A ‘whole of nation’ effort

Houses with solar panels. We can do our bit for clean energy by opting for clean energy measures. ­— Filepic/The Star

OVER the last few months, a national Planetary Health Action Plan has been hatched by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia.

While other nations are also looking at the development of plans, policies and programmes that focus on the relationship between the health of the planet and the people living on it, it seems we are the first country in South-East Asia to start the process of explicitly developing and adopting such a plan.

The plan aims to make planetary health a factor in all national policies and plans, through a “whole of nation” approach, to address ecosystems, biodiversity, health, and climate change in the push to achieve truly people- and planet-centric development.

The action plan, if adopted in early 2024, will need to translate into significant shifts in how government agencies work, breaking silos and linking policies so that they protect humanity and the planetary ecosystem we depend upon for our survival. It is ambitious and will require great courage and leadership to succeed.

This ambition resonates well with the principles laid out by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in the government’s vision for the future of the country, “Malaysia Madani”.

The word “Madani” is an acronym made up of six core values: sustainability, prosperity, innovation, respect, trust, and compassion. The vision aims to ensure that:

> All Malaysians have access to basic necessities such as food, shelter, and healthcare.

> Economic growth is balanced with social and environmental responsibility.

> Malaysia’s natural resources and biodiversity are protected using principles of sustainability and environmental stewardship.

> The government is transparent, accountable, and responsive to the needs of the people.

> We can celebrate and promote the country’s cultural diversity, while also creating a sense of national unity.

Malaysia Madani is a significant step in the right direction as we look to how we can best improve the health of our nation and its inhabitants, remembering that 75% of the determinants of health are social, economic, environmental and political in nature.

But these aspirations need to be matched by real action. Climate change is one of the greatest threats to humanity’s wellbeing. Malaysia has pledged carbon neutrality by 2050 – which is a mere 27 years away. While the United Nations is stressing the need for all countries to shorten the timeline to reach global carbon neutrality if we are to keep the temperature increase to less than 1.5°C, action on even meeting our 2050 target needs to be accelerated.

Reducing dependence on coal for our electricity is a step in the right direction, but replacing coal-fired power stations with gas isn’t a long-term answer, especially as the demand for electricity will increase significantly as we transition to electric vehicles (EVs).

Our more immediate target, to produce 20% of our electricity from solar power by 2025, will in all likelihood be missed. As of July last year, only 2% of our power came from solar sources.

On road transport – the backbone of the logistics operations that support our economy – we need to bear in mind that to achieve a full transition to non-fossil fuel vehicles by 2050, we need to phase in EVs years before 2050.

The expected lifespan of a goods vehicle in Malaysia is 12 to 15 years. To reach our carbon neutrality target means that by 2050 only non-fossil fuel vehicles should be permitted on our roads, and hence, only non-fossil fuel vehicles should be on sale by around 2035 – only 12 years from now.

The Malaysian Automotive Association predicts that this year, the demand for electric cars will grow by 43%, which will amount to approximately 4,449 cars sold. State benefits and incentives for EV owners and EV market players are a key element in this sharp increase.

In this context, the development of charging infrastructure becomes crucial. As of April 2023, there were approximately 900 EV charging stations in Malaysia, (mostly in the Klang Valley), which is not enough to meet the needs of an emerging surge in EV sales. Recognising gaps and infrastructure development needs, the Malaysian government has pledged to build 10,000 EV charging stations by 2025 in collaboration with local companies.

Electricity and transportation underpin Malaysia’s domestic and international competitiveness. We need to move at pace to meet our commitments if we are to remain competitive in the global marketplace. The articulation of Malaysia Madani and the National Planetary Health Action Plan, and the development of incentives, are all pointing us in the right direction. But the clock is ticking relentlessly. We need to be equally relentless in turning words and vision into action – and here progress remains rather mixed.

I’m proud to be Malaysian, to see that there is renewed vision and leadership, even after the tough few years we have gone through. But there is no time to waste. And we, as citizens, must also play our part; educate ourselves, change our behaviours and push our families, friends and neighbours to do the same.

Dr Jemilah Mahmood, a physician and experienced crisis leader, was appointed the executive director of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health at Sunway University in August 2021. She is the founder of aid organisation Mercy Malaysia and has served in leadership roles internationally with the United Nations and Red Cross for the last decade. She writes on Planetary Health Matters once a month under Ecowatch.

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