A man walks through floodwaters in Taman Sri Muda, Malaysia, December 2021 (Image: Alamy)

As Disasters Rise, Climate Change Act Clearly Needed

While its towns bear the consequences of extreme weather, experts and politicians push for a long-awaited climate bill to be signed into law.

MANY Malaysians remember the floods of December 2021, when roads turned to rivers, and homes were swept away or submerged by rising water. 

The disaster claimed 50 lives, at least 400,000 people had to be evacuated and financial losses were estimated at RM6.1 billion, according to a 2022 analysis by Serina Rahman, an environmental anthropologist.

Young Syefura Othman, the member of parliament for Bentong district in Pahang, recalls how three consecutive days of pelting rain inundated her constituency. The flooding happened “of course because of climate change,” she said.

(A man walks through floodwaters in Taman Sri Muda, Malaysia, December 2021  | Image: Alamy)

Residents, fearing for their lives and property, have since raised their concerns with Young Syefura about the many landslides caused by the rains.

Given the prevalence of flooding and other results of extreme weather, is Malaysia equipped – legally, logistically and financially – to mitigate and adapt to its changing climate?

Top-level policy will be crucial to meeting the challenge. Under the country’s current plans and policies, its energy consumption will double by 2050, when it will emit 280 million tonnes of CO2, according to a recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

For the country to reach its ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2050, it must double planned investments in the renewable energy transition, so they total USD375 billion (RM1,740 billion) by that year, the report found.

Bill mooted in 2018

In 2018, Malaysia’s then environment minister Yeo Bee Yin mooted the idea of drafting a climate bill to help tackle the rising risks of the climate emergency. However, political turmoil, which saw four national governments come and go in under four years, put a halt to the idea.

In parliament this February, Young Syefura raised the climate bill issue with Malaysia’s Minister of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad.

Young Syefura said the bill was needed “firstly to preserve and conserve the environment and, secondly, to protect the people around areas prone to these disasters.”

Nik Nazmi responded that the ministry is in the early stages of developing the bill, which would take two to three years to complete. The bill will take a “whole-nation approach” that includes engagement with relevant stakeholders, he added.

Legislating business

With no draft published, the details of the proposed bill remain vague. Serina, who is also a lecturer at the National University of Singapore, said the bill should entail top-down legislation for big businesses. These companies are harder to control because they have the power to negotiate around governmental restrictions and regulations, she added.

While Serina recommends stricter legislation be included in the bill, she cautions that it should not affect the everyday consumer.

Any new policy “should not add to … pain amongst the poor.”

– Serina Rahman

Meanwhile, Young Syefura is hoping for a bill that would improve environmental management and put in place stricter laws for individuals, farm operators, manufacturers and large companies.

The natural resources ministry said climate change is a battle it cannot fight alone. To put the bill together, it needs cooperation from other ministries and entities at a subnational level.

The act has the potential to reduce the impacts of climate change on society in a just manner, and will include “provisions to strengthen the institutional and governance structure of climate change in Malaysia.”

The ministry also stated that the bill will help Malaysia to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement – which seeks to facilitate countries’ efforts to keep global warming to below 2C while aiming to cap it at 1.5C.

As detailed in Malaysia’s 2021 update to its climate plan under the Paris Agreement, the country intends to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 45% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. In its national plan for 2021–25, the government described its strategy for the low-carbon transition:

“The focus will be on developing enabling instruments for climate action, including carbon pricing. In addition, efforts will also be focused on promoting green and resilient cities and townships, enhancing green mobility and augmenting the consumption of low-carbon energy as well as expanding the green market and GGP [government green procurement].”

A car wrecked by flooding on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur (Image: Alamy)
A car wrecked by flooding on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur (Image: Alamy)
The need for a Climate Act

In 2021, Malaysia’s GDP reached RM1,545 billion, making it the fifth-largest economy in Southeast Asia. In the same year, the country experienced RM6.1 billion of losses due to flooding – 0.4% of GDP.

Damage from flooding in 2022 was less severe but still serious, with the country facing RM622.4 million in losses, according to a report by the Department of Statistics.

The extreme weather has left Malaysia’s economy with a vulnerable supply chain as flood damage hit its manufacturing plants, industrial areas and agricultural infrastructure.

Young Syefura said the climate change bill is also necessary to protect food sources, as these are indirectly impacted by the effects of climate change on the food web.

The department’s report showed that last year Malaysia’s rice paddy sector recorded the highest losses due to floods, at RM81.4 million. This was followed by the livestock sector at RM36.9 million and non-rice crops at RM33.2 million.

“We need to stop talking and start working now, because climate change is like a ticking time bomb.”

– Young Syufera Othman

Adam Farhan, co-founder of RimbaWatch, an environmental watchdog focusing on deforestation, climate change and human rights, said the proposed bill represents Malaysia’s best chance of decarbonising and delivering its fair share of global efforts to mitigate warming.

Though Malaysia is only responsible for about 1% of global emissions annually, Adam said this is still a significant share.

He added that Malaysia’s current environmental laws are “grossly outdated, unambitious and insufficient” to deal with 21st-century environmental problems such as emissions and continued deforestation.

Guidelines for environmental impact assessments – which help decision-makers identify the impacts of proposed projects – do currently exist under the Environmental Quality Act. But these do not have any solid provisions to mitigate climate change or biodiversity loss, he said.

“The environmental authorities need to … understand that we are in a climate and biodiversity crisis, and rebuild legislation from that standpoint,” he said.

Adapting to a changing world

Another challenge, according to the ministry, is building awareness of climate change, “so people would understand the purpose of the bill and why certain measures are needed.”

According to the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s) Fifth Assessment Report, released in 2014, the world’s average annual surface temperature is expected to increase by 1.9–2.1C by 2100, and global sea levels are projected to rise about 70 cm. 

The natural resources ministry said the IPCC data showed that Malaysia would be exposed to the adverse effects of these changes, with increased extreme weather events, such as floods, coastal erosion and droughts. 

“Climate change has become more complex and encompasses a wide range of issues,” the ministry stated. “The impact of climate change has gone beyond mitigation and adaptation.”

The ministry stated that it also developing a National Adaptation Plan, called MyNAP, to facilitate and guide the rollout of adaptation efforts.

This article was first published on China Dialogue.

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