Nation finds it difficult to balance climate goals and economic progress

PENANG: Government leaders in Malaysia tend to send conflicting signals when it comes to combating climate change as they constantly have to balance ecological sustainability and economic progress.

Prof Abdul Rashid Abdul Aziz from the School of Technology and Engineering Science (STE), Wawasan Open University (WOU), was giving his keynote speech on “From Rio Earth Summit to COP26: Malaysia’s Pledges, Political Leadership, Policies, Administrative Apparatus and Performance” at the Symposium on ‘Technologies for Sustainable Urban Development (TechSUD 2023)’ at the main campus yesterday.

He highlighted Malaysia’s green journey from its pledge at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to its most recent commitment at the COP26 (Conference of Parties 26) in 2021 to reduce carbon intensity by 45% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, and its ambitious target to be carbon neutral by 2050. 

“In the span of 30 years, Malaysia’s commitment to combat climate change has become increasingly ambitious. Articulating pledges is easy. Fulfilling those pledges while addressing the nation’s aspiration is no easy feat,” he observed.

He said in the last four years, despite the different Prime Ministers’ commitment to the green agenda and sustainability, their actions upon taking power are conflicting, including reneging on their promises, such as the approval of the Penang South Reclamation project.

Prof Rashid quoted Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as saying this is because they must weigh environmental protection measures against growing socio-economic development needs, such as the increased demand for food and water and other infrastructures that endanger natural resources and environment.

He also referred to the Washington Post investigation in 2021 that accused Malaysia, just like many other countries, of under-reporting its greenhouse gas emissions in its biennial update report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The government strongly denied the claim. The newspaper stated that the 285-page document to the UNFCC “suggests that Malaysia’s trees are absorbing carbon four times faster than similar forests in neighbouring Indonesia”.

He said Malaysia is not the only country that has to juggle ecological sustainability and economic progress. He strongly cautioned, “Some climate scientists are warning that we are standing on the cliff-edge. If some countries including Malaysia are under-reporting their greenhouse emissions to UNFCC, then the implication is that we are closer to the cliff-edge than we think.”

The other keynote speaker, Prof Dr Ian Robert Pashby, Chairman of the Board of Governors, Peninsula College, and Group President, Peninsula Higher Education, spoke on “The Danger of Air Pollution in An Ever Urbanising World”.

He said 4.4 billion of the current global population of about 8.05 billion is living in urban environments that impose “tremendous stress upon the environment, and upon the people that inhabit these areas”.

He listed six major issues to be addressed in the development of sustainable cities -suburban sprawl, waste disposal, energy use, climate change, water quality and air quality.

Focusing his paper on air quality, he said poor air quality is estimated to annually cause over 6 million premature deaths, 93 million days of illness, and a loss of economic activity valued at US$8 trillion globally.

TechSUD 2023 was organised by WOU and Technological Association Malaysia (TAM) from May 13th-14th, and attended by over 100 participants from higher learning institutions and industry.

Nearly 40 technical papers were presented on policies and strategies in urban development, green technologies in sustainable urban planning, and other topics. The aim of the symposium was to increase community awareness and participation in the country’s sustainability agenda. 

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