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Malaysia needs to lead Southeast Asia in the fight against climate change

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Tea Plantations in Malaysia by Chris Junker via flickr
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As Malaysian's gathered on the streets of Penang for the Global Climate Change March on November 29, ahead of the United National Climate Change Conference (COP21) currently being held in Paris, it became evermore evident that Malaysia's population has solidified its commitment to protecting the environment and ensuring the country plays its part. The day before, Malaysia submitted its climate change commitments to the UN, signaling the ambitious goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 and illustrating that the government is set to get serious about climate change.

Indeed, as this year's ASEAN Chair, Malaysia has the ability to lead Southeast Asia's fight against climate change both at the COP21 and as member states gear up to form the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) on December 31. However, despite its position as a strong economic regional player and the various initiatives it has enacted aimed at sustainable economic development, Malaysia's own environmental landscape leaves much to be desired.

For starters, in 2012 Malaysia ranked 26th worldwide for CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, and since then 94.8% of its energy consumption originated from coal, oil and natural gas. However, since then the country has already made strides in moving to greener energy sources, especially in terms of expanding its solar industry. Developed as late as 2007, by 2014 Malaysia became the 4th largest producer of solar cells. Similarly, Malaysia's government has aimed to wean itself off dirty fossils fuels by penning "a plan to produce 12 mega hydroelectric dams capable of producing 7,000MW of electricity by 2020 and is offering tax breaks and incentives to renewable energy companies unparalleled by any, anywhere else in the world". While these are all welcome developments, the nation also has a long way to go in ensuring strong and transparent industry standards in these areas.

Poorly regulated bauxite mining has become the most recent burden on Malaysia's environment, with a large boom in the industry resulting in over 20 million tonnes being exported to China in 2015 alone, up from a mere 962,799 tonnes exported in 2014. Despite complaints from the local population about toxic and radioactive metals that have seeped into the ground from unregulated bauxite mines, contaminating both the water supply and the marine life, the government has been slow to react and put a halt to dangerous mining operators due to the short term economic gains the industry provides. Ahead of the COP21, opposition MP Fuziah Salleh demanded the suspension of all bauxite mining operations until proper environmental regulations were put in place and blasted the government for failing to control the illegal miners. While the industry has indeed been a lucrative source of revenue, generating approximately $171 million from January to September of 2015, the government would be wise to note that the environmental costs will far outweigh the short term benefits of this largely unregulated industry.

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Both the Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil industries are significant hurdles to achieving sustainable growth and a reduction in carbon emissions. The illegal burning of large swaths of forest in Indonesia this year to clear land for palm oil plantations resulted in record haze, which spread to neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, releasing more CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases a day than the whole of the United States. While the ASEAN nations' environment ministers have committed to a haze free ASEAN by 2020 and vowed regional cooperation to combat forest fires, it is vital that these countries stick to commitments to tackle loose regulations, crack down on offenders and share information on haze source locations. Malaysia, accounting for 39% of worldwide palm oil production, has a vital role to play in this regard and must ensure its producers adopt environmental and safety regulations, and put an end to rampant deforestation and human rights abuses. The recent revelation that the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, one of the only major certifiers of palm oil sustainability, has itself been lacking in mechanisms of oversight and failed to ensure more sustainable practices, only underlines the scale of the problem facing both Malaysia and Indonesia.

As virtual trees transform the Eiffel Tower into a green marvel during the COP21, it's high time Malaysia step up in its role as chair of ASEAN and rally one of the most beautiful and biodiverse regions in the world to take the environment into its own hands. Returning from a recent trip to China, Malaysian Minister Datuk Mah Siew Keong announced he was concerned by the environmental impact that China's expansionism has had, admitting that "cleaning up the cost to environmental issues is so much more expensive if compared to when they [China] had done it earlier." Such small acknowledgements will go a long way in providing the willpower to secure a sustainable path for both Malaysia and the region.

At the opening of the November ASEAN Summit hosted in Kuala Lumpur, Prime Minister Najib Razak mused on the future of the ASEAN Economic Community, and announced that, "now we are about to become an economic community, we owe it to our people to commit ourselves to specific deliverables and making good on our promises". While his speech was largely referring to reducing economic tariffs between the 10 ASEAN member states, his attention should be focused on what the Global Climate March in Malaysia and worldwide proved -- what the people want is environmental protection and a coordinated fight against climate change. As we approach the deadlines for the establishment of the AEC, Malaysia owes it to its own population and the region to lead the way and place environmental sustainability at the forefront of the agenda, illustrating what a future ASEAN Economic Community should look like.

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I am half Argentinian and I have a degree in International Development with a focus on Human Rights in Latin America. Following my studies, I have worked for several major Human Rights NGOs before setting up shop in Phoenix, Arizona. I am now a (more...)
 

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