SE Asia manager, Wini

Plotting a Cleaner Course for Southeast Asia’s Energy and Economies

Wini Rizkiningayu, the new principal of RMI’s Southeast Asia program, maps out a vision to decarbonize a region that’s home to over 680 million people and many of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

For Southeast Asia to maintain its growth and thrive sustainably, it is crucial to shift away from fossil-based energy and accelerate the region’s energy transition, says Wini Rizkiningayu, new principal of RMI’s Southeast Asia program.

Buoyed by rapid economic and population growth, the 11-nation region — which includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam — is one of the world’s most vibrant. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Southeast Asia has huge potential for clean energy that could rival the market size for fossil fuels by 2050.

Yet despite its green promise, Southeast Asia has the distinction of being the only region in the world where coal’s role in the energy mix has continued to grow in recent years. That troubling trend may be winding down, however. Wini’s arrival coincides with a record-setting $20 billion deal to wind down coal in Indonesia, the world’s twelfth-largest energy consumer and the largest coal exporter.

For Wini and RMI, the challenge is to replicate that progress across the region, by deploying clean energy solutions and winding down coal. This endeavor necessitates a significant shift in policy thinking and approach toward an inclusive, equitable, and resilient energy transition.

I sat down with Wini, who spent the better part of her past 15 years advocating for systemic changes in Southeast Asia’s energy sector, to discuss her career journey, her vision for the Southeast Asia Program, and what must change to meet the region’s increasing energy demand while achieving the 1.5°C target and net zero.

Tell us about your personal climate journey.

Raised in flood-prone Bekasi, Indonesia, my early life was a firsthand lesson in the urgency of climate action. A formative experience was taking an exam on human-induced climate issues while navigating floodwaters. My initial career as an oil and gas engineer exposed me to the industry’s environmental toll and energy justice: Even while contributing to economic development, I was painfully aware that fossil fuel extraction came at the cost of environmental degradation. Despite the wealth of natural resources, families in resource-abundant areas still lived without electricity. In 2016, a transformative sabbatical allowed me to delve deeper into various aspects of sustainability and responsible resource management. This period was eye-opening, but the real tipping point came when a flood devastated my childhood home, depriving them of basic utilities. That calamity reinforced my resolve: my career must serve a higher purpose that aligns with both social equity and environmental sustainability.

What inspired you to take on this leadership role at RMI?

Starting my career as a field engineer in the oil and gas industry, I was deeply engrossed in the technicalities of traditional energy. Over a decade, personal crisis and the escalating climate crisis made me reevaluate my role, leading me to a public service role with a New Zealand government agency, supporting geothermal development. In this position, I discovered how effective policies can shift the energy landscape toward renewables. This transformative experience drove me to pursue a master’s in public policy at the University of Oxford. There, I specialized in understanding the complexities of energy in lower-middle-income countries, focusing on how to ensure an equitable transition to sustainable energy. Joining RMI wasn’t just a career move but a confluence of my experiences, values, and relentless commitment to sustainability and societal well-being. At RMI, I found an ideal platform that aligns with my advocacy for clean energy and enables me to craft inclusive, data-driven, and equitable strategies. The journey I’m on transcends traditional energy transition dialogues; it’s rooted in a broader vision of a future where energy is a catalyst for societal and environmental betterment. Now, as we strive to reshape Southeast Asia’s energy landscape, I am passionately devoted to achieving universal access to clean, renewable energy.

What is the significance of Indonesia’s announcement to retreat from coal?

Indonesia’s recent announcement to retreat from coal presents a unique opportunity for sustainable transformation across several crucial aspects.

Indonesia’s pivot from thermal coal, despite being its largest exporter, signals a transformative moment in its domestic energy policy landscape. Despite ranking 12th globally for coal consumption, this shift towards renewable energy could redefine Indonesia’s economic trajectory. By heavily investing in renewables, energy storage, and building a supporting ecosystem for energy transition, the country paves the way for a green energy revolution, spawning innovative businesses, jobs, playing an active role in the value chain of renewable energy and its ecosystem, and a sustainable green economy.

This decisive move will resonate globally, aligning Indonesia with worldwide climate change mitigation efforts, thus contributing substantially to urgent climate action. Not only will it potentially redefine the country’s stance in global energy markets, but it may also influence Southeast Asia’s energy dynamics by inspiring regional peers to phase out coal.

Socioeconomically, transitioning from coal offers tangible benefits. While it requires strategic planning to alleviate impacts on coal-dependent regions, it could stimulate job creation and innovative startups in green sectors, adhering to Sustainable Development Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth). The ensuing improvements in air quality and health conditions support SDG 3 (Quality of Life), promoting a healthier and more productive populace.

The shift also impacts energy security. A strategic transition can diversify Indonesia’s energy mix, decrease dependence on fossil fuel exports, and boost energy reliability, especially in remote regions. This, in turn, raises social welfare and the quality of life for Indonesians. Done right, this transition should revolve around the concept of justice and equitability, empowering both local and national stakeholders to take an active role in promoting energy transition, energy resilience, and better access, especially to the marginalized community.

Overall, Indonesia’s coal retreat represents a bold stride in energy policy with global reverberations. It underlines Indonesia’s commitment to sustainable socio-economic transformation, forging a resilient, inclusive, and environmentally conscious economy. With this shift, Indonesia is charting a healthier, more prosperous future, improving lives, and leading by example for its citizens and the world.

What is your broader vision for the program?

As we navigate the decisive decade, we have a unique opportunity to limit global temperature rise and expedite a fair transition. I envision a Southeast Asia thriving on equitable, sustainable energy, where progress aligns with our planet’s well-being and its inhabitants. Our goal through RMI’s Southeast Asia energy program is to facilitate this energy transition, addressing vital aspects like utility transition, energy equity, security, and the associated economic benefits.

We aspire to assist the region in tapping into clean, affordable power, thereby catalyzing economic development, enhancing air quality, fortifying energy security, and creating jobs. Despite the complexities this energy transition entails, our resolve is unwavering and optimism-fueled. We’re dedicated to comprehending the region’s unique context, prioritizing inclusivity and intersectionality to address the varying needs of diverse communities.

Confronting the intricacies and trade-offs of this transition, we are committed to collaborating with stakeholders across all sectors. Through collective efforts, we aim to navigate the challenges and harness the opportunities the energy transition presents. Ultimately, our mission is to help forge a Southeast Asia flourishing on sustainable, equitable energy — benefitting its people and the environment alike.

Can you name at least one book that changed your worldview on energy and climate issues?

Three pivotal books have shaped my understanding of climate issues, fueling my dedication to sustainable and equitable solutions.

Doughnut Economics” by Kate Raworth, presents a captivating concept — an economy that serves all people while respecting Earth’s limits. Its simplicity, practicality, and global application are truly inspiring.

I stumbled upon “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells during the COVID-19 pandemic. This book, together with Kim Robinson’s “Ministry of the Future,” laid bare the urgent need for collective action to prevent the devastating consequences of climate change.

Finally, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate” by Naomi Klein was a revelation. Read during a sabbatical year, it prompted a deep dive into how our economic and political systems could be reshaped to better address the climate crisis.

How can we provide advice and support to promote gender equity and empower women to pursue leadership roles in the climate and energy space?

Empowering women in the climate and energy sectors and promoting gender equity is essential to accelerate climate change solutions. Clean energy can be transformative for gender equality. When women own and benefit from productive uses of energy, such as for paid work or for healthcare, opportunities for economic empowerment and resilience are unleashed. Recognizing the potential at this intersection, it’s vital to foster an ecosystem where women play an active role in climate and clean energy space — especially in leadership and decision-making positions.

What it takes is a systemic change: starting from breaking barriers to entry for women in the clean energy sector and education, creating an inclusive and nurturing work environment where women can thrive – even with the nature of the different hats they wear in society, as well as creating transparent and mindful pathways to leadership. We need to create networks of mentors, allies, and tribes to champion gender equity, active women’s participation, and inclusive energy and climate policy. Gender equity isn’t solely a women’s issue; it’s a global challenge demanding collective effort. It’s about building allies and championing change, fostering collaboration for a more equitable and sustainable future. By intertwining gender equity and energy transition, we can ensure a future where women’s voices reverberate in every boardroom, and their invaluable contributions to the climate battle are acknowledged.