Building power: A just and sustainable recovery in Asia

Improvements in environmental indicators due to COVID-19 present an unprecedented opportunity for an economic transformation which is ecologically sustainable and socially just. Building power through movements can ensure that this happens.

Who would have thought it was possible for environmental and climate change indicators in Asia to significantly improve within two months? Well, the lockdown forced by the coronavirus pandemic has done exactly that.

With an almost complete freeze on movements of motor vehicles and airplanes as well as the large-scale closing of industries, air quality has improved across Asia, including Delhi which is known for chronic air pollution. The only city without any improvement is Jakarta. Experts link this to the 12 coal-fired power plants surrounding the city and continuing their day-to-day business as usual, which emphasises the urgent need for industries to take a stronger stand in creating an ecologically sustainable future.

Limited human and economic activities have also added to an improved water quality in certain rivers, for example in Malaysia and India. Noise pollution too has reduced as well as generation of hazardous waste and solid waste in general. With people confined indoors, even wildlife has started making their way further into urban spaces. Unfortunately, these positive developments have largely been a result of a virus and not due to voluntary human behaviour and government intervention.

COVID-19 has had tragic consequences - a devastating toll in lives, livelihoods and economic activities. Even so, it has presented the opportunity to create a new normal and initiate the transition to an economic model centred on low-carbon development with ecological sustainability, social inclusion and equity. Civil society organisations (CSOs) in Asia have seized this opportunity to offer a vision of a new normal to decision makers; an action also prompted by the mobilisation of staggering amounts of money – previously declared unaffordable – as economic stimulus packages.

In Malaysia, after the government had announced two such packages, CSOs came together to develop and submit a detailed letter to the Minister of Finance in late March. The ministry was urged to address environmental concerns while addressing the ravages of the pandemic such as efficient use of energy and resources, and sustainable production and consumption of natural resources with positive impacts towards society and environment. CSOs in India have made similar interventions.

At the global level, the Climate Action Network – represented by more than 1,300 CSOs in over 130 countries – is developing a detailed policy paper on ‘A Just Reboot: A Proposal for Recovery and Economic Stimulus Packages’ through an ongoing consultation process for adaptation and application worldwide. Its central argument is that stimulus packages need to be designed and implemented in alignment with goals of the Paris Agreement, while supporting adequate measures to deal with the health emergency and immediate social needs arising from COVID-19 impacts.


How effective are these efforts and is anyone listening?

Immediate reactions of some Asian governments to the crisis do not offer an optimistic scenario. During a call on 11 May hosted by the NDC Partnership, senior officials in Indonesia from the Department of Climate Change and the Ministry of National Development Planning said the country will not increase climate ambition in its revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) due to the adverse economic impacts of COVID-19.

In India, the government approved or discussed 30 infrastructure projects in biodiverse forests, including a coal mine, highway and limestone mine during lockdown. In China, five new coal-fired power plants were approved for construction between 1-18 March as a means to boost the country's domestic economy. In Australia, the federal government is pushing for the expansion of coal mines to keep people in work. And the list goes on and on.


So how do we effect a shift?

CAN International adopted the cross-cutting objective on ‘Building Power Through Movements’ as the means to achieve our climate goals in March. Building power applies to all levels from grassroots to the highest levels of policy making. This includes movement building with constituencies on the ground such as women, youth, indigenous peoples and faith groups to create a critical mass. At the other end it involves reaching out to other non-state actors including the private sector and city governments.

In the latter context, CAN Southeast Asia (CANSEA) member organisations set up the multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs) – Indonesia Low Emissions Network, Vietnam Coalition for Climate Change and Climate Action Partnership, Philippines – last year. Comprising of government agencies, city governments, corporations and businesses, universities, think tanks and CSOs with shared values on transitioning to low-carbon development, shifting financial flows and raising climate ambition, these MSPs were set up to create a transformative alliance and stronger voice for advocacy on these issues.

In Malaysia, a non-traditional ally for CSOs to target major corporations to reduce emissions is Climate Governance Malaysia (CGM), an association comprising non-executive directors of public listed companies. CGM was set up last year – as an initiative of the World Economic Forum – to pressure the companies to reduce their carbon footprints from a position of influence on the inside.

Harnessing all these positive initiatives in a concerted manner will help build power and generate a stronger momentum for a just and green recovery. As the key players are the Ministries of Finance in this context, a strong message needs to be sent that increased climate ambition through enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions is not only good for the climate, but also good for the economy. New research shows every country in the world would be economically better off if all could agree to strengthen commitments on the climate crisis through international cooperation. Conversely, weak action would lead to steep economic losses and losses of life.


Living in the new normal

Finally, the lockdown has shown pathways to a new horizon for many of us such as: not having to consume beyond our needs; not having to commute and not needing an office space just to work; and not having to travel overseas just to attend global meetings. There is merit in continuing to live in this new normal as it will lead us to living within the ecological limits of one planet which we currently exceed.


Nithi Nesadurai was involved with the creation of the Climate Action Network Southeast Asia (CANSEA) in 1992. He has been serving as its regional coordinator since late 2016. Between 2018 and 2019, he took on the additional role of project manager for the Shifting Financial Flows to Invest in Low-Carbon Development project in Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam.

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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