New government can seize initiative on environmental issues like flooding, overdevelopment

THE newly formed and merged Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change is a welcome move as the environment and natural resources are closely linked. The new minister already has his hands full dealing with the recent Batang Kali landslide. While there are many challenges and unresolved issues to consider, the new government should consider these eight key areas when charting its environment and climate change priorities.

1. Climate change and environment as national security issue 

Climate change and ecological crisis are destabilising forces that will have varying security and strategic implications for all countries, including Malaysia. Climate change is increasingly being viewed as a security threat by governments. Some of these implications include trade barriers, territorial integrity, resource scarcity (water, energy, and food security), influx of climate refugees, conflicts, displacement and civil unrest. These risks are contextual and based on national circumstances and future climate scenarios. Efforts should be made to assess climate risks in terms of national security. This assessment should pave the way for the development of foreign policy and climate-resilient strategies.

2. Expansion of 50% forest cover target 

Malaysia’s pledge to retain at least 50% of its land mass under forest cover is its flagship environmental policy to showcase its sustainability commitment. As of 2022, Malaysia has kept 54% of its forests. However, one major concern with this target is that it can provide a false sense of security and accomplishment. This is because the target is based on a forest definition that does not consider biodiversity. As a result, the target includes clearcut harvest, wood-based plantations and fragmented forest islands, none of which provides the same level of ecosystem services as natural forests. Specific forest/land use targets should be set through additional indicators – based on condition, gazettement status, ecosystem types  and/or connectivity. These targets can improve the design and disbursement of the ecological fiscal transfer.

3. Flood governance as a shared responsibility  

Holistic approaches to flood management, such as integrated management and river basin management, are frequently discussed, as are new concepts like sponge cities and nature-based solutions. Despite growing awareness of these approaches and evidence of their effectiveness, flood-mitigation efforts in Malaysia continue to rely on costly, traditional structural and heavy engineering solutions that can harm natural river systems. One reason for this is that no economic rationale or incentive exists to address irresponsible land use practices. Flooding is still viewed as the sole responsibility of the Department of Irrigation and Drainage and the federal government, rather than a collaborative effort among stakeholders at all levels. The current failed incentive situation, in which the federal government bears all flood-mitigation costs despite state government activities – monoculture plantation, hill cutting, development in river reserve – must be rectified through a more climate and nature-friendly federal-state fiscal arrangement.

4. Regulatory framework on climate change  

The upcoming National Climate Change Act will be the first step in developing a clear legal framework on climate change. The framework is expected to clarify actors’ obligations and responsibilities governing and establishing rules and regulations on climate change. Aside from focusing on carbon emissions, and pricing and regulating carbon markets, it should pave the way for the institutionalisation of a rights-based approach and accountability measures. For example, holding parties accountable for renewable energy or carbon offset projects that ignore the rights of local and indigenous communities, and development projects that increase vulnerabilities to disaster. An independent and apolitical oversight body should regulate climate-related matters.

5. National transformative agenda on localising climate resilience  

Malaysia’s focus on mitigation has been on reducing emissions and now, navigating transition risks. But with increased flooding and extreme weather events, adaptation has received a lot of attention. As the world approaches the 1.5° Celsius threshold within the next decade, we will face more severe and unavoidable climate hazards. Unless Malaysia begins to prioritise adaptation and resilience, our most vulnerable population will be hit the hardest, undermining our progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The national adaptation plan has been on the drawing board since 2015. Time is a luxury as climatic hazards are felt more frequently and fiercely across the country. As an immediate next step, the government should introduce a climate resilience at the local level. For example, the Low Carbon City Framework introduced in 2009 initiated the low carbon agenda for cities, but we need a similar framework for resilient cities and towns.

6. Economic instruments for adaptation and disaster-risk reduction  

The government is developing economic instruments, such as carbon pricing, to address the social cost of carbon. Another set of instruments are needed to resolve market failures induced by harmful development practices and risk-transfer mechanisms for loss and damage. For example, putting a risk-based surcharge system in environmentally sensitive areas, such as highlands and flood plains, to ensure land development sensitive to natural hazards. The designs and implementation can be complex, but the goals must fulfil both economic and environmental objectives. Risk-transfer instruments can also be explored, such as climate risk insurance, which is subsidised by the government to boost uptake and resource pooling.

7. Seascape approach to coastal, marine resources management  

Malaysia’s coastlines and oceans are rich in biological, geological and socio-cultural diversity, contributing to its natural heritage. But depleting fish stocks, environmental degradation and climate risks, such as rising sea levels and coral bleaching, threaten land and resource security and coastal communities’ livelihoods. Our conservation policies and initiatives have always focused on the land rather than marine environment. We need an integrated and holistic approach to marine management to regulate development and manage coastal and marine resources, including the establishment of large-scale marine protected areas. The National Coastal Physical Plan 2 and the National Physical Plan 4 have already identified several marine conservation areas to increase our protected area coverage from 3.2% to 8.1%.

8. Strategic environmental assessment  

The current approach of managing development through the environmental impact assessment does not address cumulative and interacting impacts at the landscape level from linear infrastructure, plantations, logging and mining. The EIA process occurs late in the decision-making cycle, frequently after a development project has been approved, in principle, making it difficult to amend or reject high-risk proposals. One of the most effective ways to mitigate landscape-level environmental damage is through a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) to incorporate and consider environmental, social and climate risks at all planning stages. It will consider existing development and spatial planning and local plan and sectoral economic policies.

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