Human Writes: Malaysia needs to declare a climate emergency

My nine-year-old daughter sometimes fantasises about her future children and how she’ll raise them. It’s a conversation that numbs me. Frankly, the future deeply troubles me.

How can I tell her, from this point in time, based on a business-as-usual scenario for human activities, that the future awaiting her generation looks bleak, very bleak, and the future for the following generation a ghastly kind of bleak?

How to explain that due to human activities, the earth is getting hotter and hotter, and in her own lifetime, Malaysia – an equatorial country – might become too unbearably hot to live in?

How to tell her sea levels are rising due to climate change and World Bank predictions are severe for Malaysia, with its long coastlines and many low-lying urban areas?

The worst part? That despite knowing that burning fossil fuels – coal, petrol and natural gas – emits heat-trapping “greenhouse gases” such as carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, we carry on regardless. Why are we not madly scrambling to stop this?

Little Time Left

Last October, the world’s top climate scientists, under a United Nations panel, warned we have little time left before the earth warms to a 1.5°C threshold – beyond this, we risk intense heat, drought, floods and extreme weather events, as well as food and water shortages. We have just 11 years left.

Their wake-up call marked a shift from the previous cap set for 2°C to avoid catastrophic climate change. But we’re not even on track to reach the 2°C target!

If these numbers seem small, look what havoc has been caused by a 1°C rise. Malaysia had some of the worst floods recently (East Coast in 2014 and Penang in 2017). Elsewhere, there were devastating hurricanes, record droughts in Cape Town, Arctic icebergs melting and so on.

Of the worst wildfires in the last 100 years in California, 15 occurred in the last 20 years. Of the warmest years on record, 20 occurred over the past 22 years, and the five warmest in the past five years. How bad does it have to get before we act?

Caught In Coal

Some countries are responding, switching from coal, a key culprit of global warming, to renewable energy, such as solar or wind energy. In India, solar energy has grown by 200% in the last two years.

In 2017, the European Union generated more electricity from renewable sources than from coal. Wind generation shot up by 19% in 2017 – mainly due to huge success in Britain and Germany. In 2018, Energiewende (energy transition) was a much-touted word in Germany.

More US coal plants are being retired. California and Hawaii are leading the way with aggressive pro-renewables policies. As solar and wind energy become cheaper, the “coal crossover” is growing.

And Malaysia? We’re stuck on coal. We even import it at high prices. In 2015, coal amounted to 47% of fuel input to power stations, while solar was a meagre 0.2%, Energy Commission (Suruhanjaya Tenaga) figures show.

In 1996, coal only made up 5% of our energy share. While countries were ditching coal, we took up more of it! So now what? We stick with coal? Even if it’s killing the planet?

We need to review the industry. Last year, four new projects were cancelled because we didn’t need them. We generate too much electricity – with an excess (reserve margin) of over 30%. So we’re burning coal to make electricity we don’t even need? Madness!

Weaning ourselves from coal may be hard, costly and legally difficult, but by God we have to try. Climate change will cost us more. Even flood mitigation costs more than RM1bil annually.

Moving Forward

The government has jumpstarted forward: a climate change centre is being set up, the issue has a ministerial portfolio, a roadmap to tackle climate change is being drawn up as well as a new act.

There is a new goal to generate 20% of electricity from renewable sources by 2030, the Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister, Yeo Bee Yin, has said. Initiatives are being planned to boost solar energy. And energy efficiency initiatives are being planned.

These are excellent measures. But I'm sorry, dear Minister, they don't cut it. Talking about climate change “in 20 or 30 years time” or a 2°C threshold lacks the urgency needed.

Anyway, we need to address all areas with carbon emissions, not just the production of energy – transport, agriculture, livestock and even the cement industry.

One idea under review is to get rid of diesel buses and replace them with greener electric buses. In this way, we can make use of that 30% reserve margin of electricity.

Another idea is to raise the tariff, which currently is significantly lower than other countries in the region. We could raise electricity bills incrementally, exempting low-figure bills to protect the poor. That would force efficiency. But the issue is a political landmine.

But these are band-aid measures. We still need radical changes made at the top. And we should look to our forests.

Planting Trees

Trees are a carbon sink, helping regulate climate by absorbing carbon dioxide. When felled, the carbon stored is released. Planting trees would offset carbon emissions.

Officially, it looks like we have a lot of forests. But that depends on how you define “forests”. The statistics are misleading, Sahabat Alam Malaysia says.

Gazetted forests include “forest plantations” of palm oil or pulpwood. But how can the monoculture of a plantation equate to a biodiversity-rich forest?

Many felled forests are being replaced with oil palm and timber plantations. There must be greater transparency about gazetted forests. And the term “forest plantation” should be banned.

The climate crisis requires radical, bold decisions, the kind we make in a wartime situation. Countries are declaring an emergency. We should too. Only with that mindset can we adopt the urgency and intensity needed to save us and the planet for future generations.

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at

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