April 4, 2021, 03.32 AM
A coal mine in East Kalimantan province KOMPAS/M SUPRIHADIA coal mine in East Kalimantan province

"The EU should be more proactive in trying to help Southeast Asian states wean themselves off of coal-fired plants," said Kurlantzick. "Of course, this is on the Southeast Asian states as well, and also on China, which is essentially exporting coal-fired plants," he added.

Big money in dirty energy

Indeed, if the EU takes a strong forceful stance on coal consumption in the region, it could spark anger from the main exporters of the commodity, China, India and Australia.
Brussels' climate change policy in the region has already been met with resistance.

Indonesia last year initiated proceedings at the World Trade Organization against the EU's phased ban on palm-oil imports. Brussels contends the ban is to protect the environment, but Indonesia, the world's largest palm oil producer, says it is mere protectionism.

Malaysia, the world’s second-largest palm oil producer, has vowed to stand with Jakarta in its battle against the EU.

In the latest State of Southeast Asian survey, published in February by Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, some 43% of respondents said they trusted the EU because of its stance on the environment, human rights, and climate change.

However, 15.1% said they distrusted the EU for this reason, believing its environmental policy could threaten their country's interests and sovereignty.

The other problem for the EU is that it risks accusations of hypocrisy if it takes too forceful a stance on coal-fired energy production in Southeast Asia.

"It must show leadership by example. It cannot pressure countries in Southeast Asia to shift away from coal when it is struggling to do the same in some countries in the EU," said Nesadurai, from Climate Action Network Southeast Asia.

Production and consumption of coal have dropped massively in the EU in recent decades. Hard coal consumption fell from 300 million tons in 1999 to 176 million tons in 2019, roughly half of the Southeast Asian coal consumption rate that year, according to EU data.

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But Poland and the Czech Republic remain dependent on coal-fired energy production, although the former contributed to almost 95% of the EU’s total hard coal production by 2019.

And, according to the International Energy Agency, Southeast Asia and Europe each accounted for around 11% of the world’s thermal coal imports in 2019.

"I think Southeast Asian countries would welcome [more] EU aid," said Kurlantzick. "But I don't know that they are going to change their reliance on coal fired plants."

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