The business community now understands the dire projections of the scientific community regarding human-induced climate change. They understand the global scientific consensus that rising average global temperatures caused by the emission of greenhouse gases will shift annual weather patterns and increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.
But while Malaysia appears unaffected by the most extreme weather, being too close to the equator to be ravaged by hurricanes, cyclones or typhoons, it is already facing a climate change triple threat to its Covid-19-weakened economy.
The first of these threats is the suite of direct impacts of climate change. Taking floods as a familiar example, during the 2014/15 Northeast Monsoon, floods ravaged 11 of the 13 states in the country, killing 24 people and displacing hundreds of thousands. The total damage across Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak totalled more than RM5 billion. Less widespread but similarly devastating floods have recurred every year since, taking lives and causing billions of ringgit in loss and damage, not to mention losses in productivity and missed opportunities.
The second threat faced by Malaysia stems from our dependence on global trade for food imports, and as a market for finished products. Malaysia imports about 1.5 million tons of wheat, more than four million metric tons of corn and 1.5 million metric tons of soybeans annually.
During the 2010/11 growing season, widespread drought in the northern hemisphere and excessive rains in the southern hemisphere not only inflated prices of wheat-based products in Malaysia but contributed to a nearly 5% rise in the food and non-alcoholic beverages component of the national consumer price index.
This April, local poultry prices jumped 30% in response to a 41% hike in the price of Brazilian corn due to low rainfall and poor yields, and a 57% increase in the price of Argentinian soybean meal caused by farmers refusing to sell their harvest. Quite simply, Malaysia need not be experiencing extreme weather events to be impacted by commodity shortages or high food prices.
The third threat stems from the growing propensity for developed countries or trade blocs, in the guise of promoting sustainability, to impose tariffs on imports from other countries. What began with the EU Emissions Trading System requiring flights to or from the European Union to hold emissions allowances has grown into the European Green Deal, which plans to impose a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism for selected sectors by 2021, meaning that we may soon see measures such as the EU directive on biofuels being applied to other products.
On April 12, the Ministry of Environment and Water (KASA) held a watershed event, “A Roundtable Discussion on Low Emissions Pathway for Malaysia”. It established a roundtable format platform and initiated a series of multi-sectoral stakeholder consultations.
Two panel discussions on exploring a sustainable low emissions pathway brought together panellists from the government, business and non-profit sectors.
The public sector was represented by the Economic Planning Unit under the Prime Minister’s Department, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and Bank Negara Malaysia.
The business perspective was provided by national oil company Petronas and Climate Governance Malaysia, while the non-profits’ and science-based inputs came from the Third World Network, WWF-Malaysia and the Academy of Sciences Malaysia.
While the panellists elaborated on policies and programmes, initiatives, challenges and opportunities within their respective sectors, several recurring themes could be identified that cut across sectoral and ministerial boundaries.
The first was that extreme weather events were already impacting all major sectors of the economy and that urgent action was needed to address the recurring losses associated with these events, and with the slow-onset impacts of climate change.
The second was the view that many of the policies, programmes, technologies, regulatory frameworks and support services regarded as part of a necessary ecosystem for the transition to a low-emissions pathway were already in existence in Malaysia.
The third and most important was an acknowledgement that for a successful transition to a low-emissions pathway to happen, a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach would be required. In other words, all stakeholders must actively participate.
Bringing together clusters of diverse stakeholders in a roundtable platform will allow for an open exchange of views in an inclusive and constructive environment. The proposed roundtable modality includes policymakers, corporate decision-makers, investors and financiers, scientists and researchers, regulators and enforcers, advocacy groups, and exposed and vulnerable groups. Within each cluster, panellists will answer guiding questions and provide context to the discussion while highlighting global trends.
Stakeholders will identify areas where policies are misaligned with global sustainability and low-emissions trends. This will reveal areas where national strategies, blueprints or road maps, including on investment, education and financing, may be inadequate to achieve desired outcomes. Stakeholders will then discuss remedial strategies and explore means to accelerate the transition to a low-emissions pathway.
As KASA secretary-general Datuk Seri Dr Zaini Ujang stated in his keynote address, Malaysia is blessed with abundant rainfall, and good management would minimise flood damage during the wet season and extreme weather events while ensuring sufficient water during dry periods.
A hypothetical whole-of-government, whole-of-society roundtable relating to floods might proceed as follows:
The roundtable would examine the causes of floods, beginning with current and future rainfall intensity, and contrast run-off potential from natural and built environments. This would involve inputs from the Meteorological Department, forestry departments and local authorities, city councils, and the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID).
The roundtable would explore strategies for reducing run-off, including retention ponds (with inputs from the DID and Land Offices of state governments), porous pavements (local authorities) and rainwater harvesting (advocacy groups, government agencies, housing associations and private sector service providers). They would be advised by the National Hydraulic Research Institute on the potential for run-off reduction as well as the costs and benefits of adopting specific strategies by the National Disaster Management Agency (NADMA).
Should flooding be unavoidable, early warning systems (with expertise from DID and local authorities) and disaster risk-reduction plans should be developed, involving NADMA. This should also trigger long-term strategies, framed by the Federal Department of Town and Country Planning, to protect or relocate vulnerable communities and infrastructure, with guidance from DID and the Land Office.
The roundtable would explore financing options (with inputs from the Economic Planning Unit, banks and finance institutions) and incentives (involving the Ministry of Finance) to implement the above measures and develop policy recommendations for consideration by KASA.
They would identify co-beneficial economic opportunities for the manufacture of non-food grade rainwater storage tanks from recycled plastic (considering proposals by business associations), highlight the savings associated with replacing potable water with rainwater (taking counsel from the water utility provider and state water authority), and deliver reduced healthcare and insurance costs associated with the lower risk of floods (with inputs from medical and financial institutions).
The traditional approach to resource management using a small number of specialised agencies is frequently geared towards implementing expedient solutions (for example, channelling excess run-off directly to the sea) that may not address long-term system-wide concerns (for example, addressing water needs during the dry season) because actual costs may be externalised.
Adopting a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach will ensure that all stakeholders’ views and interests are captured and considered. Such an approach is far more likely to produce a holistic resource management strategy that takes long-term sustainability into account and is more likely to meet internationally recognised standards for low emissions, social responsibility, environmental good governance and sustainability.
Dr Gary W Theseira is consultant technical adviser to the Malaysian Green Technology and Climate Change Centre. This column is part of a series coordinated by Climate Governance Malaysia, the national chapter of the World Economic Forum’s Climate Governance Initiative (CGI). The CGI is an effort to support boards of directors in discharging their duty of care as long-term stewards of the companies they oversee, specifically, to ensure that climate risks and opportunities are adequately addressed.