Environmental Campaigner Calls for ‘Proactive’ Government Effort to Address Climate Change

By Yen Saning 10 December 2015

PARIS, France — Win Myo Thu, co-founder and director of Burmese NGO EcoDev—the Economically Progressive Ecosystem Development group—is currently in Paris for the climate change conference, lobbying Burma’s official delegation to adequately address the issue. The environmental campaigner is also a member of Burma’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative civil society steering committee and a prominent figure in the country’s anti-coal movement. On the sidelines of the conference, The Irrawaddy speaks with Win Myo Thu on the government’s current climate change mitigation strategies and the outlook for environmental policy under the National League for Democracy.

What do you think of the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s professed policies on environmental issues?

There is no clear policy set out as we only just concluded the election… Looking at their environmental policy [generally], they talk about favoring the public and that they will do what the public wants. They say they will address deforestation and water pollution. In any government, there are groups that favor economic development and those that favor protecting the environment… Will the party consider both equally? No government says they will destroy the environment, even if they do. Such things will have to be discussed within the party.

The current government planned to increase Burma’s reliance on coal to one-third of the country’s total generating capacity. Will Aung San Suu Kyi’s government follow these plans?

 If we have the chance to advise [the new government], we would urge them to revise the whole electricity power plan. The plan is meaningless. When the whole world is moving toward [renewable energy sources], we are going to have 33 percent [of energy derived from coal].

Burma is not a member of the Climate Vulnerable Forum currently chaired by the Philippines. Do you think Burma’s government should do more to address climate change?

The government needs to be proactive. This is my main message. We are the second most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change. [*Editor’s note: A recent risk index issued by Germanwatch ranked Burma as second on a list of countries most affected by extreme weather events for the period 1995 to 2014]. Our net emissions are not much but we rank third in emissions produced by deforestation. We need to take responsibility to a certain extent. If we continue to produce energy, according to the Durban platform [devised at a climate conference in 2011 in South Africa], we need money from the Green Climate Fund and most importantly we need technology transfer. The argument on energy in Burma today is whether to go for coal or use solar or wind power. We can have energy solutions only if these technologies are cheap. That’s why we need to stay in leading roles in events [such as Paris].

The good thing about this event is the whole world will have a new treaty which means everyone will start the same race. We called it the new world order. If we can run, it doesn’t matter if we are left behind one hundred years, in my opinion. Our development is behind Thailand by about 30-40 years and by about 100 years compared to Europe. It doesn’t matter. If we have a smart strategy in the new world order, we can run the same race… We need to lead politically. The state should have good climate policy so we will obtain the necessary technical transfer.

What do you think of Burma’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change?

The current INDCs talks about what they may do but there are no targets or commitments in it. They said they will look to renewables. But it did not specify a percentage of greenhouse gas emissions they would reduce. It is difficult to accept for me… We are still referring to carbon emissions data from 2000.

What would be your proposed energy mix instead of using 30 percent coal? What about renewable energy sources?

If we agree that coal is not good, we need a substitution. We need to start with the question of how much energy we need. Current calculations suggest Burma will need 1,000 MW every year. The problem is that Thailand in the last 30 years needed only 800 MW. It seems like the calculations [don’t indicate] a reason to use coal. We need detailed calculations. Rangoon’s energy needs and rural areas might not be the same. The on-grid project to reach 50 percent of the population is costly. We have to decentralize [energy distribution] for off-grid areas. We need policies for it. We need to focus on energy needs for different areas. There are some immediate needs like industrial zones or Rangoon.

What do you expect from Burma’s official delegation at the Paris climate conference?

We want them to be proactive in addressing climate change, to talk more and to reconsider the energy mix. That’s why I am here.

What do you expect from the next government?

The next government will be able to act more freely. There will be more media and organizational freedom. There will be improvements in lower level administration. But I want to wait and see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s policies. We don’t know her position. Analyzing from how she did with the Letpadaung [copper mine], she is balancing for all. She will think of relations with China and economic concerns. Sometimes, there may be circumstances that do not fit with our environmental concerns.