Planetary survival matters

Time for change: Delegates in the Action Zone attending the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow. — AFP

THE language of climate change, protecting the environment and sustainability now permeates through every sphere of life. At the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) – and indeed, other organisations that advocate institutional reforms, human rights, international trade or economic issues – there is a realisation that it is meaningless unless we preserve the planet.

As a director in companies spanning different sectors from manufacturing to financial services, I’ve seen how annual reports boast Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) credentials. Some dismiss this as greenwashing but in many cases the private sector is far ahead of government.

Even if stakeholders are worried about the impact on the bottom line, the ubiquitous vocabulary of doing good ostracises companies who do bad: for example, single-use plastic has disappeared from boardrooms and conferences.Every form of art – from movies, music, theatre, dance and visual arts – has advocates using their talent to spread climate awareness. Some use traditional instruments, fabrics and styles to highlight connections between indigenous communities and the Earth, and others use the language of innovation to show how we can prosper in the future. For me, the documentaries of David Attenborough were the primary window into Earth’s wonders, and his concerns about the planet’s deterioration increase with each new production.

But for many in Gen Z, climate awareness has been starker and much angrier. A powerful narrative is that boomers have knowingly squandered the planet’s resources and disruptive action is necessary to force change. For this generation, flying around the world for friends’ weddings, special concerts or short holidays is unacceptable: consumption patterns – even expectations of standards of living – must change.

Adopting the logic of past human rights movements, and represented by icons such as Greta Thunberg, marches, sit-ins and strikes have become routine in pushing for greener public policy. One group in Britain which wants the government to insulate all homes has deliberately blockaded roads, drawing the ire of motorists, with even emergency vehicles being delayed. This has obviously divided public opinion.

But as Thunberg has tweeted, “Change won’t come from COP26 unless there is big public pressure from the outside,” referring to the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ongoing in Glasgow.

Addressing world leaders, Queen Elizabeth II hoped that “history books... will describe you as the leaders who did not pass up the opportunity”.

Fellow nonagenarian Sir David centred around the amount of carbon in our atmosphere, saying “the generation to come will look at this conference and consider one thing: Did that number stop rising and start to drop as a result of commitments made here?”

As countries are asked to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 (which some activists say is insufficient), there is naturally plenty of politics and geopolitics.

Host Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s apparently powerful words are condemned as hypocritical by the UK opposition, while Joe Biden’s excoriation of China and Russia are countered by his own challenges in pushing through climate-related policies in Congress (fuelling debate on which system of government is best suited to save the planet).As island nations despair for their very existence, and while Indian Prime Minister Modi has pledged to achieve net-zero by 2070 instead, others point out that China has nonetheless done more in terms of high-speed rail and electric vehicle infrastructure than anyone else.

Malaysian EV enthusiasts celebrated the incentives unveiled in the budget, though more will need to be done to make our carbon emissions per capita lower than China’s.

Even though our Prime Minister is not attending, the head of delegation to COP26 Environment and Water Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Zaini Ujang tells me we are deeply involved in negotiation sessions.

I know that others within the government, alongside civil society activists, have been working to ensure Malaysia achieves net-zero by 2050, with a dedicated Climate Change Bill in the works. I hope the Malaysian Climate Action Council will play a meaningful role in this process too.

Given the level of awareness of younger people – and their rightful inclusion with Undi 18 and automated voter registration – educational institutions will have a profound role to play.

In her recent article, executive director of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood invited readers to respond to her call for action to prevent the next pandemic, tackle the climate emergency, create healthy cities, achieve food security and promote fairer economies.

“We are a small country, but we have proved our determination on many occasions,” she concluded.

Hopefully, COP26’s outcomes will help Malaysia survive long enough for us to emerge with our own solutions to achieve prosperity and sustainability.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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