Energy superpower Australia looks to ASEAN in green push

Bea Cupin

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Energy superpower Australia looks to ASEAN in green push

ENERGY MINISTER. Chris Bowen, Australia's Minister for Climate Change and Energy, speaks to ASEAN journalists during a visit to Parliament House on February 7, 2024.

Bea Cupin/Rappler

Canberra sees its being a 'fossil fuel economy' as a 'unique perspective' in the global conversation on climate change

CANBERRA, Australia – In carving out its place as a “superpower” in renewable energy, Australia is looking to its nearby neighbors, countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – as partners, possible customers, or investors in its flourishing renewable energy industry.

Australia intends to hit net zero emissions by 2050. Several ASEAN countries, except the Philippines, have pledged to be net zero or carbon neutral by 2050 or in 2060 in the case of Indonesia.

Officials in Canberra see the region as a market for the renewable energy it produces, as it works towards decarbonization.

“We do have an ambition to make Australia a renewable energy superpower. And that’s partly because while our domestic decarbonization is important… our biggest contribution is helping other countries decarbonize by sharing our green hydrogen, most particularly, or our renewable energy in other forms. And really, that means sending renewable energy to countries in our region,” explained Chris Bowen, Australia’s Minister for Climate Change and Energy, in a conversation with journalists from ASEAN countries during a visit to Parliament House.

The shift to renewables

Eyeing the bloc as a market and partner for the shift to more renewable forms of energy is tied with Australia’s desire to up its trade ties with ASEAN. In 2022, ASEAN was Australia’s second biggest trading partner with over AUD178 billion of two-way trade, placing it second only to China.

But the gap between first and second is dramatic – AUD 178 billion of two-way trade with ASEAN pales in comparison with the AUD300 billion in two-way trade with China in 2022.

Minister for Trade and Tourism Don Farrel puts it simply: “We are part of the region. Yep. But we don’t do enough trade. We don’t do enough trade.”

But why would Australia want to up trade with ASEAN so badly?

It’s because they want to and, well, they have no choice.

Experts, including Australia’s Special Envoy for Southeast Asia Nicholas Moore, see Southeast Asia as the “center for global growth.” And Moore notes in his economic strategy report that the transition to renewable energy “is both the most significant challenge and an opportunity” for the bloc and Australia.

The report, Invested: Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040, was commissioned by the government and released in late 2023, months ahead of the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit that Melbourne is hosting in March 2024.

The International Energy Agency estimates that Southeast Asia’s energy demands will double by 2050, according to its Southeast Asia Energy Outlook released in 2022. The same report predicts demand for renewable energy in the region to increase dramatically by 2050 – especially if countries want to hit Paris Agreement targets.

“Southeast Asia is going through massive economic growth, which is a wonderful thing, but economic growth equals energy demand growth,” said Bowen.

Preparing the industry

But to imagine Australia as a renewable energy superpower also means preparing its thriving coal industry for changes in decades to come.

It’s here that Bowen thinks Australia could be a partner in helping ASEAN – a bloc whose members are at very different places in terms of the transition to renewables.

Bowen argued his country’s status as a “fossil fuel economy” adds credibility to the role it wants to play in guiding the region – or even the world’s shift to addressing and mitigating the consequences of climate change.

“It gives us a unique perspective,” he said.

The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), an industry association, says over AUD 112.8 billion of coal was exported from Australia in 2022. The industry estimates it employs over 46,000 people in 2022 and could employ even more – some 67,500 by 2025.

Over 47% of Australia’s electric generation is from coal, according to the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, and just over 32% of electricity generation came from renewable sources of energy, according to the same department’s 2022 report.

As a country with regions that rely on coal mining, Bowen said it’s important for the government to prepare the industry for the inevitable transition to renewable energy.

“80% of our trading partners are committed to net zero…. We can be honest about that with coal mining communities or dishonest about it. We should be honest and say, listen, people are buying coal now, but they’re not going to be buying coal in 30 years’ time. So we need to get you ready,” he said.

“That means creating new jobs now, hydrogen jobs, renewable energy jobs now, so you’re ready. And finally, we’ll always be a mining country. We’ll just be mining different things,” he added.

Lithium – a key ingredient in the creation of batteries – is plentiful in Australia.

The country is also home to many critical minerals, or key components to the creation of batteries. The development of the critical minerals sector is another thrust of many ASEAN countries, including the Philippines.

Towards the end of our conversation, Bowen, surrounded by headlines announcing the major wins of the Australian Labor Party, which he is part of, as well as of other ideologically similar parties across the Global North, turns introspective.

“We’ve always exported energy. We always will. [It’s just] the type of energy [that] will change,” he said.

He looks back and points out just how difficult conversations talking about the shift to renewables was just 10 years ago.

“The world’s changed so much. Anybody whose head’s on the line understands that, including in the regions where they rely on traditional jobs. They’re smart people. They see the world markets, they see the way the world’s moving,” he said. –

This reporter visited Australia upon the invitation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for an International Media Visit that saw journalists from all over Southeast Asia visit Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney, ahead of the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit. The contents and views expressed by the writer are all her own.

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.