My Say: The climate emergency calls for real actors

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 13, 2022 - June 19, 2022.
My Say: The climate emergency calls for real actors
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Change is possible, champion it now

Last week, in part 1 of this two-part article to mark World Environment Day, I set out how human beings have become the most consequential presence on Earth. Unlike mass extinction events of the past, the stage for the rapid decline of our biodiversity and species loss has been set by only one actor: man.

I also raised the issue of Planetary Health, reminding us of the interconnectedness between the planet’s health and our well-being.

As the source of the planet’s degradation, we must become its force for change. There are small and big roles we can play to prevent further degradation, or even undo damage done, with economic benefits folded in.

For instance, conservationists believe that restoring just 15% of converted lands while stopping further conversion of natural ecosystems can prevent 60% of expected species extinction.

Vietnam’s Mangrove Plantation and Disaster Risk Reduction Project, initiated by the Red Cross in 1999, perfectly exemplifies the value of restoring converted lands.

With over 3,260 kilometres of coastlines, Vietnam’s coastal communities are vulnerable to floods, storms and droughts, facing an average of six to eight typhoons annually.

In the past, Vietnam’s peninsula was home to 408,500 hectares of mangroves, which protected its coasts and provided a source of food, fuel and income for its coastal communities. However, Vietnam lost about 60% of its mangrove forests largely due to war, natural causes, and conversion to rice fields, aquaculture and urban development. This exposed coastal infrastructure and livelihoods to typhoons and storm surges, which damaged sea dykes and led to sea water intrusion into aquaculture and rice farms.

The Vietnam Red Cross corralled local governments and communities, and experts for mangrove plantation and protection, and advocated with policymakers and communities to improve forest laws and issue specific legal documents for mangrove and coastal forest management.

They began with a pilot project in the coastal areas of the Thai Binh province. Due to its success, the project kept expanding over 20 years until nearly 100 coastal communities were involved in replanting mangroves to cover approximately 9,000 hectares.

Between 1999 and 2003, the mangrove area in Vietnam increased by about 6.4% due to this initiative. There were tangible benefits as the biodiversity was flourishing, attracting wildlife such as birds, fish and shellfish. The new mangroves protected the coastal areas from storms, prevented salt-water intrusion and reduced damage to sea dykes.

The project is said to have directly benefitted an estimated 190,455 people through yields from collecting marine species which increased by 57.2%. Household surveys in 2015 showed the average income had increased to US$6.50 (RM28.56) per person per day.

While the project cost between US$8 million and US$9 million (around RM35 million to RM39 million), total savings due to avoided risks in the communities at large were found to be US$15 million (almost RM66 million) and direct economic benefits from aqua product collection, honey bee farming and such were found to be between US$344,000 (around RM1.5 million) and US$6.7 million (about RM3 million) in selected communities.

This is just one of many examples of the economic benefits of protecting our environment, and that is replicable in coastal villages in Malaysia.

But in our current state of performance, the economic fallout has proven time and again to be dire: In 2018, the global economic cost of marine plastic pollution on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture was between US$6 billion and US$19 billion (RM26.3 million to RM83.5 million). Microplastics are now confirmed to be present in human blood and infants’ faeces with potential carcinogenesis.

Multi-sectoralism: Malaysia must move or risk further loss

It’s been a very difficult two years for everyone. It’s easy for us to subscribe and prescribe that we must “Go Green”! But for many people, it’s a daily struggle just to put food on the table.

Perhaps what has been normal to us in the past wasn’t a good normal, and this is a real opportunity for us to reset. In the crisis of the pandemic, it was humanity that thrived. It was people helping other people, because no one is safe until everyone is safe. That sense of us versus me alone, if it's not yet realised, is a lost opportunity because we really thrive as a society and a shared humanity.

We have to make some real choices about how we are going to progress. Can we bring back a green economy, build more eco-friendly buildings and structures if we must for tourism, protect the environment and bring back wildlife into the environment, while allowing children to appreciate and learn about safeguarding nature?

We need to do it without a silo mentality but with a multi-sector or multi-actor approach.

Some corporations are already looking at how they can reduce their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and protect the natural environment as a way of reaching environment, social and governance (ESG) criteria and commitments to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. However, these commitments are not legally binding. They need to be turned into measurable actions.

The government can provide incentives and disincentives to make sure that global and local environmental protection goals are met.

There also needs to be tangible enforcement processes in place. Ones that make it difficult for us to continue hurting the environment.

While there is no lack of legislation for environmental protection in Malaysia (there are at least 34 Acts related to environmental matters), environmentalists find that the problem is enforcement and implementation due to the competing demand for urban development.

Further, access to civil litigation in environmental cases is littered with obstacles. Only persons who can demonstrate locus standi or sufficient connection with or interest in the subject in dispute can seek a judicial remedy.

For the sake of our planet’s health, we cannot continue with such indifference. We cannot be short-sighted and forsake long-term sustainable development for quick economic gains. We do not need to compromise our environment in our pursuit of economic development. There is bountiful evidence how both can be done in tandem.

In the Philippines, courts go to the extent of allowing public interest litigation, not just for persons whose constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology is violated, but also on behalf of “generations yet unborn”. This is indeed a proactive move engineered by great foresight, and having the right priorities.

It also shows an appreciation for intergenerational justice, which recognises the moral obligation of the present generation to protect the environment to ensure future generations inherit a planet they deserve, which is really what the spirit of the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development’s Our Common Future report is about.

It begins with the awareness that young people need to inherit a planet that they deserve and we, the older ones, need to provide for them.

My commitments: Reducing future shocks

I’ve been very fortunate to be in a position, as the executive director of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health, to look at our future challenges through a planetary health lens and find a multi-sectoral approach to solving some of the biggest problems we are going to face now and in the future, while preparing for mandatory planetary health education at the university from 2024.

On a personal level, I am changing my habits to minimise my carbon footprint.

Firstly, I have stopped eating red meat. Globally, the production of red meat releases the highest amount of greenhouse gases (nearly 60%) in the food production sector. I now plant enough vegetables for household consumption.

When I discovered this, I moved more to a plant-based diet.

I’m also making choices about how I offset my travel. I have an app called Capture, which helps me track my carbon footprint and enables me to consciously find ways to reduce or offset it. I just enter data such as my dietary habits and what transport I use, and consciously offset my carbon by giving money to an organisation that plants trees to offset any carbon released.

Each of us needs to think of what we can do individually to improve habits or set targets to remove or reduce our footprint on the planet.

I can move some, perhaps at pace. Together, we can do plenty, fast.


Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood is a 2015 Merdeka Award Laureate. She is a humanitarian and was the founder and driving force behind MERCY Malaysia from 1999 to 2009. In 2011, she joined the United Nations, heading the humanitarian branch at the United Nations Population Fund and later headed the UN World Humanitarian Summit secretariat. She then served as Under-Secretary General for Partnerships in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) from January 2016 to 2020. She served as special adviser to the former prime minister of Malaysia Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin on Public Health from March 2020 to August 2021. She currently serves as pro-chancellor of the Heriot-Watt University Malaysia (since September 2021), professor and executive director of Sunway Centre for Planetary Health (since August 2021), and senior fellow at the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.

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