The misunderstanding behind the 40% CO2 emissions reduction by 2020

Three days ago, Dr. Gary Theseira, Deputy Undersecretary at the Environmental Management & Climate Change Division from NRE (Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Malaysia), was interviewed by BFM’s The Bigger Picture for its section Earth matters.

I found the interview, titled CLIMATE CHANGE AND MALAYSIA, extremely interesting, so I will invite you to listen to it:


During the interview, Dr. Theseira comments on the progress that Malaysia is making with respect to reducing its CO2 emissions by 2020, after Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s announcement in Copenhagen:


I have made a transcript of a piece of the interview (from minute 07:45, emphasis mine):

– In Copenhagen we had said that we will voluntarily reduce our carbon emissions by 40% by 2020, […] have we taken steps seriously to reduce carbon emissions?

Dr. Gary Theseira:
– What the prime minister announced in Copenhagen in 2009 […], is a conditional voluntary indicator. The Prime Minister announced that we were adopting this indicator as a means of assessing our own progress, and the indicator basically is to reduce the emissions intensity of GDP. It’s quite simply a fraction where the enumerator is emissions, and the denominator is GDP, and you can reduce this intensity either by reducing emissions in the enumerator, or by increasing GDP in the denominator, the idea being that the goal is to decouple emissions from development. If you look at how the GDP of Denmark has grown in recent years, and compare that to its level of emissions, its level of emissions has remained stable, while GDP has grown. This is what we aspire to in Malaysia, we have a lot of potential for growth here, but more importantly we have potential for growth that does not necessarily imply a growth in emissions, which will be the standard development paradigm.


The formula that Dr. Theseira is referring to is:


And from here the misunderstanding is self evident. While many people believe Malaysia is striving to reduce its CO2 emissions, as asked in the interview (“we will voluntarily reduce our carbon emissions by 40% by 2020, […] have we taken steps seriously to reduce carbon emissions?”), instead Malaysia is intending to raise significantly its GDP while keeping its CO2 emissions stable.

This I find it very sad. In order to better address climate change, we should be addressing how to reduce our CO2 emissions, and not how to increase our GDP without increasing the CO2 emissions. From the website (emphasis mine):

Right now we’re at 400 ppm, and we’re adding 2 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. Unless we are able to rapidly turn that around and return to below 350 ppm this century, we risk triggering tipping points and irreversible impacts that could send climate change spinning truly beyond our control.

So far, we’ve experienced about 1 degree (Celsius) of warming, and the impacts are frightening. Glaciers everywhere are melting and disappearing fast, threatening the primary source of clean water for millions of people. Mosquitoes, who like a warmer world, are spreading into lots of new places, and bringing malaria and dengue fever with them. Drought is becoming much more common, making food harder to grow in many places. Sea levels have begun to rise, and scientists warn that they could go up as much as several meters this century. If that happens, many of the world’s cities, island nations, and farmland will be underwater. Meanwhile, the oceans are growing more acidic because of the CO2 they are absorbing, which makes it harder for animals like corals and clams to build their shells and exoskeletons. All around the globe, we’re stacking the deck for extreme weather — like hurricanes, typhoons, blizzards, and droughts — which exacerbates conflicts and security issues in regions that are already strapped for resources. […]

This is all connected to the economy, right?

Malaysia is a country in development. Through the implementation of the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), it is targeting to reach a GNI of US$15,000 per capita by 2020, making it a high-income nation by 2020 as defined by the World Bank.

In the standard way of doing business, higher GNI (or higher GDP) implies higher CO2 emissions. Malaysia is aiming, instead, that its increasing development activity will produce no extra CO2 emissions, through the decoupling of emissions from economic growth. It doesn’t really fix the problem since we are still dumping our CO2 into the atmosphere (not to mention that decoupling assumes that technology will save the day, however experience shows that that’s very unlikely to happen), but at least it tries to not make it worse.

While I do agree with Malaysia’s intentions to become a wealthier country, I don’t believe that economic development justifies further damaging the environment. It is a mainstream thought that, for the economic development of the country, we must accept it to suffer environmental degradation up to a certain extent, expecting that one day Malaysia will finally be a developed nation, and no more environmental damage will happen.

Well, I’d like to ask: is this ever going to happen? Malaysia may finally one day be a developed nation, but will it ever be able to end the environmental impact associated to ever-growing its economy? I don’t think so. After all, already developed countries continue on their steady and unstoppable path to further development.

In other words: there is no limit, no goal, no moment in which we are developed enough that we can take a break, relax, and stop destroying the environment around us. That day will never come.

Which means that Malaysia must prioritize the protection of its environment since day 1, since today, and not since becoming a developed nation.

The following chart from the Action Climate Tracker shows developed and developing countries’ pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not a coincidence that, also for developed countries, these pledges are inadequate:

So then, Malaysia’s status as a country under development is not temporary, it won’t stop after 2020, so we can’t allow ourselves to keep polluting for a short-term economic benefit but long-term impact brought about by environmental degradation and climate change.

I wish we will soon shift our economic and well-being indicators beyond GDP, and really address how to reduce our CO2 emissions.

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