Southeast Asia’s energy transition needs not only to be accelerated in terms of technology deployments but also to be processed and accomplished justly. Doing so requires hinging the region’s energy transition plans and activities to the distributive, recognition, procedural, and restorative tenets of justice.
The transition towards the greater use of renewable energy in Southeast Asia, both in terms of new capacity and replacement of extant fossil fuel assets, is already underway but needs speeding up. At the same time that these opportunities beckon, engineering, policy, and social challenges have to be hurdled. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional group comprising ten member countries, has a regional understanding that the transition to renewables must happen within this decade. Serious work to translate this vision into reality, however, remains missing, especially in ensuring that these changes in energy systems occur sustainably and justly. This is particularly crucial given that most Southeast Asian governments, such as Indonesia, plan to continue exploiting dirty fuels in their post-pandemic recovery plans. In this piece, I outline the key challenges and opportunities for pursuing a just energy transition in this region.
Southeast Asia’s shift to renewables must occur at an unprecedented rate and scale. This transition necessitates not only changes in electricity-generating technology and systems but also critical social, behavioural, financial, and institutional changes. This is more especially needed if the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals are to be met. A just transition framework fulfils the twin normative aims of climate action and sustainable development for all while ensuring that social inequities and deprivations are not exacerbated.
A just energy transition framework helps to achieve this goal by putting vulnerable communities and affected workers in Southeast Asia at the forefront of the energy transition debate.
There will be trade-offs in terms of, for example, prioritising the transition to renewables over other crucial development aims such as improved public health, as this world region transitions its energy systems. Possibilities and problems will manifest disproportionately on the individual, home, community, provincial, and national levels. Because stakeholders prioritise different challenges, a just energy transition framework must consider multiple points of view.
In Southeast Asia, these stakeholders include government agencies involved in developing energy and climate policies, related international commitments, financial resource mobilisation, and energy transition implementation. Local government units are also crucial transition actors, as seen in the Quezon City in the Philippines, where some public schools have been solarised. Additionally, formal and informal energy industry workers and their employers, marginalised communities such as the urban poor and indigenous peoples, and unelectrified off-grid communities, such as those found in islands and remote places, comprise key transition stakeholders. Suppliers, installers, and funders are also crucial in this actor landscape.
One significant storyline in a just energy transition is the moral imperative of leaving no one behind, even those who may be disadvantaged during the transition, which effectively asks for informed decision-making. Engaged decision-making is thus a critical feature of a people-centred just energy transition.
Including this storyline in the transition agenda begins with identifying non-government stakeholders, particularly vulnerable communities, such as indigenous peoples, to facilitate stakeholder discussions and cocreate appropriate and just transition plans. Coproducing equitable energy transition methods begins with identifying stakeholders’ context-specific social and equity requirements and ways to satisfy them. Following the identification of needs, a priority list to address them, including their respective timescales, is created.
A community in Kaeng Krachan National Park in the Thailand-Myanmar border provides an example of an effective use of public engagement in local transition. In my research work in this community (Delina 2018), I found how ordinary citizens can engage in the transition, while closing their energy poverty, transforming their households and neighbourhoods in living laboratories for energy transition, for example by upgrading a household-scale energy system through a plastic biogas digester using domestic feedstock for cooking fuel.
So far, most of the just transition discourse and measures have focused on industrialised countries. Little work has been conducted to investigate how a just energy transition can be implemented and achieved in developing nations, including those in Southeast Asia. While most existing examples are on the local level, work at the national scale remains slow. Some regionally specific situations and aspects are missing from the existing energy transition frameworks. These circumstances can be investigated with the four tenets of energy justice: distribution, recognition, procedural, and restorative justice.
The first tenet, distribution justice, asks: “Where are the injustices?” It needs a fair allocation of the costs and benefits of energy systems among all members of society. This also includes the technologies’ locations and those who may have access to their outputs. Distributional justice takes into account the unequal distribution of responsibilities in the allocation of these costs and benefits. In terms of energy use, energy poverty has revealed an uneven cost distribution in terms of inexpensive, dependable, and modern access to energy services.
Few research and advocacy projects have been conducted in Southeast Asia on how a just energy transition can improve or hurt the lives of vulnerable individuals and groups. The lack of access to reliable (24/7 available), modern (e.g. electricity and cleaner cooking fuels), and affordable energy services constitutes energy poverty. Most of Southeast Asia’s energy-insecure people and communities live off-grid, in rural or island regions. Energy poverty exacerbates people’s vulnerabilities during and after strong typhoons in typhoon-prone island areas. In the Philippines, for example, there remains households and communities in islands that do not have access to modern forms of energy, particularly electricity.
Many low-income households in urban areas would, at present, get power from the grid indirectly by tapping into a neighbour’s meter. With distributed solar energy directly installed in their homes, these households could, over the long run, save money on electricity costs.
Distributional justice also addresses the impacts of temporal fluctuations of past and present energy choices on future generations, particularly fossil fuel assets. Another missing component when focusing on Southeast Asia’s energy transition is how fossil fuel systems’ responsibilities, benefits, and costs might be appropriately divided across society.
As fossil fuels and their combustion systems are phased out in the energy transition, little is known about how households and communities whose livelihoods are heavily reliant on coal mining and combustion for electricity may transition to more sustainable and secure livelihoods. There are currently no strategies to assist coal communities in Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
The second pillar of energy justice, recognition justice, inquires who is overlooked. Many parts of Southeast Asian societies would suffer unfairly due to the energy system’s allocation of inequities. Misrecognition can be classified into three types: cultural dominance, non-recognition, and disrespect.
Indigenous peoples, for example, may not enjoy as many benefits from renewable energy projects built on their territories as other users. My study of hydropower development in the Philippine Cordillera suggests a continuing contest between the rights of indigenous peoples to their resources and the version of development foregrounded on extraction (Delina, 2020). While hydropower is considered renewable, the question of whether it is a sustainable source of modern energy persists, especially when it involves constructing large dams that have impacts on river-based communities and the biodiversity of the river systems.
Another example is the failure to recognise the gendered dimensions of energy systems (Abunales and Goelnitz 2021). Male renewable energy engineers, for example outnumber their female counterparts. The gendering of the engineering profession is a crucial aspect of recognition justice. Wives and mothers are often the decision-makers in the family; however, little is known about how the energy shift will affect men and women differently. Research to address this knowledge gap remains absent. Women’s perceptions of the benefits and drawbacks of the energy transition are likewise less well researched (Cortina 2022).
Knowing these conditions is critical for recognition justice, which institutionalises a larger perspective on who may be disadvantaged by the energy transition while also recognising the specific needs of these particular socioeconomic groups. Failure to recognise not only results in injustice, but also the loss of potentially helpful information, values, and stories that these communities possess and may offer to achieve a just energy transition.
The third tenet of energy justice, procedural justice, inquires whether there is a fair process. Procedural justice necessitates both formal and informal modes of participation in policy-based decision-making that account for the full acknowledgement of individuals affected, alternative locations and methods, and involvement in producing a more equitable outcome.
Because local knowledge is a vital motivator for engaging affected people, leveraging it and their real-world experiences is critical in just energy transition (Ramos Castillo and McLean 2012). During my fieldwork in Thailand, I have witnessed how citizens could develop their agency in energy decision-making through communal deliberations on what matters most to them (Delina 2018) but little is known about how communities in other parts of Southeast Asia envision their potential roles in determining their future energy systems.
The energy transition requires institutional changes. These adjustments include engaging multi-level stakeholders across a wide range of agencies, developing knowledge capacity, and reducing impediments to effective information exchange, including opening up opportunities for policy complementarity among government agencies. We still lack mechanisms to allow interagency work on energy transition.
Restorative justice, the fourth tenet of energy justice, investigates how negatively harmed people can be adequately compensated. Despite their almost negligible previous emissions contributions, poorer nations and people are often the victims of the worst effects of climate change. Restorative justice necessitates that historical high-emitting countries fund adaptation, loss and damage, and energy transition in developing countries. The inability or unwillingness of rich nations and polluting businesses to transfer international cash and technology to developing Southeast Asian countries for these purposes demonstrates an ongoing injustice.
Host communities should receive proper benefits and remuneration as renewable energy technology and systems are deployed in their places. Those who stand to lose their jobs in the fossil fuel sector should also be provided with social security. We know very little about how coal-dominated Southeast Asian local economies, for example, see the energy transition and its implications for their livelihoods, and little work has been done to advocate for them.
In closing, a just energy transition in Southeast Asia encompasses access to engineering solutions and social and policy changes that nod to recognition, distribution, procedural, and restorative justice. Energy transition opens up opportunities for accelerating climate mitigation, ensuring Southeast Asian countries contribute to the goals of the Paris Agreement. A just energy transition also bears on new social transformations, including an opportunity for inclusive decision-making that brings front and centre the needs of historically marginalised sectors of Southeast Asian societies, particularly women and indigenous peoples. A just energy transition in this world region, thus, is a worthy aspiration.
*This article is a part of Perspectives Asia #11: Transitions
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.