We are at a decisive moment in history.
As I write, over 120 world leaders are gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, to address the greatest existential threat to humanity. The United Nations Climate Change Conference (Oct 31-Nov 12) has been described as our last chance to save the planet. Will leaders make concrete commitments to reduce the greenhouse gases warming the planet?
I really want to believe they will. But it’s hard to have faith. This is the 26th “conference of parties” (hence COP26). There have been 25 previous meetings since 1995, during which the emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming, like carbon dioxide, have risen exponentially.
But this year’s climate negotiations really matter. Time is running out.
The UN says global emissions need to be cut by 55% by 2030 to prevent average global temperatures rising over the 1.5ºC threshold – beyond which, say scientists, we could lose coral reefs, Pacific islands and suffer crop failures globally.
There’s another more urgent target: global emissions must peak by 2025. That is alarming because they are still rising and set to rise further in 2022. The main culprit? New coal-fired power plants. Coal is the single biggest cause of carbon dioxide emissions. How can countries do this? It’s madness.
But that’s us too in Malaysia, at least up to 2019, when a new coal-fired plant opened in Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan. I’m just astonished at such indifference to climate change. Don’t we want to safeguard a future for our children? We should be rushing to take action. Instead, we see politicians fussing over whiskey labels but not over the climate crisis. No Malaysian minister is attending COP26; Malaysia will be represented by a delegation led by the Environment and Water Ministry’s secretary-general.
Remember, climate change is permanent. There will be no reversing the searing heat, the flooded coastal cities or the extreme weather events like deadly heatwaves, droughts, floods and cyclones. The tropics are likely to become unlivable – a new study showed three billion people could face temperatures as high as the hottest parts of the Sahara desert (which can reach 50ºC in summer according to the Britannica) by 2070. How can life survive that?
We need drastic cuts in emissions NOW. Countries need to act quickly to meet the 2030 target.
Worryingly, many countries and corporations are now talking about “net zero” rather than zero emissions, where the carbon they emit is offset by paying for projects (such as reforestation) that absorb carbon. Critics say this is a way to avoid taking real action to cut emissions.
The Malaysian government said recently it would become “carbon neutral” by 2050 and take up carbon trading. The Climate Emergency Coalition, comprising a dozen organisations, has questioned how this will be achieved. It warned that net zero pledges are a way for climate polluters to “evade responsibility, shift burdens, disguise climate inaction” and detract from “real climate solutions”.
“It’s greenwashing,” says Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar, chairperson of Klima Action Malaysia (Kamy). “It’s very problematic. It will give corporations a permit to pollute.”
What is needed, she says, is a clear plan for the transition to renewable energy (such as solar power). “We have not seen urgency, only delays,” she says. Alarmingly, government subsidies are still being spent on fossil fuels rather than renewables. Currently, we rely mainly on “dirty energy” – coal constitutes 59% of energy generated in Malaysia in 2021, solar just 2% or so.
Also critical is the need for transparency and open data.
“It’s the biggest hurdle not only for governance but accountability,” says Ili Nadiah, adding that data is not standardised, even across states. Oil palm plantations, for example, are classed as forests when they are a mono-crop feature.
Malaysia will reportedly announce a bold commitment to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030, relative to 2005 levels at COP26. But we have so very far to go to achieve this – will it end up being an empty promise?
A first and critical step must be energy reform, which has been put on hold for two years thanks to all the political upheaval.
We currently generate far more power than needed due to power agreements that favour power producers – our excess “reserve margin” is roughly a shocking 50%. That costs us a whopping RM1bil a year – and that excludes fuel costs and, of course, the cost to the climate. Yet we keep building more power plants. In the works now is a big hydro project in the Gua Musang area in Kelantan. It will be disastrous for the environment, flooding forests and displacing local Orang Asli.
Energy reform takes planning and time. We need to start now by retiring “dirty fuel” fired plants as soon as possible to begin transitioning to renewables in the next decade. Plans put on hold for energy efficiency – such as smart meters, off-peak power use incentives and district cooling – need to be restarted. Importantly, energy experts, not politicians, should steer reform.
Malaysia, it’s time to step up. The climate crisis can’t wait. Our future is at stake.
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 email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.