Environmental Protection in the Post-2015 ASEAN Economic Community

Smog in Singapur: das Gleichgewicht zwischen Umweltschutz und Wirtschaftswachstum ist noch nicht gefunden

Although ASEAN’s efforts to balance economic growth and environmental sustainability are growing, they are often overshadowed by the group’s economic integration agenda.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will soon launch its most ambitious economic integration project – the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Despite the economic slowdown predicted for the region this year, the economic fundamentals of ASEAN as a whole remain robust, driven largely by its vast population, combined gross domestic product growth, as well as the strong presence of middle-class consumers. With around 60 per cent of its population under the age of 35, ASEAN’s demographic dividends are expected to create significant economic benefits for the region.

Although much attention has been given to the AEC and the potential economic benefits that it will offer to the region, questions concerning how ASEAN’s post-2015 potential economic boom would affect environmental and ecological protection in the region have been somewhat sidelined. This is not to say that ASEAN is doing nothing to protect its vast natural resources and unique ecosystems. Although ASEAN’s efforts to balance economic growth and environmental sustainability are growing in quantity and quality, they are often overshadowed by the group’s economic integration agenda.

ASEAN’s environmental protection initiatives so far

Over the years, ASEAN has indeed deepened its cooperation in the area of environmental protection. Whereas the initial phase of the group’s environmental cooperation – marked by the launching of the ASEAN Environmental Programme I (1977) and II (1982), which saw the establishment of conservation and protected areas at the national level and a network of ASEAN national heritage parks and nature reserves – the second phase of the association’s environmental cooperation, which took place throughout the 1990s, was characterised by the strengthening of institution-building process, whereby activities and meetings in diverse environmental issues were carried out.[1]

Subsequently, formalism and regional community-building marked the third phase of ASEAN’s environmental cooperation (from the late 1990s onward). In addition to the Strategic Action Plan on Environment (1999–2004) – which called for the strengthening of regional environmental standards and the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity Conservation in 1999 in the Philippines – the association also launched its Regional Action Plan for Environmentally Sound and Sustainable Development (2001–2005), which was adopted at the Ministerial Conference of Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific on Environment and Development in Asia and the Asia-Pacific.[2]

More recently, however, ASEAN’s environmental work foci has been guided by the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) Blueprint (2009–2015), with priorities being given to a range of issues: global environmental issues (including the strengthening and enhancement of the region’s commitments to relevant multilateral environmental agreements); the management and prevention of transboundary pollution; public awareness; the promotion of environmentally sound technology; environmental policies and databases harmonisation; improvement of living standards in urban areas; sustainable use and management of marine environments, natural resources, and freshwater resources; climate change; and sustainable forest management.[3]

Transboundary haze pollution is perhaps one of the most controversial issues pertaining to ASEAN’s environmental cooperation. Signed and put into force in 2002 and 2003, it took Indonesia – undoubtedly the largest contributor to the region’s haze pollution – 12 years to have the agreement finally ratified. Addressing transboundary haze pollution is, indeed, complicated. Not only that, it is not only often difficult to understand what factors are causing the problem, but it is also difficult to determine how these factors affect each other. It has been widely understood, however, that economic activities – particularly slash-and-burn agriculture techniques carried out by both small-scale farmers and large logging companies and plantations alike – are the main cause of massive fires that affect not only Indonesia’s immediate neighbours, but also some in mainland Southeast Asia.[4]

Although efforts to consolidate internal environmental-related cooperation are ongoing, ASEAN has also been active in enhancing environmental cooperation with its strategic external partners. In addition to annual meetings among environment ministers from the ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea), which have been taking place since 2002, ASEAN is also a party to the East Asia Summit Environment Ministers Meeting, which has been ongoing since 2008. These regular meetings were carried out following the Singapore Declaration on Climate Change, Energy and the Environment, issued at the 3rd East Asia Summit in 2007.[5]

Bilaterally, ASEAN also pursues extensive environmental collaboration with its Dialogue Partners. In its partnership with China, for instance, the two sides adopted the China-ASEAN Strategy on Environmental Protection Cooperation in 2009. This strategy supposedly serves as long-term guidance on how cooperation in the area of environmental cooperation could be deepened between the two sides. Similarly, ASEAN’s external cooperation with the European Union on environmental cooperation has been ongoing for quite some time now. More recently, both sides launched the “SUSTAIN EU-ASEAN” project, which aims at promoting research and innovation initiatives in areas such as climate change, resource efficiency, and raw materials.[6] By and large, support from external partners has been critical in promoting and facilitating ASEAN’s internal cooperation in the area of environmental protection.

Economic integration and environmental nexus in ASEAN

Despite the deepening of its economic integration and environment cooperation, reconciling economic growth and environmental protection in ASEAN remains far from reality.  Issues pertaining to environmental protection are very much absent in the existing AEC Blueprint. The same also applies to the ASCC Blueprint’s environmental section, in which it fails to make clear linkages with initiatives undertaken in the association’s economic pillar of cooperation.

Notwithstanding the lack of clear linkages between ASEAN’s economic integration initiatives and its efforts to protect the region’s environment, environmental protection is increasingly being taken as an important consideration in ASEAN’s trade and investment deliberations. Bilateral economic cooperation between the association and China deserves special attention in this regard. Although the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement – as in most ASEAN-led free trade agreements – does not contain specific provisions about environmental provisions. Growing concerns about potential negative impacts on environmental protection in many ASEAN member countries have triggered a series of initiatives and agreements to address environmental sustainability. In fact, existing pro-environment agreements, seminars, and workshop – and, particularly, the establishment of the China-ASEAN Environmental Cooperation Centre in Beijing – have all contributed to awareness-raising on the necessity to balance trade growth and environmental protection.[7]

Environmental protection and the AEC in post-2015 ASEAN

So, where is ASEAN heading with regard to environmental sustainability beyond the launching of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of this year? What about its effort to strengthen the link between environmental protection and its AEC? Following the launching of the 2013 Bandar Seri Begawan Declaration on the ASEAN Community’s Post-2015 Vision during the 23rd ASEAN Summit, a High-Level Task Force was set up with the mandates of developing and formulating a vision to guide the evolution of ASEAN over the next 10 years. The High-Level Task Force is expected to come up with the “ASEAN Community Vision 2025”, which is to be officially launched at the 27th ASEAN Summit later this year.

In addition to the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, ASEAN also plans to develop specific blueprints for each of the pillars of its cooperation (also referred to as “attendant documents”). In relation to the ASCC, the pillar under which environment-related issues are covered, the document has been tentatively titled “ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community 2025” (ASCC 2025 Blueprint), whereas matters related to economic integration issues are covered under the “ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) 2025” document. Apparently, the development of these documents takes into account special studies carried out by the region’s leading policy think-tanks, including the Jakarta-based Economic Research Institute for ASEA and East Asia, and the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Although the finalisation of the above-mentioned documents is ongoing, what can be gathered to date on these two documents from ASEAN officials and stakeholders – including studies conducted by the above-mentioned policy think-tanks – gives a rather mixed view on how the association intends to link-up its environmental priorities and its AEC. As in the case with previous ASEAN practices, environmental sustainability will be covered under the ASCC 2025 document. At the time of writing, it is understood that the issue is likely to fall under a broad umbrella of “sustainability”. Unlike the existing ASCC Blueprint, which includes diverse environmental-related action lines, the “sustainability” component under the ASCC 2025 document highlights four broad measures, including: (1) conservation and sustainable management of ecosystems’ biodiversity and natural resources; (2) environmentally sustainably cities; (3) sustainable climate; and (4) sustainable consumption and production.

It is unclear, however, whether a relatively small number of “sustainable” action lines in the ASCC 2025 document has to do with the successful implementation of the existing ASCC Blueprint, or whether it reflects the intention of ASEAN to have more realistic goals towards achieving its environmental sustainability objectives. What is clear is that, as of June 2015, only 10 action lines in the existing ASCC Blueprint were reported to have been completed, whereas the remaining 328 action lines remained “ongoing”, and one action line was still “pending”.[8] By and large, action lines that are listed in the existing environment sustainability objectives of the ASCC Blueprint appear to be making their appearance again in the new ASCC 2025, which suggests that the latter serves as a continuation of the former.

As far as the ASCC-AEC nexus is concerned, the “sustainability” action line of the ASCC 2025 draft makes virtually no mention of it whatsoever. Having said that, the document makes some references to environment-related issues that are closely linked with economic activities. Under the action line of “conservation and sustainable management of ecosystems biodiversity and natural resources”, for instance, the document states the intention of ASEAN to enhance policy and capacity development, as well as the management of marine, biodiversity, land, energy, and water resources. The same action line also speaks about the need for the group to adopt good management practices and strengthen policies relating to transboundary environmental challenges, including transboundary environmental pollution. It is also understood that the Philippines has been pushing for the incorporation of illegal trade of wildlife as part of ASEAN’s understanding on such transboundary environmental challenges.

Moreover, one of the strategic measures under the “sustainable climate” action line also discusses the use of multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral approaches in facilitating the development of a comprehensive and coherent response to climate change challenges. Last but not least is the promotion of sustainable consumption and production. The issue, which is absent in the existing ASCC Blueprint, intends to promote the adoption of sustainable lifestyles and the incorporation of sustainable consumption and production into the future conduct of corporate social responsibility efforts in the region.

A more direct reference made to the linkages between the AEC and environmental considerations is given in the AEC 2025 draft. Indeed, the AEC 2025 Blueprint, which is being developed as a continuation of the existing AEC Blueprint, is expected to contain five interrelated and mutually reinforcing pillars, including: (1) a highly integrated and cohesive economy; (2) competitive, innovative, and dynamic ASEAN; (3) enhancing economic connectivity and sectoral integration; (4) resilient, inclusive, and people-oriented, people-centred ASEAN; and (5) a global ASEAN.

Of relevance to our discussion is the second pillar, where the issue of sustainable economic development is to be given special recognition as one of the components capable of increasing ASEAN’s economic productivity and competitiveness. Among some of the actions lines expected to be included under this pillar is “sustainable economic development”, which is increasingly being viewed by many ASEAN policy-makers and stakeholders alike as an integral part of the region’s growth strategy. More specifically, this action is also likely to put emphasis on the promotion of a sustainable growth agenda that should encourage countries in the region to develop policies that are facilitative towards the promotion of renewable energy, low-carbon technologies, as well as environmentally-friendly infrastructure development.

The strong likelihood of “sustainable development”-related issues being incorporated into the final draft of the AEC 2025 is certainly encouraging. The key challenge moving forward is, of course, effective enforcement. Indeed, given the persistent problems of effective administration plaguing most ASEAN countries, fulfilment of international obligations, such as AEC and ASCC 2025 Vision, would be extremely challenging. Accordingly, the development of adequate measures to review progress of these visions as well as extensive participation of diverse ASEAN stakeholders in the process are required if these visions are to be realised a decade from now.

This article was published in our dossier "Understanding Southeast Asia".


[1] P. Nguitragool, Environmental Cooperation in Southeast Asia: ASEAN’s Regime for Transboundary Haze Pollution (Oxon: Routledge, 2011).

[2] L. Elliot, L., ASEAN and Environmental Cooperation: Norms, Interests and Identity, Pacific Review 16:1 (2003): 29–52.

[3] For further detail on the content of the ASCC Blueprint, see ASEAN Secretariat, Roadmap for an ASEAN Community, 2009–2015 (Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat, 2009).

[4] D. B. Jerger, Indonesia’s Role in Realizing the Goals of ASEAN’s Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, Sustainable Development Law and Policy 14:1 (2014): 35–74, esp. 36.

[5] Further detail on these initiatives is available from the official website of the International Environmental Cooperation toward Sustainable Development: https://www.env.go.jp/earth/coop/coop/english/index.html.

[6] Further detail concerning the SUSTAIN EU-ASEAN project is available at the official website of the project: http://www.sustain-eu-asean.eu/.

[7] Jörn Dosch, Reconciling Trade and Environmental Protection in ASEAN-China: More than Political Window Dressing?, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 30:2 (2011): 7–29, esp. 12.

[8] “Ongoing” refers to action lines that consist of projects and initiatives both completed and ongoing, and/or whose objectives have not been fully met by the projects, despite their completion status. Meanwhile, “completed” here refers to action lines whose one or more objectives have been fully met.