To help Malaysia head off frequent floods and choking air pollution caused by forest fires, new prime minister Anwar Ibrahim should tap more global green funding to protect nature and tackle the effects of warming, climate change experts say.
Ending a decades-long wait to lead the Southeast Asian nation, largely ruled by one coalition since independence, Anwar, 75, formed a government with rival political blocs after last November’s election, hampered by flooding, produced a hung parliament.
So far, Anwar has focused on corruption and the rising cost of living but has said little on how he will bolster Malaysia’s green credentials aside from merging the energy and natural resources ministry with the environment and water ministry.
“It’s still early days … (but) I am hopeful the Anwar government can be much more proactive on the climate and biodiversity agenda,” said Meena Raman, president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia.
“Recognising the climate emergency, recognising the importance of adaptation and loss and damage there is a lot that can be done,” she said in an interview.
She urged the new government, for example, to curb flooding not just by building grey infrastructure like drainage tunnels, but also by channelling money into conservation and restoration of upstream forest and wetlands.
Like many countries in the region, Malaysia is hit regularly by the impacts of extreme weather and rising temperatures whether choking haze linked to regional forest fires, water shortages, droughts or severe floods.
Flooding that started in late 2021 caused nearly $1.5 billion in losses and displaced more than 120,000 people.
Meanwhile, despite being one of the world’s 17 countries with mega-rich biodiversity, Malaysia is also a major producer of palm oil, timber and timber products which many environmentalists have blamed for high deforestation rates.
While chalking up a fifth year of declines in forest losses in 2021, Malaysia still ranked ninth among the top nations for tropical deforestation, according to Global Forest Watch.
Henry Chan, head of conservation at WWF-Malaysia, said the government should seek to develop the country’s natural resources sustainably or risk losing them.
“Let’s strengthen current political resolve and commit to meet our net-zero and other climate and biodiversity targets,” he urged.
Although Malaysia often suffers monsoon-season flooding which forests can help mitigate climate change and the environment were largely absent in last year’s election.
Voters were more concerned with the economy, healthcare, political stability, corruption and the cost of living.
Yet, despite Covid-19 and recent political turmoil, Malaysia was among more than 140 nations pledging to halt deforestation by 2030 at the 2021 UN climate summit in Glasgow.
It also endorsed a landmark global deal to boost nature protection agreed last December.
Friends of the Earth’s Raman said budget pressures from the economic impacts of the pandemic and inflation meant Malaysia should make a bigger push to access international green funding to help bankroll its climate action.
After the severe floods in late 2021, for example, Malaysia sought $3 million from the donor-backed Green Climate Fund to develop a national plan to adapt to climate change.
Malaysia has a goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, and the previous government’s 2022 budget earmarked 100 million ringgit ($23 million) to help states protect forests and marine areas, up from 70 million ringgit previously.
Raman said greater financial incentives were needed for states whose economies largely rely on plantations of crops like durian, to help them stem forest loss.
“Malaysia needs to do much more it can do better in many (climate) fields,” she added.
The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Climate change act?
Renard Siew, a climate change advisor at the Centre for Governance and Political Studies, a Malaysian think-tank, said many local green groups welcomed the quick decision to merge the natural resources and environment ministries.
The move will consolidate work and make handling environmental issues easier, he noted.
Many environmentalists also now hope the government will bring in a “Climate Change Act” along with a national strategy for climate adaptation, first proposed in 2018 but sidelined amid political turmoil after 2020.
“(An act) would be a game-changer as it reaffirms the country’s steadfast commitment to delivering on climate action,” Siew said.
Nur Sakeenah Omar, a campaigner at Greenpeace Malaysia, said Anwar, who this month visited neighbouring Indonesia on his first overseas trip as leader, should also introduce a clean air or transboundary haze pollution act.
As an opposition leader since the 1990s, Anwar had a record of highlighting issues linked to climate change including flooding, deforestation and air pollution in both the media and parliament, according to Greenpeace Malaysia.
In mid-2021, he pointed to illegal logging in protected areas as a factor contributing to flooding in rural Kedah state, calling for better monitoring, after a government minister described the floods as an “act of God”.
WWF-Malaysia’s Chan urged the new government to focus on protecting nature and implementing commitments made at international climate and biodiversity summits.
The coalition’s political parties must also fulfil their election promises on the environment, he said.
“The new government provides us with an opportunity to reset our broken relationship with the natural world,” he added.
“We have an opportunity now to course-correct for the sake of people and the planet.”