This month marks a time when the environment comes into focus, beginning with World Environment Day (WED) on June 5. Inaugurated in 1974, the day is the United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging worldwide awareness of and action for the protection of our environment.
World Environment Day has always had a special significance for the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM), which was also inaugurated in 1974 by founder and then president Gurmit Singh. The society has regularly commemorated the day from its inception by organising events. One memorable activity in the mid-1980s had the society’s members cycle from SS2 in Petaling Jaya to Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur to show that cycling is a practical and environmentally-friendly way of commuting.
In 2001, the EPSM launched its first WED public forum, which was co-hosted with Kuala Lumpur City Hall. This continued every WED for several years. Our plan to reintroduce the forum this year had to be called off due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
WED provides an opportunity to reflect on the environment from a global perspective as well as take an in-depth view at the situation in Malaysia. With regards to nature, an alarming loss of flora, fauna and microorganisms, otherwise known as biodiversity, continues. The 2018 Living Planet Report states that in the past 50 years, there has been a 60% decline in population sizes worldwide, with species loss particularly prominent in the tropics.
In Malaysia, while the commitment to maintain at least 50% of its land area under forest cover made at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 is often highlighted by the federal government, state governments retain the right to make land-use decisions based on their economic requirements.
While we continue to lose our nature, excessive production and consumption of natural capital driven by human behaviour among the privileged has led us to live beyond the ecological limits of one planet based on ecological footprint analysis. According to the Living Planet Report, while humanity in general is already in an ecological overshoot, consuming the resources of 2.7 planets, we in Malaysia use the resources of 3.9 planets, without adjusting for equity. In simple language, this means we are using natural capital worth RM390 in a year even though we only have a budget for RM100. In comparison, Malaysia’s ecological overshoot in 2007 was within the global average.
As the carbon footprint is the biggest component of an ecological footprint, this in particular has led to the environmental catastrophe of climate change. The window for addressing this calamity by halting the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels is closing. If not urgently addressed, this will not end well.
Covid-19, which has resulted in a huge loss in lives, livelihoods and jobs, has severely curbed economic and human activities due to lockdowns and various movement control orders (MCO) worldwide. This has enabled a pause in environmental degradation. A Tenaga Nasional official on May 31 said electricity consumption – a major contributor of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change – in the commercial and industrial sectors had decreased by between 25% and 50% during the MCO period.
Covid-19 demonstrates how fragile human societies are when confronted by the forces of nature – and it is not necessarily only the less developed countries. This relationship should not be underestimated; humanity’s ability to weather future storms may very well depend on a supporting natural ecosystem that is well protected and preserved.
On a positive note, the MCO period demonstrates that governments have the willpower to create change under critical circumstances, which is what is needed for the environment. So how do we move forward from here? With a focus on nature, the EPSM offers six recommendations:
Integrate sustainability into all of government decision making – As advocated by the EPSM since the inception of its Sustainable Living in Malaysia (SLiM) programme in 2007, there is a need to create an institutional framework to make sustainable development a mainstream process across all ministries and government agencies, and through all levels of government – federal, state and local. This sustainability shift includes integrating impacts on biodiversity and climate change into every decision made by government. This has to be enabled by redesigning agencies, as the present structure of functioning in silos does not facilitate integrated and cross-sectoral decision-making.
Strengthen federal-state collaboration – State governments assert that they need to exploit natural resources, through logging in particular, to generate revenue. This puts them and their reliant neighbouring states at risk of water security and flooding. By engaging and partnering with the federal government, state governments can access global environmental funds – such as the Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund and Global Environment Facility – that are available as an incentive for protecting and maintaining biodiversity. State governments are also urged to engage with all stakeholders prior to making land-use decisions so that alternative views on raising revenue, including payment for ecosystem services, can be harnessed.
Look beyond GDP – The government is urged to look beyond gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary indicator for its performance. GDP does not account for inequality, equity and wasteful development. For example, the construction of office buildings, malls and residential premises would have contributed to our GDP. Yet, the chronic overhang shows they have been overbuilt due to misplaced demand and may become stranded assets, while affordable housing still remains elusive. GDP does not account for externalities or environmental damage caused by development such as loss of biodiversity and climate change. As an alternative for performance measurement, the government can develop its own sustainability indicators which reflect ecological sustainability, equality and social inclusion, together with economic indicators.
Strengthen local administration – Many decisions that affect quality of life, environment and urban design are made at the level of local authorities. As Malaysia is already 76% urbanised, the importance of living in harmony with nature is even more critical. More attention needs to be given to how planning can accommodate urban ecology in a holistic manner. As these concepts can best be addressed with the active participation of all stakeholders within a structured engagement framework with accountability and transparency, it is timely to conduct a study to re-introduce local government elections as the prerequisite to enable this.
Uphold environmental laws and regulations – Existing legislation pertaining to the natural and built environment, eg enactments and policies, should be upheld and implemented diligently. Elected officials should be responsive to the demands of the people and the needs of natural ecosystems providing vital free services, where rehabilitation, regeneration and rejuvenation are necessary for both wildlife and habitats to function properly.
Revolutionise production and consumption – Manufacturers should take the lead in revolutionising their production patterns and extend their responsibility for their products throughout the chain of custody – from production until end-of-life. They should be equally concerned about how a product is handled at the point of disposal. The polluter-pays principle and extended producer’s responsibility should be properly applied in the enforcement of environmental quality standards. The talents of the advertising industry should be enlisted to promote sustainable consumption.
We urge our decision- and policymakers to create a new and innovative normal with sustainability at the core as we emerge from the Covid-19 MCO period and resume economic activities.
President, Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM)