAN to adapt to climate change. India launched the National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change (NAFCC) in 2015 with an allocation of US$4.4 billion. The lessons learnt from this experience will help ASEAN members protect their livelihoods and assets from climate hazards. There are also trade-offs if we are only concerned about energy security. On the ground, energy, water and food security are closely intertwined. In recent years, much talk has been about the water-food-energy nexus, with security flashpoints in the Mekong basin, the Tibetan plateau, Central Asia and the Hindu Kush region. And climate change multiplies the threat to all the problems we face. As countries, we adapt to these challenges, but often in isolation. In the future, we can explore the following cooperation, in addition to the points of green partnerships I mentioned earlier:

  • Exchange programme for climate leaders – People-to-people initiatives through leadership and a climate adaptation visit programme should be explored further to create a knowledge and policy network.

  • Empowering people at multiple levels – ASEAN can learn about the localisation of development in India. As the largest democracy, how India engages citizen science by ensuring macro-planning and micro-action convergence in the interest of sustainable rural development would be of interest to the people of Southeast Asia.

  • Combining the twin revolutions of sustainability and digitalisation – With India's excellent ecosystem for start-ups, we would like to know how the dimensions of sustainability and inclusion are taken into account.

  • Providing trusted data and information – Create a joint innovation committee for research and development to share knowledge and strategies and find solutions.

  • Develop regional research capacity – Develop and strengthen institutional linkages between ASEAN and India, including the ASEAN Centre for Energy (ACE) and relevant Indian research entities, to work together on R&D in energy efficiency and conservation, renewable energy, energy security, policy and planning, and establish cooperation programmes.

I believe that the plan to establish the ASEAN-India Project Management Unit (AIPMU) will accelerate the launch of the much-anticipated ASEAN-India Green Fund or AIGF - an essential instrument for financing the green cooperation mentioned above.

But cooperation on climate change adaptation and mitigation should not be limited to socio-cultural exchanges. We are talking here beyond the cross-cultural connectivities and interactions in the spirit of Asian universalism propagated by Rabindranath Tagore in his Asian voyages.

Cooperation could evolve into solid economic and investment opportunities for both ASEAN and India. There is US$1 trillion of economic opportunity in ASEAN in the area of climate change mitigation. And India is increasingly seen as an emerging green economic power that deserves sustainable capital flows from ASEAN.

From "Look East" in 1991 to "Act East" in 2014, it is time for India to "Act in the Indo-Pacific". As I bid farewell, I would like to invite my friends in India to join hands with the peoples of ASEAN to build green bridges that reach far into our common future. As a landmass sandwiched between India and China - the Bumantara - it is not Mission Impossible for us to walk the talk.

Speech delivered at The Delhi Dialogue, 2022.


[1] Bain and Co & Temasek. 2022. Southeast Asia’s Green Economy 2022: Investing Behind New Realities. See



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