My primary stop and think moment at COP26, which was virtually a part of, was listening Rosamund Kissi Debrah’s talk. Ella, a nine year old girl, died from asthma caused by air pollution in London in 2013. Kissi-Debrah, formerly a teacher, is now a frontline advocate to end fossil fuel subsidies – because both climate change and the air pollution that took her daughter’s life are driven by burning fossil fuel. (COP26) was the 26th United Nations Conference of Parties on Climate Change. The conference took place in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution is one of the greatest threats to human health. India’s Delhi is the most polluted city in the world. More Indians were killed by air pollution in 2019 than any other risk factor. According to a WHO report, seven million premature deaths are caused by air pollution each year.
In 2019, more than 90% of the world’s population lived in areas where concentrations of pollutants exceeded WHO guidelines.
So what was the impact of the gathering in Glasgow last month of literally thousands of people on climate crisis issues? Well, judging by the speed with which news media has moved on from the COP, the answer would be “very little”. And yet this isn’t the case, at least as I see it.
Although there could have been more, COP26 was a series of important events that showed humanity is starting to face the truth about our current situation. The best way to summarize it is to look at the positive, the negative and the ugly.
The journey continues. Before the 2015 Paris Agreement, the temperature increase trajectory was 4ºC. After COP26 we’re down to 2.5ºC according to the UN’s estimate. We also have a pathway – albeit still not very clearly mapped out – to get emissions down to a level where the temperature rise will be within the 1.5ºC limit necessary.
Collective commitments were made to reduce methane emissions, reverse deforestation and align the finance sector with net zero emissions by 2050. We also saw the abandonment of the internal combustion engine, accelerate coal’s phase-out, and end international financing for fossilfuels. Glasgow was a platform that allowed for the creation of innovative partnerships and new funding. The goal was to transform every sector of the economy to achieve a net zero future.
COP26 saw health front and center for the first-time, with more than 50 countries making commitments to climate-resilient and low-carbon healthcare systems.
Malaysia was not among them, which is all the more disappointing considering that we were the first country in the world to introduce a green vaccination program. It’s time that health practitioners, among the most trusted professionals here, start to speak up about the relationship between people and the planet, focusing on root causes of disease and the consequences of unequal access to healthcare, as shown so painfully by vaccine hoarding and consequent Covid-19 mutations in countries with limited access to vaccines.
For the bad it’s pretty much the other side of the coin.
COP26 was supposed to deliver commitments to the 1.5ºC target but in the end, it kicked the can down the road.
Developed countries haven’t yet met commitments with long-promised resources to help the developing world wean itself off fossil fuels quickly and ramp up climate adaptation efforts.
The world’s first and third largest carbon emitters – China and India – wobbled at the last minute and pushed for watered down language on the use of coal. The United States is the second largest carbon emitter.
And for the ugly – it’s really the consequences of what wasn’t achieved. The pressure is on COP27, which will be held next year in Egypt, to fulfill the commitments that COP26 failed to make. The Glasgow decision calls on countries to “revisit and strengthen” their 2030 targets by the end of 2022 to align them with the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals. There really isn’t a lot more time to tie these commitments in.
But perhaps the ugliest aspect of COP26 was its disconnection from us: Those shaping the conference outcomes all speak the same climate change language – we don’t. Malaysians should think in terms climate change and not climate crisis.
“Climate change” seems benign, and is being addressed by scientists, politicians and officials negotiating in conference rooms in far off lands. They agree on goals but are very limited in what they can deliver. This is largely due to each person not being able to or willing to recognize the connection between what we eat and the slow poisoning in the environment we live in.
We, the consumers
Our standard of living is dependent at least partially on how we behave. This must be something we do as individuals, families and members of our local communities, as well as in our workplaces.
To label bits of our society as separate from us is a common mistake. The government should be responsible for creating stronger laws that protect the environment and people. Not just laws that are solely focused upon profits. The private sector must also invest in more environmental social governance initiatives and work towards greater sustainability, from production to consumption.
The membership of “the private sector” is pretty much everyone who works for a salary which isn’t met by taxpayers’ money – that’s most of us. We are starting to recognize the link between our actions, the changing climate and our actions. But we need to be more proactive in recognizing that our actions have consequences.
Think about “planned obsolescence” – items being designed to break after a year or two, be tossed out, and replaced with a newer, shinier version. Planned obsolescence can be a result of businesses selling us goods we like. It is a reflection of a ravenous consumer culture which industries may well have created for their benefit but in which we – you and I – are entirely complicit.
In addition to virtual malls, social media outlets, tech companies and many others that produce and sell the shiny trinkets we seem unable to resist, we need to remember that small and medium enterprises are the backbone of Malaysia’s economy. How can we help them move towards sustainability?
We’re seeing more and more small local businesses taking the step to be sustainable, in their production and packaging, for example. All these scattered efforts need to be supported and adapted to our purchasing preferences.
What we can accomplish
Underwriting perceptions of relevance of climate change to our everyday lives is the one key constituency we all always seem to forget about – because it’s everywhere. The Star provided me with this space every month, and I appreciate the fact that journalism speaks truth. But media must do more.
Maria Ressa was the Filipino Nobel Peace Prize winner for this year. She gave an extraordinary speech at the acceptance ceremony earlier in this month. She made the point that “the destruction has already happened; now it’s time to build”. Malaysian media have a central, and I fear, unfulfilled, role in this.
Without effective journalism, we are at the mercy the algorithms of the profit-focused American media giants. We can see all too clearly from politics around the globe the consequences of using social media as a replacement for mainstream media. I want to spark a national conversation about how media should be used to raise awareness about what is happening in our lives.
What is Malaysia’s next step and how can we prepare to participate in COP27?
My feeling is that we are better positioned than we think to lead from a planetary health perspective. The November 2021 Worldwide Fund for Nature/Boston Consulting Group Report Securing our Future: Net Zero Pathways to Malaysia tells us that Malaysia’s large carbon sinks – ie, our forests – contribute to the removal of around three quarters of our total emissions, a unique advantage for the country. As we get rid of fossil fuels, we need to quickly transition to solar, bioenergy, and hydropower.
The report also highlights that Net Zero 2050 has significant socioeconomic benefits. It is shown to have stronger net GDP and job growth than other climate transition pathways. The investment costs required to achieve a Net Zero 2050 pathway are less than 1% of Malaysia’s GDP.
With this evidence in hand, we must approach COP27 with confidence, greater coordination, and a level of ambition that fully captures our zero emission opportunities and prospects. We also need to keep our eyes on planetary health.
Last month, I wrote about the 12th Malaysia Plan. It was important to develop a strategy for planetary health to support its implementation.“A national strategy for planetary health could be used to help the 12th Malaysia Plan implement lasting systemic changes”, Planetary Health Matters, Nov 16). This strategy can allow the country to think in new ways about our position in multilateral negotiations. Leaders will be challenged to think differently to make the net zero promise a reality.
However, our leaders won’t move forward unless we, the people encourage them to do so. We must also show our willingness to take part in this important, but potentially uplifting, journey.
Dr Jemilah Mahamood, a doctor and experienced leader in crisis situations, was appointed as the executive director at the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health, Sunway University, in August 2021. She is the founder of Mercy Malaysia and has held leadership positions internationally with the United Nations Red Cross over the past decade.