In July 2019, Ili Nadiah Dzulkafar was busy organising a major protest about climate change at Dataran Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur. However, that won’t be possible in 2020 – at least, not anytime soon – for the Klima Action Malaysia coordinator after the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to many of the organisation’s plans.
“Right from the beginning of the year, we had projects in the pipeline – more protests, more advocacy, more frequent engagements with the authorities – but all that has to be put on hold, ” she says during a recent interview.
Ili Nadiah isn’t alone.
Activists who lit up the world last year with fiery marches and Extinction Rebellion rallies have been forced indoors by lockdowns to stop the virus ravaging their communities, so many of their protests have ground to a halt. (The Extinction Rebellion – XR for short – organisation was formed in 2018 and describes itself as a "non-violent civil disobedience activist movement" that wants governments to declare a "climate and ecological emergency" and take immediate action to address climate change.)
Even celebrity teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg is spending much of her time in her home giving interviews over Swedish radio.
And it’s not just the rallies and the protests that are getting cancelled – so are vital global meetings about the environment.
At the last count, three major meetings have been postponed: the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, scheduled for October in Kunming, China, has been put off until the second quarter of 2021; the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, has been pushed back from November this year to November next year; the Convention on Inter-national Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, has been delayed this month; and the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress in Marseille, France, put off from June to January 2021.
Also postponed are the many attendant meetings, such as the Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity – better known as COP15 – workshops and sessions that prep for these conferences.
Those involved in sessions that have not been cancelled or postponed have gone on to use Zoom or other video conferencing tools, but it will surely be a technical feat to try to get thousands of delegates from over 190 countries to come to an agreement online.
Thankfully, the UN General Assembly is still scheduled to go on in September – albeit virtually for the first time in its 75-year history and with heads of government sending in their embargoed speeches – during which the UN Biodiversity Summit will be held.
While the postponements and the cancellations may have been inevitable, there is a real fear that they come at the expense of the fight against climate change and for biodiversity conservation.
This is happening at a time when it’s more urgent than ever for the world to come together to save planet Earth.
The conference in Kunming has been touted as the biggest biodiversity conference in a decade and is of particular interest as it is at this venue that scientists, conservationists and world leaders are hoping to hammer out a post-2020 agreement on biodiversity.
With many scientists and health experts blaming the emergence of Covid-19 – a zoonotic virus that jumped from animals to humans – on habitat loss, wildlife trafficking and humanity’s blatant disregard for the environment, the importance of such a meeting cannot be overstated.
Malaysia is a party to the convention, which came about following the historic first Earth Summit in Rio Di Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992.
The Society for Conservation Biology is an international organisation of professionals focused on conserving biodiversity; the president of its Malaysian chapter, Dr Jayaraj Vijaya Kumaran, describes the Kunming conference as the “highlight of the century” for biodiversity.
“A lot of key decisions, especially on what the world needs to do until 2050, was supposed to have been made at COP15 before hand. The Kunming meeting was then supposed to outline the new plan to save biodiversity on Earth, especially what individuals, states, countries and organisations can do to achieve the target of living in harmony with nature by 2050.
“The goal of reducing extinctions and increasing (wildlife) population sizes was also to have been proposed, and this would impact how these flora and fauna would be conserved globally, ” says the Permanent Research Fellow at the Global Entrepreneur-ship Research and Innovation Institute in Universiti Malaysia Kelantan.
The conference was also supposed to offer a platform for biodiversity-rich countries like Malaysia to raise concerns about access and benefit-sharing, which “is not fully complied with in the digital world”, Jayaraj says. All these important issues, he stresses, need to be addressed as soon as possible.
“But when globally the effort is directed towards handling Covid-19, it’s going to be hard to expect countries to seriously commit to these meetings, ” admits Jayaraj, who is also an associate at the Academy of Sciences, Malaysia.
‘Act now, rather than later’
Like Jayaraj, Prof Dr Joy Jacqueline Pereira also thinks that the postponement of these meetings is “unavoidable”. However, whether this will have the effect of lessening the urgency and importance of such issues depends on the actions to be taken by the various governments, adds Prof Pereira.
“Should the governments use this delay and opportunities in their Covid-19 economic recovery plans to invest in measures that result in deep and ambitious cuts in carbon emissions, the outcome would be positive, ” says the vice-chair of Malaysia’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group 2 on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.
Prof Pereira urges scientists and climate activists to take the one-year postponement of the climate change conference to push for “ambitious carbon emission reduction measures” in their countries’ Covid-19 economic recovery plans.
Activists and scientists voiced their frustrations over the glacial pace of negotiations at last year’s climate change conference, the COP25, in Madrid, Spain – with over 45,000 delegates, it was the longest meeting on record at over two weeks. The conference was originally planned in Brazil but pushed to Chile and ultimately hosted by Spain.
Many have criticised its outcome, saying it lacked ambition in terms of carbon emissions targets.
“(They should) encourage investments in renewable energy to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Measures that promote environmental protection should also be enhanced, ” points out Prof Pereira.
Asked what Malaysia ought to do while it waits out a year, she says: “The Malaysian government should use this opportunity for economic diversification so we can transition to a low carbon economy.”
She cautions that while Malaysia’s contribution to global carbon emissions is small, the projected impact from the global warming of 1.5°C will be “tremendous” for this country.
“Thus, Malaysia should push all high-emitting countries to make ambitious targets and take deep emission reduction measures to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
“And the nation should draw up economic recovery plans that speed up the transition to a low carbon economy.”
Up in smoke?
This year, Malaysia, says Ili Nadiah, was supposed to have increased its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement. The agreement, which Malaysia ratified in November 2016, requires each party to prepare, communicate and maintain successive NDCs that it intends to achieve.
Malaysia has previously said that it intends to reduce its emissions intensity of GDP by 45% by 2030 relative to the emissions intensity of GDP in 2005.
The implementation is supposed to begin in 2021. However, with Malaysia and much of the world set on pause to deal with Covid-19, whether we are on course is debatable.
“It’s not just Covid-19. The change in government has also dampened the climate agenda.
“With the change of government, there was also a change of portfolio. There is no longer a proper ministry (dealing with climate change). We have no idea what is the status of the Bills – the Climate Change Bill, the Transboundary Haze Bill, the National Adaptation Plan that was supposed to be tabled in Parliament, ” says Ili Nadiah.
Before Perikatan Nasional came into power at the end of February, former Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin had been reported as saying that the then Pakatan Harapan government was looking into drafting Bills on climate change and the transboundary haze.
“(The change) is worrying, especially for the younger group, because this Covid-19 has shown us what would happen if we fail to act on issues like these, ” says Ili Nadiah.
“I really hope there will be a mechanism to build resilience to face this situation (in the future). For example, youth training is being pushed back. This could have repercussions in later years. We will have a generation that might not speak about climate change, ” she frets.
Ili Nadiah says that for the past few months, Klima has had to fall back on the Internet and take its advocacy online in digital workshops and webinars rather than use rallies to get its message across.
“I think protests are very confrontational because they’re done in a public space. And there are challenges – there are a lot of people coming in, like about 1,000 at our last protest, so it’s hard to organise, and we also need to address the authorities.
“But doing it in person on the street, we manage to get people to look at us and listen rather than doing it online.
“People who might not have heard about climate change might notice us, they come to listen to us and start to ask questions, people from outside our circle, ” she explains.
Then there’s also the question of inclusivity: “Not everyone has Internet access, which makes online advocacy harder, ” says Ili Nadiah.
But things are looking up for Klima as Malaysia emerges from the movement control order period.
“In the next few months, we will start reviving strategies from last year.
“We are in talks with other organisations in South-East Asia to have a protest sometime between September and November, ” she reveals.
“It’s either going to be an online or a physical protest, depending on the status of Covid-19 cases in our respective countries.”
Did you find this article insightful?