SINGAPORE: The COVID-19 pandemic has “upended” many renewable energy plans in 2020, and there is a risk that people may see clean energy or climate change action as “optional” or “too expensive or difficult”, said UK Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Jon Lambe.
Speaking at a roundtable discussion during Singapore International Energy Week (SIEW) on Thursday (Oct 29), Mr Lambe said that before COVID-19 struck, there were “tremendous inroads” made in Southeast Asia for renewable energy.
For example, Thailand launched plans to build the world’s largest floating solar farm, Vietnam’s solar sector hit its target six years ahead of schedule and Indonesia said in January that it was looking to transition from coal to renewables, he noted.
“I think obviously COVID-19 has upended many of our plans in 2020, and I think now, we're faced with this challenge of all of us needing to ensure that our economies rebound, that we can stop people in our countries slipping back into poverty or undoing some of the development gains that we've made,” said Mr Lambe.
“And I think there's a risk that people see clean energy or wider action on climate change as optional, or as a kind of something that's too expensive or too difficult.”
READ: Southeast Asia faces a number of energy-related challenges, but remains a ‘critical’ region: IEA
Others speaking on the panel echoed his thoughts on how countries in ASEAN should plan for a green post-COVID-19 economy.
The pandemic could “create a good momentum” for ASEAN countries to rethink their energy strategies, said Ms Ngo Thuy Quynh, deputy director-general of the oil and gas and coal department of Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade.
“It's clear that we are pursuing both affordable and clean energy, but sometimes it's not obvious to us and we are often sitting on the fence of choosing affordable or clean energy, while actually we can do both affordable and clean,” she added.
“Especially proving the impossible is possible now - that if we are pursuing RE (renewable energy) and then for the green long-term recovery path, there will be much more benefits that we can get and we can afford a lot of stranded assets in the future.”
However, providing energy that is both affordable and clean “is not an easy task”, especially with the diversity of economic and energy resources available in ASEAN, said Dr Nuki Agya Utama, executive director of the ASEAN Centre for Energy (ACE).
“But I believe it is not impossible to be done. With various economic backgrounds and challenges posed at national and regional levels, it is important for ASEAN to map all the possible options on affordable and clean energy to create a secure and resilient energy system in the future, especially for all member states,” he added.
Ensuring access to affordable and clean energy is a goal that is “not unique” to ASEAN, and can be translated as the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7, noted Dr Nuki.
“What has made it become more special for us in ASEAN, it is very timely to discuss affordable and clean energy efforts that are now ongoing in the region. Not only (does) it become the regional focus ... but because ASEAN countries also commit to supporting the global energy transition movement, as well as sustainable development goals implementation,” he added.
THE REAL COST OF ENERGY
ASEAN has “considerably improved” in terms of energy access, said Mrs Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO and special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All. However, in Southeast Asia, many countries have put a subsidy on electricity served through their grids.
Reflecting the real cost of energy would make renewable energy options “a lot more attractive”, she said “And there'll be a lot more money for the government to spend on other different things like health and possibly agriculture.”
“The truth of the matter is, we're really not on track to achieving SDG 7. COVID-19 has impacted a lot in terms of our progress. However, we were not going to achieve SDG 7 if we had continued at the momentum,” said Mrs Ogunbiyi.
“And this being the decade of action, it's really important that we pick up this momentum and use this momentum to actually reset and actually work on recovering better to focus on renewable energy and also energy efficiency.”
While there are still many fossil fuel subsidies for the consumer and in the power sector, ASEAN is seeing a gradual subsidy reform from fossil fuel to renewable energy support, said Ms Quynh.
The declining price of renewable energy options around the world and in the region has provided “big opportunities” for ASEAN to use more renewables.
“ASEAN cannot afford to go with conventional fuels, because energy is one of the biggest emitters in the region ... And we cannot really afford to have a climate disaster, since when it impacts our vulnerable communities, the recovery pathway will be harder and will be more costly.”