Monday, February 19, 2018

Reimagining Malaysia Part 14: Climate Change Madness

Have you heard about the term climate change madness? 

It was popularized by the head of the Philippines delegation, Yeb Sano, who made international headlines with his emotional speech at the opening session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November 2013 [1]. At the time of his speech, Super Typhoon Haiyan had just hit the Philippines and caused catastrophic damage to the country. His speech brought tears to the eyes of many of the delegates and was met with a standing ovation.

However, emotions without actions mean little. At the end of 2016, 195 countries, including the US* and China, which are the two biggest carbon emitters, came together and signed the Paris Agreement. This was the first time in history that countries around the world had collectively agreed to undertake efforts to cut carbon emission to keep the global temperature increase below 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels [2].

While carbon emission reduction can slow the pace of global temperature increase, the earth will almost certainly become warmer [3]. Carbon emission reduction can only reduce the extent of temperature increase.

If carbon emissions were to reduce significantly, the rise in the global average surface temperature could be limited to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. This is what the Paris Agreement is trying to achieve. In short, whatever we do now, global warming is bound to happen and it is going to negatively impact our lives, depending on the extent of the temperature increase.

Generally, there are two aspects to tackling climate change – adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation consists of taking steps to reduce the impact of climate change while mitigation is related to taking steps to reduce carbon emission, and hence the extent of global warming.

I shall discuss these two aspects in the Malaysian context.


Since climate change is inevitable, Malaysia needs to anticipate the negative effects of it and take the appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage. The figure below gives examples of the impact of climate change that is listed by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) from different aspects – water, ecosystems, food, coast and health, according to different temperature thresholds [4]. The size of the impact is dependent on the extent of adaptation, the rate of temperature change and socio-economic factors.

Impact of Global Warming at Different Temperature Thresholds 
Source: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, IPCC, 2007, p.51 

To ensure that Malaysia is fully prepared to face the “climate change madness”, we urgently need to have a comprehensive national climate change adaptation and extreme weather disaster risk management programme.

For example, there will be changing rain patterns, rising mean sea levels (coastal floods) and more frequent extreme weather events. Because of this, our infrastructure and building codes must be adapted to meet unpredictable weather conditions. We also need to optimise our scarce water sources, examine risks associated with the country’s ecosystem, and evaluate and manage our health and food systems.

Aside from the inability of our conventional infrastructure planning methods to withstand the changing weather patterns, my other worry about climate change is its negative impact on food production. The United Nations has projected that up to 25 percent of global food production could be lost by 2050 due to the combined impact of climate change, land degradation and water scarcity. In the meantime, the global population is projected to increase from the current 7 billion to about 9.5 billion [5].

This figure shows that temperature increase will have an impact on crop production in countries all over the world [6].

Relative Change of Food Yield by 2050 for a 3 degree Celsius Warmer World 
Source: World Resource Institute, 2014. 

The map indicates that Malaysia will also face a decrease in food productivity. Therefore, we need to start working on biotechnology that will help our crop production to be more resilient to diseases, temperature change and water stress.

At our current income and technological level, while we may be able to avoid food crisis and starvation, there will likely be an increase in food prices. In addition, crop productivity in some of our poorer neighbors’, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, India and Pakistan among others, will also be severely affected by global warming. There is a possibility that these countries will be faced with a food crisis.

What does that mean for us in Malaysia? Even without social unrest or war, there will be large-scale migration by the people from these countries to less affected and richer countries, including Malaysia.

Hence, when we are considering climate impact on food production, we need to do more than just improving agricultural technology and develop climate-resistant crops. We also need a proper legal framework, possibly with other countries, to manage migration and refugees, which could become a more pressing issue in the days to come.


Now, let’s shift our attention to mitigation aspect of climate change. To reduce the extent of global warming, we need to reduce carbon emission.

According to Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), which is published annually by Germanwatch [7], Malaysia is one of the poorest performing countries when it comes to reducing its carbon footprint. Since the publication of the CCPI in 2005, Malaysia has consistently ranked in the bottom 30 per cent of the list. In the latest CCPI (2017), we are ranked 44th out of a total of 61 countries.
The government’s Green Technology Financing Scheme (introduced in 2009) and Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA, which was introduced in 2011), which are designed to assist in carbon emission reduction, have apparently failed to make a contribution to Malaysia’s climate change performance. As of 2015, renewable energy is still only a small part of Malaysia’s total energy supply, with only about four percent from hydropower and 0.74 percent from other non-hydropower renewable sources.

All in all, Malaysia is not doing enough to reduce its carbon emission level.

Having said that, we should recognise that Malaysia is a small country and as such, cannot contribute much towards combating global warming no matter how much we cut our carbon emission level. As of 2014, China, the US and countries in the European Union are the biggest emitters, releasing 30 percent, 15 percent and nine percent of global carbon emissions respectively [8].

The extent of climate change depends on how the big emitters and countries around the world respond to the call to overcome climate change. As for Malaysia, even if we manage to cut our carbon emission significantly, we would not be making much of a dent in global carbon emission.

If that’s the case, why should Malaysia do anything to mitigate climate change?

In Chinese, the word for crisis is 危机, with 危 as the word for danger while 机 represents opportunity. This means that there is opportunity in every danger/difficulty. While the world is facing a climate change crisis, Malaysia should identify and develop industries that will help to mitigate it, which could also be a job-creating opportunity.

We should also have strategic plans to develop green technology in Malaysia because the green market will only become bigger as the world shifts towards less carbon-intensive products and energy sources to meet Paris Agreement commitments. While the US has pulled out of the Paris Agreement, many US corporations, cities and states are still committed to honouring the agreement, which means that the market for green technology is almost certain to grow.

As discussed in the previous episode, solar and wind power can now be as cost competitive as fossil fuels. Hence, developing green businesses is not only the right thing to do morally to safeguard the world – it also makes great business sense.

For example, Denmark’s wind farms can now produce more energy than the domestic electricity demand, so the nation now exports electricity powered by the wind to Norway, Germany and Sweden [9]. China, which used to copy the world’s solar panel technology, is now “utterly and totally” dominating the solar panel industry, says Fortune magazine [10].

Malaysia should also do the same. We should make concerted efforts to diversify from the oil and gas industry and move towards green “pastures” to prepare the country for a global future with less carbon.

Climate Change and the Future of Malaysia

Overall, we need to form a National Council of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation, which consists of scientists from various fields, government officials and other relevant experts, to systematically look into the impact of climate change on the country and take necessary adaption and mitigation measures before it is too late.

Indeed, the future is full of unknowns. Will the Paris Agreement be able to keep the global temperature under control? Or will we live in a world where we need to bear with the many socio-economic impacts of climate change? No one knows. But one thing is certain, we need to be prepared for climate change to survive and thrive in the future.

This article is extracted from a chapter of my upcoming book, "Reimagining Malaysia."

* The US under President Donald Trump has pulled out from the Paris Agreement but many US businesses, cities and states continue be committed to honouring the agreement.

[1] Matt McGrath. Typhoon prompts 'fast' by Philippines climate delegate. 11 Nov 2013 [31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[2] European Commission. Paris Agreement. [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[3] Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland. 2014 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[4] Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. 2007 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[5] Daniel Wallis. UN says food production may fall 25 percent by 2050. Reuters. 18 Feb 2009 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[6] Tien Shia, Francis Gassert, Kelly Witkowski. Latin American Experts Need Good Data to Plan for Water Stress and a Changing Climate. World Resource Institute. 9 Oct 2017 [ cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from

[7] German Watch. Climate change performance index. [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from

[8] US Environmental Protection Agency. Global greenhouse gas emissions data. [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from

[9] Arthur Neslen. Wind power generates 140% of Denmark’s electricity demand. The Guardian. 10 July 2015 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from

[10] Katie Fehrenbacher. China is utterly and totally dominating solar panels. Fortune. 18 Jun 2015 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from