Over the past two years, from its office in Vietnam, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung has been hard at work in setting up new national and regional working lines in Asia on climate change, energy, and the environment, at a time of unprecedented challenges, looking at the current ecological crisis and increasing social injustice worldwide.
“We started with a scoping exercise on a national level in Vietnam,” says Sonja Schirmbeck, the former regional coordinator for Climate Change, Energy, and the Environment in Asia, who has been setting up the foundations for this work from her desk in Hanoi. “We checked which topics in this broad field are most suitable for the work of a social-democratic political foundation, and which local partners we could work with.”
In May, the climate change work by FES in Asia resumes with a new coordinator at the wheel.
“We’ll scale up our efforts in the field of climate and energy policy at a regional level and join forces to tackle the challenges related to a socio-ecological transformation in Asia,” says Yvonne Blos, the incoming successor. She joins the team in Asia from Berlin, where she worked on education policy at the FES headquarters, following an international career path as a consultant for EU projects on good governance and civil society support in the Middle East and North Africa.
Yvonne and Sonja recently met in Vietnam for a handover and we used this opportunity to ask them about the new climate strategy of FES in Asia, and their own experiences regarding the past, present and future of working with FES.
Sonja, you have coordinated the regional work by FES on climate change in Asia for more than two years now. What has been the focus of the work by FES in Asia in this arena?
Sonja Schirmbeck: We started with a scoping exercise on a national level in Vietnam – checking which topics in this broad field are most suitable for the work of a social-democratic political foundation, and which local partners we could work with. After all, we have a political perspective on many relevant topics, ranging from energy transition to green industrial production, which other actors perceive as purely technical issues. And we only considered working on topics with a social-democratic edge – for example, concentrating on the social and labour dimension of an energy transition. Apart from that, we, as almost all FES projects, set a strong focus on strengthening civil society on the one hand, especially by supporting civil society organisations to influence political decisions, and on raising the capacities of multiplicators, on the other hand, for example, youth organizations or journalists, who can then help to raise the awareness of all citizens.
After having gained experience by working on different topics with a dozen partners in small to large-scale projects, we were ready to take it to the regional level.
A politically diverse and geographically vast region, Asia is quite significant as a region for the global efforts in addressing climate change. Why?
Sonja Schirmbeck: Despite the variety, most Asian countries will be severely affected by climate change. Simply imagine the cities of Shanghai, Saigon, Jakarta, and Manila submerged by a sea-level rise by the end of the century – it’s mindboggling. Six of the 10 most vulnerable countries to climate change are in Asia. At the same time, Asia as a whole today emits 50 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, causing climate change. Therefore, in their own interest, it’s high time for Asia to mitigate, and at the same time, adapt to climate change.
To mitigate climate change, Asia – as all other world regions – needs to undergo a transition towards a low-carbon economy. That includes, first and foremost, a transition of the energy sector towards renewable energies. But the emissions of the transport sector, heavy industry, agriculture, and of households must be taken into account as well. It’s important to highlight that this change should not be seen as a burden, but as an opportunity, especially for emerging economies. For example, many more jobs – even for people without higher education in rural areas – can be created in the renewable energy sector than in a coal-fired or even nuclear power plants.
Looking at Asia’s diverse climate change adaptation needs – which range from melting glaciers in the Himalayas to record droughts in southern Vietnam and to increased typhoons on the Philippines, for example – it’s essential to enhance the capacities of the most vulnerable groups to adapt. Adaptation programmes often exclusively focus on heavy infrastructure development, such as building huge dams, but we also need to invest in people’s brains, not only in concrete, making citizens capable of coping with the inevitable consequences of climate change.
FES recently adopted a new strategy that will shape the future work on climate, energy, and environmental politics in Asia. What is the proposed approach for action?
Sonja Schirmbeck: For our work in Asia, we engage four core concepts to develop and support activities.
First, we foster a social-ecological transformation. Today, it’s impossible to separate ecological from social problems. Those challenges are intertwined, and often have the same root causes. For example, environmental pollution and social injustice have been caused by rapid industrialization processes, which have been driven forward deliberately without social and environmental protection standards – but only looking at higher and higher GDP growth rates. Yet, progressive actors focusing on social and environmental concerns are often working beside or – in the worst case – even against each other. We create alliances between such progressive actors wherever possible.
Second, we promote national and international climate justice. We need to make sure that not only the burdens but also the opportunities arising from climate change mitigation and adaptation are fairly shared between countries that contributed a higher or lower share to climate change. And we have to make sure that international climate funds really reach those most at risk, not only the national ministerial level.
Third, we explore solutions for a just transition, especially in the energy sector. What I mean by just transition can be explained by looking especially at renewable energy and other green technologies. Indeed, they hold the potential to create many new jobs. Yet, we must not forget that many communities and thousands of workers will be affected when we turn away from fossil fuels – closing down coal mines and coal-fired power plants, for example. Looking at the social aspect of this transition, we have to make sure that we address the needs of those that otherwise may have been left high and dry, so to say.
Fourth, we endorse political participation in the field of climate change, energy, and the environment. For a political foundation, inclusive political decision-making processes are a goal in and of themselves. But such participatory processes are also crucial to make sure that environmental strategies and laws don’t only look good on paper, but are rooted in best-practice experience gained on the ground, and really reflect the needs and capacities of all stakeholders that are indispensable for their implementation.
All four concepts reflect our unique approach as a social-democratic political foundation to address concerns that accompany political decisions, knowledge and actions around climate change, energy, and the environment.
What is planned in Vietnam, where a major part of activities related to the new strategy on climate and energy will take place?
Yvonne Blos: We are about to start a new project that I’m really excited about. It’s a project that will deal with a just transition in the Vietnamese coal sector, a challenge that we also face in many industrialized countries such as Germany. The project will be conducted by the Vietnamese NGO Green Innovation and Development. During the first phase, we’ll travel to two different Vietnamese provinces where new coal-fired plants are about to be built. In a subsequent research phase we’ll tackle alternative development pathways in these provinces, e.g. investment in renewable energy and sustainable job opportunities. In a final step, we’ll present the research findings and discuss them with different stakeholders in Vietnam.
I believe that this project will be of interest not just for the Vietnamese context, but also for other, even remote, regions. The challenges countries face when transitioning from fossil-based to renewable energy are quite similar in many countries, including Germany.
Which other Asian countries will contribute to the work and what are the planned activities this year?
Yvonne Blos: The aim of our new approach in the field of climate and energy policy in Asia is to scale up our efforts at a regional level and really join forces to tackle the challenges related to a socio-ecological transformation in Asia. That is why we’ll also start planning more joint activities in Asia on energy and climate change.
As a regional hub, the FES office in Vietnam now supports other offices in Asia to set up and implement their projects in the field of climate change, energy, and the environment – for example, by recommending experts, by coordinating joint projects, or by inviting delegates to the annual international climate negotiations (COPs), and to other important international events. In addition to that, we liaise with regional networks working on climate change and energy.
The most important regional component of our current work are energy country studies in Vietnam, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Thailand, South Korea and Japan. All country studies will focus on the socio-political implications of energy transitions in these countries. Once those studies have been developed by each of the FES offices in the respective countries, we’ll commission a meta-study that combines the findings of each country study. Finally, we plan to discuss the findings and lessons learned from the different cases with relevant stakeholders coming from the eight participating countries at a regional conference in Vietnam in September 2017. What is more, we’ll combine this workshop with an internal training for FES staff in these countries to make sure that we foster comprehensive knowledge on the issue of a global energy transition - both inside and outside FES.
Sonja, you’ll soon leave Vietnam to take up a different post in FES. What does the new job bring and what memories will you take with you?
Sonja Schirmbeck: What I love about FES is that every job brings a lot of new insights. A couple of months ago, I would not have been able to correctly name all the capitals of the countries I will be responsible for as a desk officer in a few months from now. But, looking back at how fast I learned about the Vietnamese context, I’m sure that I’ll grasp the novelties in no time. I’m also really looking forward to learning Russian, which seems like a treat after having to learn Vietnamese.
What I will miss most is certainly my team, and what I’ll remember for a long time is opening a bottle of Champagne with our partners from the non-governmental organisation GreenID after the Vietnamese National Assembly finally scrapped the plans to build nuclear power plants. Although I oversaw many other successful projects, this achievement alone was worth all the work in Vietnam for the past four years.
Of course, it’s hard to leave, because the FES climate team in Asia is, after all, my baby. On the other hand, the baby is able to stand on its own feet now, and ready to take steps towards a regional approach - and has some great helping hands with the team members, including, in future, Yvonne.
Yvonne, you will steer the regional coordination on climate, energy and environment in Asia in the period to come. What are you looking forward to?
Yvonne Blos: Well, to be honest, ever since my internship at the FES office in Uganda in 2011 I have wanted to work for FES overseas. For this reason, heading the climate office now seems kind of like a dream come true.
After focussing on the German political context by working on education policy in one of FES’s national departments for the last two years, I’m now looking forward to a more international working environment again, since I really enjoy working in different cultural contexts.
I’m a newcomer to the debate on energy and climate as well as to South-East Asia. That makes it even more exciting to learn about those new topics that are crucial for the future of our planet, to get to know Vietnam and the region. And last but by no means least – I’m really looking forward to working with such a great team of extremely talented and dedicated colleagues in Vietnam.
By Editorial Team, FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia. For information on climate change work by FES in Asia contact Yvonne Blos, Regional Coordinator for Climate Change in Asia, FES Vietnam Office, yvonne.blos(at)fes-vietnam.org.
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