Sumernet

Mekong countries seek clean energy pathways for sustainability

The governments in the Mekong Region need to urgently embark on clean energy pathways if they want to achieve environmental sustainability. The critical issue of how the Mekong Region can embark on changes to energy systems and lifestyles was discussed by participants at a forum organised by SEI and SUMERNET at the China-ASEAN Environmental Cooperation Forum (CAECF) 2016 held in Nanning, China on 10 September 2016.

By Miaojie Sun

In a world of climate risks, how can the Mekong Region meet its rising demand for energy without destroying its rivers and forests and posing difficulties for rural communities?

Electricity demand in the Mekong Region is rapidly rising. Dr. Carl Middleton, SEI Associate in Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University said that the region’s electricity demand in 2016 had increased up to three times compared to 2000 and is expected to increase by a further thirty percent by 2020, according to government figures. The largest consumers of the electricity produced are Thailand, Vietnam and southern China.

However, the electricity consumption is very lopsided biased in favour of industrial development and urban centres. Almost 50 million people especially in rural areas have no access to reliable electricity in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. One widely quoted statistic is that the energy consumption of one shopping mall in Bangkok is more than that of some entire rural provinces in Thailand.

Can the Mekong Region’s power supply be generated by renewable and sustainable energy technologies such as wind, solar, biogas, geothermal and biomass? 

For example, a recent report by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) found that 100 percent of the Mekong Region’s power supply can be generated by renewable and sustainable energy technologies such as wind, solar, biogas, geothermal and biomass by 2050. The report stated that combined with energy efficiency technologies, this will reduce the risk of damaging impacts of climate change while increasing energy security for millions[1].

Dr. Isabelle Louis, the Acting Director of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Regional Office for Asia Pacific, said that clean energy needs to be promoted to achieve environmental sustainability but as part of a large change in lifestyles. She said: “We can only achieve sustainability by promoting clean energy, resource and land use efficiency in urban development, and protecting ecosystems and biodiversity by adopting healthy lifestyles that are in harmony with nature.”

Dr. Carl Middleton also reiterated that clean energy has to go together with more sustainable urbanization and energy efficiency.

“The first step is to manage the energy consumption in urban areas in the context of their hinterlands by encouraging efficiency and demand-side management,” he said.

Countries like China are experimenting with alternative sources of energy such as solar, wind and biomass. According to UNEP’s annual report on global trends in renewable energy, China was the world’s largest investor in renewable energy in 2015, spending a total of $US 103 bn or 36% of the world’s total.

China’s southernmost Yunnan province has earmarked ten low-carbon projects for its “low-carbon life initiative”.

“Awareness about the low-carbon lifestyle and damaging consumption patterns has increased due to the media reports and also China’s National Low-Carbon Day and Energy Conservation Week,” explained Dr. Chen Yihui from the Yunnan Institute of Environmental Sciences.

Ms. Seetala Chantes from Thailand’s Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP), Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment would like to see lifestyle and behavioural changes. She said: “One of the opportunities is to encourage people to reduce their food waste and energy consumption.” She said that however getting people to change their behaviour is a major challenge.

Governments need to step in and encourage sustainable lifestyle choices such as in public transport. As part of a presentation on Singapore’s efforts in sustainable development, Ms. Priscilla Tong, Executive (Sustainability), Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, shared the Government of Singapore’s Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015 (SSB 2015) to chart Singapore’s strategies for sustainable growth. Some of the plans under the SSB 2015 include building 1) “Eco-Smart” Endearing Towns that embed smart technology and eco-friendly features in homes to encourage environmentally-friendly habits starting from the home and encouraging 2) A “Car-Lite” Singapore where walking, cycling, and public transport are the choice modes for commuting.

The sustainable energy discussions were part of a panel discussion at the China-ASEAN Environmental Cooperation Forum (CAECF) 2016 titled: Achieving Environmental Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Nanning, China on 10 September 2016.  

The panel was moderated by Dr. Chayanis Krittasudthacheewa, SEI Asia Deputy Director and SUMERNET Programme Manager. The panel co-organisers were the China-ASEAN Environmental Cooperation Centre (CAEC) and Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)/Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET).