The road to sustainable energy in the Asia-Pacific region

Among emerging economies in the Asia-Pacific region, progress on the energy transition remains slow – but some countries, such as Vietnam, have powered ahead
Vietnamese street market with paper lanterns

The energy sector – the energy we use to power our homes, workplaces and industries – accounts for roughly 90% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. In this era of climate crisis, a move to more sustainable energy systems is vital – and for this, well-designed energy policies are needed to make the transition effectively.

The Asia–Pacific (APAC) region’s trajectory towards sustainable energy is an interesting and important one to follow, as the region is home to more than half the global population, and responsible for more than half of global energy consumption. To date, studies have mostly focused on analysing the energy transition of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or the developed economies rather than the Global South.

The APAC region comprises approximately 58 countries, with diverse levels of economic development and geographical characteristics (ranging from continent-sized countries to small islands), as well as substantial institutional, economic, and resource differences. It is estimated that about half of all economic growth in the world will happen in the APAC region by 2050, leading to 45% growth in electricity demand.

APAC countries have introduced a large number of energy policies over the past two decades, particularly in relation to increasing electrification and renewable energy capacity, but progress on the energy transition remains slow, and has not been uniform. Many APAC countries are heavily dependent on conventional energy sources with unpredictable levels of energy poverty and volatility in energy prices.

With a team of researchers from The Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction, Cardiff University, University of Cambridge and Tsinghua University, we undertook a study to analyse the effect of energy policies on the progress towards sustainable targets in 42 emerging APAC economies, between 2000 and 2017. The results were published in Nature Energy in May 2022.

We found that energy policies introduced across the region have contributed to, on average, improving access to electricity (by 3.0%), improving access to clean cooking (by 3.8%), improving energy efficiency (by 1.4%) and increasing renewable electricity capacity (by 6.9%).

The highest success in the region is electricity: in 2017, 95% of the total population in the APAC region had access to electricity, compared to 87% in 2010. However, this just shows one part of the picture, as the proportion of renewable energy in overall energy use in the APAC region has fallen from 22.7% in 2000 to 16% in 2019, while greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, accounting for half of the world’s emissions.

By 2020, Vietnam’s renewable energy capacity had already exceeded its target

APAC countries have attempted to implement a sustainable energy transition through a mix of targeted strategies, regulations executed through authorities, and laws enforced by the judicial system. Our study found that among these approaches, targeted strategies have greater impacts on advancing electrification, clean cooking and renewable electricity capacity than laws and regulations, whereas the laws are more effective for achieving energy efficiency.

We broke down the 42 APAC emerging economies into three different groups – least developed countries, developing countries and economies in transition – in order to evaluate their different transitions. We found that the least developed countries have made notable progress in electrification and energy intensity targets, but need to strengthen access to clean cooking. Economies in transition are progressing more towards electrification, clean cooking and renewable electricity capacity, but less towards energy efficiency – as this typically takes place relatively late in the energy transition.

Energy transition is progressing fastest in developing economies, because these countries have more energy policies in place and are better positioned to promote, monitor and safeguard their implementation. Vietnam, for example – a developing economy and one of the fastest-growing emerging economies in Asia – shows some of the fastest progress towards energy transition within the APAC region.

Vietnam issued 200 policies between 2000 and 2017, and an important strategic plan guiding transition has been the Renewable Energy Development Strategy 2016–2030. By 2020, the country’s renewable energy capacity had already exceeded the target stated in the plan, and constituted 8.1% of the country’s total energy generation that year. Solar energy has played a major role in this progress.

Vietnam’s Renewable Energy Development Strategy 2016–2030 aims to achieve an increase in power generation capacity of 21% by 2030 (excluding large hydro), in addition to developing pathways for various non-fossil fuel resources. Long-term strategies such as this have played an important role in the country’s progress, perhaps more so than regulations. Other strategies driving forward the sustainable transition include the Vietnam Sustainable Development Strategy for 20112020 and the ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation (APAEC) 20162025.

But there is more work to be done, in Vietnam as with other APAC economies. Governments’ commitment and effective implementation of policies are fundamental to make progress with the energy transition. Countries need unique combinations of policies tailored to their specific needs to progress, and as a whole, the APAC region requires increased action in national policy commitments for energy transition targets.