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Climate danger grows in ‘vulnerable’ Myanmar after military coup | Climate Crisis News

Climate danger grows in ‘vulnerable’ Myanmar after military coup | Climate Crisis News

Climate danger grows in ‘vulnerable’ Myanmar after military coup | Climate Crisis News

Yangon/Taipei – There is increasing concern that Myanmar is at risk of a serious environmental crisis, as the generals who seized power in a coup on February 1 focus on cementing their control and shoring up their position by stepping up lucrative but devastating policies of exploiting the country’s vast natural wealth.

The Global Climate Risk Index ranks Myanmar as one of the most at-risk countries from the climate crisis. Myanmar has suffered devastating floods and landslides in the past, as well as drought. This is exacerbated over decades by uncontrolled deforestation.

The Southeast Asian country has suffered the most weather-related losses over the past 20 years alongside Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Puerto Rico.

But tentative efforts to pursue more renewable energy projects and develop climate resilience under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government have been derailed since the military overthrew her National League for Democracy’s elected administration on February 1, suspending aid programmes and leading to the departure of private investors.

Developers who were awarded a solar power tender last year — totalling more than 1GW or one-third of Myanmar’s current dry season available capacity of 3.1GW — were unable to deliver, partly because of the coup.

In May, the military launched its own solar power tender. However, due to a shortage of bidders, it was forced to extend bidding deadline three more times. The latest deadline expired in mid-October, but no official results were announced.

The difficulties facing solar power companies mirror the larger risk that Myanmar will miss out on climate finance opportunities after the coup.

“There are good investable projects in Myanmar which would build climate resilience such as natural reforestation and renewable energy projects,” said Vicky Bowman, director of Yangon-based Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business and former British ambassador to Myanmar. “But development partners seem frozen since the coup, and private sector investors instinctively now view Myanmar as high risk and look to alternatives in Southeast Asia, even though climate investments there may have as many problems in practice as Myanmar.”

Bowman explained to Al Jazeera that investors should still see the potential to partner with local communities to invest in natural capital, climate resilience, and other areas. “Otherwise the Myanmar people are hit with a double whammy of military rule and international neglect.”

Myanmar’s absence from the world’s top climate negotiations at COP26 in Glasgow this month reflected the country’s coup-induced international isolation, and the ongoing battle for recognition between the coup leaders and the National Unity Government (NUG), the parallel administration including officials from the elected government that was overthrown.

Isolation

The COP26 hosts, UK, removed Armed Forces Chief Min Aung Hlaing from the summit guestlist. Meanwhile, the event organisers, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC), expelled Myanmar military government representatives according to two sources.

Chit Win, the military-appointed chief diplomatic in London who had evicted the removed government’s ambassadorAfter the February 1 coup, they were allowed to temporarily register on the event page along with three associates. They were denied entry and were then removed from the system after a backlash by people in Myanmar.

Al Jazeera has seen copies of both nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — climate action plans and policy commitments — submitted by the NUG and the State Administration Council, as the coup leaders have dubbed their ruling body.

Both NDCs estimate the business-as-usual (BAU) scenario for coal to be about 30 percent of the country’s total power generation, which was what the NLD deputy energy minister Tun Naing reaffirmed in 2019.

According to the NUG, they intend to reduce coal’s share from 33 percent (about 794MW) to between 20 and 11 percent (3620MW) by 2030. The SAC also gave the same figures.

After mass protests, the China-backed Myitsone Dam was canceled 10 years ago [File: Si Thu Mkn/EPA]

But coal’s share of power generation is currently less than 1 percent, 30 times less than the higher-end estimates provided by the NUG and SAC. Sources blamed the discrepancy on efforts by some producers in Myanmar to increase coal use.

“The NLD government’s deputy minister [Tun Naing] at the time was being egged on by Japanese, Chinese and Indian coal interests, which no longer would be interested both for policy reasons and because it’s Myanmar post-coup,” an industry source in Yangon told Al Jazeera.

The NUG said it stuck with the overthrown NLD administration’s NDC for COP26 because they felt it had legitimacy from being drawn up by the government elected by the people, according to two senior officials at the NUG’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation who requested anonymity due to security reasons.

“Considering the legitimacy provided by the Myanmar people to the ousted administration, we [NUG] submitted the NLD government’s NDC to COP26,” said a senior official at the NUG’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.

Another official from the NUG said that they did not have enough time to redraft NDC.

“We have received some comments from Indigenous groups and will take their input into account as we revise the NDC,” the official said when asked about the role of ethnic communities in protecting forests.

NUG Deputy Electricity and Energy Minister Maw Htun Aung acknowledged the criticisms and said that the coal policy would be “reconsidered” and the energy master plan reviewed, although it is currently the SAC rather than the NUG which is in the capital, Naypyidaw.

“It does not make sense to focus on coal power. Even China is eliminating coal financing. We do not plan to scale up coal projects, and will work with ethnic communities to draft an energy policy on a federal level,” Maw Htun Aung told Al Jazeera.

According to government estimates, electricity in Myanmar comes mainly from 20 gas-fired power plants, 62 hydropower facilities, and one coal-fired facility.

Resource exploitation

Analysts and environmental activists fear that the military might increase logging, palm oil plantations, and the use of natural resources like jade. supportedEven under international sanctions, the long-term survival of former military regimes is possible.

Gem sales have been a lucrative business for generals for a long time. Local media reports that a gem fair will be held in Naypyidaw later this month.

According to the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar, Tin Htut Oo, a military-appointed agriculture minister, spoke in November about expanding palm oil plantations. The official paper said “implementations are underway” to make Tanintharyi Region, a major region in southern Myanmar bordering the Andaman Sea and Thailand, “a big oil pot based on palm oil”.

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Mary Callahan, a Myanmar expert at the University of Washington in the United States, says the proposal is “disastrous for fragile ecosystems and endangered species”. According to her, the promotion of palm oil plantations could result in more land confiscation as well as deforestation.

Min Aung Hlaing spoke about hydropower dams several weeks after she seized power and detained Aung San Suu Kyi along with her allies.

Analysts are concerned that foreign investors will withdraw and the military may increase its exploitation of natural resource like timber. This has been a major support for military regimes before the international sanctions. [File: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters]
Myanmar has the world’s richest deposits of jade and the industry is dominated by the military [File: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters]

Fears have been raised that the military might restart the controversial Myitsone Dam in northern Myanmar, which is China-backed. This was Than Shwe’s pet project that was stopped by Thein Sein in 2011. significant public protests. Myitsone has not been mentioned by the generals.

“We are very concerned that the military will fall back on old policies like large-scale hydropower, which could spell disaster for the country’s two major rivers – the Ayeyarwady and Thanlwin – the last two remaining large free-flowing rivers in tropical Asia,” said a senior staff member at an environmental NGO working on Myanmar, who declined to be named for security reasons.

The climate risks are also of concern to ethnic communities living along the coasts, mountains, and borderlands.

“Of course we are worried about climate change. We are working on forest management and climate issues,” said a senior official of an ethnic armed group in northern Myanmar, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. Although most of the territory he controls is mountainous and protected against flooding, other climate-induced catastrophes like cyclones and droughts continue to pose a threat for the local population. His group, long in search of autonomy, has been fighting the armed forces again since the coup.

“Because of the coup and political crisis, it has become more difficult to address environmental challenges. For one, more and more international investors and partners have withdrawn from Burma,” he said. A key reason, he added, is that “the Burmese military leader will rely on natural resources to resolve their finances problem. This junta, as well as successive regimes in previous State Peace and Development Councils, is not the only reason. [SPDC] era.”

The official name of the military government that took power in 1988 was the SPDC.

“Forests in the border areas controlled by ethnic groups are more secure than those in government-held regions,” the staff member from the environmental NGO said. “To help protect these forests, we need neighbouring countries and economic blocs like ASEAN and the EU to be on high alert for illegally-traded timber. Tackling demand is key.”

Still, in his written remarks submitted to COP26, the military-appointed Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Minister Khin Maung Yi pledged to achieve 50 percent net emissions reductions by 2030 “if adequate international assistance is received”.

“Similarly, by 2030, the share of new renewable energy targets (solar, wind) will be increased from 2000MW to 3070MW,” Khin Maung Yi wrote.

On November 24, protestors in Yangon used the three-finger salute to burn a flag and flashed the three-finger salute during an anti-coup demonstration. Ten months after the coup a strong resistance remains to the generals [Stringer/EPA]

But as long as the political crisis continues its downward spiral, neither the foreign assistance nor the energy investments on which the military is banking — with the possible exception of China — is likely to be forthcoming, according to diplomats and investors in Yangon.

Experts say environmental exploitation risks pushing more into poverty and increasing food insecurity, but as the generals focus on crushing any resistance to their rule, few have any confidence they will have the will to address Myanmar’s impending climate nightmare.



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