Environment and sustainability just as important

THE Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM) joins the nation in welcoming the outcome of the 14th General Election and shares their aspiration that this political transformation will herald a new era for Malaysia. We congratulate the people and Pakatan Harapan for their tremendous work and sacrifice in enabling this outstanding achievement.

Of immediate concern is that the environment was not identified as one of the 10 core Cabinet portfolios. While we expect that the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry may be restructured, we anticipate that the core functions of protecting biodiversity and the environment will be retained as integral components for us to achieve holistic and inclusive sustainable development.

This approach will also fulfil Janji 39 of the Pakatan Harapan Manifesto – Balancing economic growth with environmental protection.

Of additional concern is the statement that the priorities of the government will be economy and finance, and that Malaysia will be a business-friendly government mooted through the Malaysia Incorporated Policy introduced in 1981.

We wish to highlight that the scenario of the 1980s is different from 2018, when the planet is under severe threat. Various milestones since the first Earth Summit 1992 have warned humanity of the decline in ecosystems on which human survival depends.

With the availability of measurement tools for sustainable development such as ecological footprint analysis, there is clear evidence we are living beyond the ecological limits of one planet, to the detriment of future generations. To be even more precise, the Living Planet Report 2016 shows the global community is consuming the resources of 1.6 planets. With an ecological footprint of 3.7 global hectares (gha) against the level of sustainability of 1.7 gha, Malaysia is consuming the resources of 2.2 planets.

Our ecological overshoot is already beginning to affect the well-being of Malaysians when five states in Peninsular Malaysia are considered water-deficit states. Furthermore, due to uncontrolled development 377 rivers in Malaysia have become narrower and shallower raising the risk of flooding during heavy rain.

The challenge for the new government is for Malaysia to develop in a sustainable manner, which contributes to the well-being of Malaysians while respecting ecological limits. There is a need to make a shift in the economy to respect these principles and grow in a manner where nature is also conserved to continue to provide the ecosystem services such as flood mitigation, pollination, clean water, weather regulation, cultural and aesthetic provisions that have been globally estimated to be worth around US$125 trillion a year. This "free" service by nature is a critical input to the development of this nation. Failure to factor in these "invisible" contributions will lead to natural disasters.

As the authors of the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice, state: "… humanity must practise a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual … We must recognise, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home."

Two of the negative effects of increasing ecological footprint are biodiversity loss and climate change, which is widely considered the greatest environmental catastrophe facing humanity. As a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the government is committed to halting biodiversity loss while pursuing low-carbon development pathway, respectively.

Central to these commitments are the need to shift towards mainstreaming biodiversity that promotes sustainable land use, and prioritising energy efficiency and renewable energy while also phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas). In this regard, the government's plan to re-introduce the subsidy for fuel contradicts this position and goes against global trends. Further, studies have shown that such subsidies benefit the rich more than the poor and will encourage leakages across our borders. The government is urged to provide financial assistance to communities that need the most in a targeted and directed manner.

Having committed to the Paris Agreement, the removal of fuel subsidies and any increase of coal in our energy mix could well prevent us from attracting investments from the European Union. Getting locked into a fossil fuel trap will also prove to be very costly in years to come when Malaysia, having achieved developed country status, is required to significantly and additionally reduce its emissions of climate change-inducing greenhouse gases under the UNFCCC.

In tandem with policies on the economy and finance the government is urged to also urgently set up a high-level committee of environmental experts to advise on the best institutional framework to implement economic development while ensuring all policies across every arm of government (federal, local and state) conform to principles of ecological sustainability. Otherwise, the environment will prevent us from achieving the very development we aspire for.

In supporting the formation of a new Cabinet that reflects the aspirations and well-being of the rakyat and emphasises environmental stewardship, EPSM hopes this will lead to the creation of an institutional framework to mainstream sustainable development in Malaysia.

Nithi Nesadurai
Environmental Protection Society Malaysia