Post COP22, how is Myanmar doing on climate change measures?


Problem of droughts - A boy carries buckets to collect drinking water at Sapa village, in the outskirts of Mandalay, Myanmar, 23 February 2016. Photo: Hein Htet/EPA

Problem of droughts - A boy carries buckets to collect drinking water at Sapa village, in the outskirts of Mandalay, Myanmar, 23 February 2016. Photo: Hein Htet/EPA

Myanmar communities, especially in rural areas, have stood against nearby industrial sites when they threaten their way of life. It remains unclear, however, just how much influence the government is willing to grant these affected groups.

Since Myanmar’s Environmental Impact Assessment(EIA) law was passed, international NGOs have started to train concerned citizens in participating in environmental discourse. Pollution and social impacts of development, such as resettlement and the rights of indigenous peoples, remain the main complaints of affected groups.

Myanmar sent a delegation of 15 members to Marrakech in December for the COP22, the second meeting of its kind. Myanmar is one of 174 nations to sign the historic Paris Agreements last year, the first coordinated international effort to address climate change.

Myanmar has a particularly strong interest in global reduction of carbon emissions and investment in renewable energy. According to the NGO German Watch, Myanmar is the second-most vulnerable nation to the impacts of climate change. Neighbouring Bangladesh was ranked number one.  

German Watch’s index is based on the ability of governments to adapt and mitigate to the already changing climate. ‘Adaptation’ refers to efforts on working around the impacts of climate change (i.e floodwalls and other infrastructure). ‘Mitigation’ refers to lessening causes of climate change, mainly by curbing emission. 

“The interest in dealing with climate change is there, just not the knowledge and skills to implement projects that would adapt and mitigate these effects,” says Clemence Bourlette, former Coordinator at Green Lotus. 

Green Lotus is a French NGO that focuses on conveying environmental challenges to politicians and the business communities throughout Asia, including Myanmar. With the help of UN and EU funding, Myanmar lawmakers have begun to be trained in climate change awareness. 

Any change in attitude is a dramatic shift since the years of military dictatorship. Before 2011, the government did not consider the environmental damage, let alone the carbon footprint, before starting an infrastructure project. This began to change after Thein Sein’s government took power.

The EIA procedure, passed in 2015, marks the beginning of a legal system resembling something close to international environmental standards. Investors are mandated under the law to research and publicise the predicted effects of their construction project before building can begin. “National, regional and global climate change conditions” is one of the factors to be considered in the law. 

“The EIA is a positive step, now the challenge is making sure that everyone understands the assessments, then help everyone follow them even if it is difficult,” says Bourlette.

Enforcement of the results of EIAs is far from a guarantee. Under the law, assessments are conducted by the project investors themselves. Failure to report the potential environmental problems can result in a maximum fine of US$5,000. 

The fee has yet to be levied, but raising the amount may be necessary as Myanmar develops further. China recently increased their fine up to 5 percent of total project costs, an effort to target large-scale builders who pose the biggest threat to environmental conservation.

Public Participation 

The uniquely severe pollution problem in China is partially due to the country’s limitations on democracy. China has had an EIA process for decades, but it is routinely criticised for lacking 
‘public participation’ - a broad term referring to the involvement of nearby communities in infrastructure decisions. 

Barriers on media outlets and relevant NGOs have prevented Chinese citizens from obtaining information. Social media has only recently provided a platform for spreading awareness on pollution. 

“One way to get around the inadequacies of government agencies is to allow citizens to bring their own actions in enforcing the law. But disputes do not arrive in courts by themselves; it greatly depends on the will of individuals to actively defend their rights,” wrote Jessica Wu in the LEAD Journal in a 2008 report

Myanmar communities, especially in rural areas, have stood against nearby industrial sites when they threaten their way of life. It remains unclear, however, just how much influence the government is willing to grant these affected groups. 

Opposition to the Myitsone dam and the Letpadaung copper mine are examples of how the public can participate in the EIA process. But in the case of the Letpadaung, protesters were met with violence from local authorities. Extensive permitting requirements in order to legally stage a protest has limited the legitimacy of public participation in environmental discussions. 

“The government should recognise that local voices are essential to an open society, whether in criticising new laws or the state’s use of natural resources,” commented Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch Asia, in a 2012 report.

Wanbao, the mining company behind Letpadaung, released an environmental impact assessment in 2015 despite it not being required at the time. Whether Wanbao actually considered the ‘serious concerns’, which included water pollution and massive resettlement, of affected residents, is another story, says Vicky Bowman from the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business.

Refocusing on Climate

Since Myanmar’s EIA law was passed, international NGOs have started to train concerned citizens in participating in environmental discourse. Pollution and social impacts of development, such as resettlement and the rights of indigenous peoples, remain the main complaints of affected groups. While greenhouse gas emissions are not typically cited, there is growing awareness of climate change. 

“In Myanmar, the environment is linked to the culture. Natural resources are a part of national identity, so citizens tend to care, especially farmers who already know about the effects of climate change,” says Bourlette

Greenway is a local startup, supported by the Green Lotus, that helps connect Myanmar farmers with experts in agriculture and other related fields. They recently launched a phone application called Greenovator that aims at communicating the threat of climate change to rural Myanmar and how to mitigate its effects. 

Through their partnership with Green Lotus, Greenway has been able to connect with lawmakers and civil society leaders at sustainability workshops in NayPyi Taw. 

“Farmers have been dealing with low water levels and poor soil that comes from climate change, they don’t have the knowledge about what that means, but they see the effects,” says Thein Soe Min, one of the founders of Greenway. 

"Climate change should not only be an issue for professors and scientists," says Thein Soe Min, "These meetings help us build a coalition of environmentalists and regular workers."

Future policy

While the implications of Donald Trump as US president loomed over the COP22 event in Marrakesh, the potential of solar power emerged as a highlight of the conference. The International Solar Alliance was signed by 15 tropic nations committed to affordable renewable energy for their populations. Despite being the second most vulnerable nation to climate change, Myanmar did not join the UN body. Bangladesh did, however.  

A pivot towards renewable energy generally seems like a distant reality for Myanmar. The country’s Energy Master Plan, drafted last year, sets the goal of only 1% of national energy to be sourced from renewables by 2030. With complete electrification of the country being the priority, coal and oil are still very much part of Myanmar’s future. 

Despite these modest national ambitions, Myanmar is an obvious candidate for solar power. Solar panel manufacturing, however, is non-existent in the country, with all panels currently imported. A Chinese company was recently contracted to build a solar power plant in Minbu, Magwe Division. The construction is being supervised by the Ministry of Electric Power. In the past, the Ministry of Agriculture oversaw projects concerning renewable energy. 

“Any consolidation of the Ministry of Energy, Electric Power and yes, Agriculture is helpful for the solar industry to grow in Myanmar,” says Bourlette, “People in government are open-minded to sustainability, the more resources are focused the greater chance of seeing actual results.”

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