HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS
SULTAN NAZRIN MUIZZUDDIN SHAH
CIMB COOLER EARTH SUSTAINABILITY SUMMIT 2022
DATE: TUESDAY, 20 SEPTEMBER 2022; TIME: 9.00 AM
VENUE: MANDARIN ORIENTAL HOTEL, KUALA LUMPUR.
‘TRANSITIONING TO A BETTER WORLD’
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- The title of my address this morning – ‘Transitioning to a better world’ – is no accident. Humankind must undergo a very significant transition, and urgently, if it is to even survive, let alone thrive. There can no longer be any doubt about this. The key question we must ask ourselves then is – how to ensure that this transition is a just one, and one that does, indeed, take us all towards a better world.
- The United Nations Development Programme is among many pointing out that we are living in the Age of the Anthropocene. Its 2020 Human Development Report states:
“…we are at an unprecedented moment in history, in which human activity has become a dominant force shaping the planet. These impacts interact with existing inequalities, threatening significant development reversals. Nothing short of a great transformation – in how we live, how we work and how we cooperate – is needed to change the path we are on”.
- This transformation – in how we live, how we work, and how we cooperate – is necessary because the way in which we have been managing our affairs, is, quite plainly, unsustainable. In our constant search for material well-being, we are pushing against the very limits of our own planetary boundaries. In many areas, we have exceeded them. The Earth’s natural resources – those provided to us by nature – have been greatly under-valued in our current system of production and consumption. “Humanity has become so productive, and so numerous, that we are now like trespassers on our own planet”, in Jeffery Sachs’ description. As he puts it, “we are crossing boundaries of Earth’s carrying capacity, thereby threatening nature and even our own species’ survival in the future”.
- In our age of the Anthropocene, humanity’s negative impacts on the planet are inescapable. Our actions have transformed an estimated seventy-five per cent of Earth’s landmass, and sixty-six per cent of marine environments. To feed ourselves, we have turned 40 per cent of Earth’s land surface into croplands and pasture. We use around half of the world’s accessible fresh water to irrigate these crops. We have constructed dams on more than 60 per cent of the world’s rivers, and we have cut down roughly half the world’s temperate and tropical forests. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than at any time in the past 800,000 years. This unsustainable use of the planet’s resources must now stop, and the just transition towards a better world must henceforth become our modus operandi.
- The consequences of our free rein approach are becoming ever more apparent. Today, we are being forced to confront the unwelcome impacts of humanity’s misguided belief that limitless natural resources will be available to meet our apparently endless appetite for more and more of everything. Climate change is no longer a distant threat, but a clear and present danger. More than 3 billion people are now estimated to be affected by degraded ecosystems. Flooding and droughts are increasingly causing death and destruction around the world. Pollution is responsible for some 9 million premature deaths each year. Six years on from the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, there is a 50-50 chance that this level will be breached in the next five years.
- I am sure many of you are familiar with what is called Earth Overshoot Day. This is the day on which, each year, humanity has used up all the resources that the planet is able to provide sustainably. Since 1971, with the exception of 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there hasn’t been a single year when humanity took less, or as much as, the Earth was able to give. On the contrary, humanity has used more and more of the Earth’s resources, with Earth Overshoot Day falling earlier and earlier each year. In 1971, it fell on Christmas Day, very close to the end of the year. Twenty years later in 1991, it fell in October. In 2011, in August. And now, in 2022, Earth Overshoot Day fell on July 28th.
- Our own region is also vulnerable, something that is highlighted in the recent UNDP Human Development Report entitled ‘The Great Upheaval’. This Report states: “Countries in the Asia-Pacific region perch on the frontlines of the climate crisis, given their densely populated coastal areas and inadequate institutional readiness. The effects of climate change will increasingly affect their high dependency on natural resources and agriculture for income and food.’’ One alarming prediction suggests that South – East Asia could lose all its peatlands by 2030, and half of its forest cover by 2050.
- Malaysia is not exempt from these worrying trends. Our country today faces multiple environmental onslaughts. These include high carbon dioxide emissions, deforestation, and air and river pollution from unregulated industries. Malaysia’s economy is fossil-fuel based in an era when fossil fuels are increasingly giving way to low-carbon energy sources, such as wind, solar, hydro and nuclear power. There are also risks from lifestyle choices, which further threaten natural resources, and increase production of waste and pollution. The country’s ecological footprint far exceeds the capacity of our ecosystems to replenish the rich natural resources that are being extracted.
- In the face of looming environmental threats, the management and custodianship of Malaysia’s natural capital will require very close attention. We must develop better understanding and greater appreciation of the vast natural resources that are held within our nation. Malaysia is one of seventeen countries globally that have been described as being ‘mega-biodiverse’. Our nation supports some 15,000 species of plants; hundreds of animal species; not to mention the over 2000 species of fish found in our rivers, lakes and coastal waters. In addition to this rich biodiversity, we must also recognise and properly value the other ecosystem services that are provided by our natural resources – from clean water and air, to food and medicine, to carbon sequestration.
- Working towards sustainability requires greatly improved environmental governance. Much better regulatory and administrative coordination must be developed between the agencies that manage environmental matters. We need to put into place an eco-system-based approach that includes all stakeholders. And we must always place broad-based social and economic inclusion at the centre of our sustainability strategies. Inclusive development, by definition, must embrace the needs of both current and future generations. Choices made now will leave an indelible mark on the country’s future.
- Such an inclusive approach must also take sufficient account of those in the greatest need. Both in Malaysia, and more broadly, the negative impacts of climate-related events are felt most severely by those least able to withstand them. Those with the fewest resources are the most vulnerable – whether the populations of less developed countries, or the poorer sections of society in richer countries. These groups are also those who are the least responsible for climate change, with far lower energy use and emissions than the better-off. There is thus a stark disconnect between those who benefit from our current unsustainable system, and those who suffer most from its negative consequences. This is deeply unfair. The transition to a new way of managing our natural resources is not only urgent from a practical point of view, it is also a moral imperative.
- As we move forward together on this transition, we must consider the question of where it is that we are heading. What does this ‘better world’ consist of? What are its features and its building blocks?
- In considering these questions, I find the concept of planetary health to be a useful way of framing things. At its heart is the recognition that the wellbeing of humanity and the degradation of the rest of the world cannot remain disconnected. A recognition of our inter-dependence with the Earth’s eco-systems and our inescapable reliance on nature and its resources. A recognition of the extent to which we are altering the Earth’s ecosystems, and how these changes in the Earth’s water, land, and atmosphere, are adversely affecting our own wellbeing. So as we harm our natural systems, we are harming ourselves and future generations. Conversely, if we heal ourselves and the planet, we will all prosper into the future.
- Through generations of human life, nature has provided humanity with food, with clean water, with medicine, and with climate regulation and protection from extreme weather events. This has allowed our sustained co-existence with other living beings and with nature in all its forms. In our highly productive era, the resources of the natural world remain the very foundation of our economic development. Without soil and its nutrients, bees to pollinate crops, or predators to deal with pests, we would be unable to grow food. Without the minerals produced deep within the earth, mountains and oceans, many of our inventions could not exist or operate. If rivers did not flow through the land, providing a means of transport for people and goods, trade and our economic systems would not have developed.
- The symbiosis between our own wellbeing and that of the planet can be seen in our relationship with tropical rainforests. We rely on them to purify the very air that we breathe. They play a crucial role in absorbing carbon, in preventing soil erosion, and in buffering the impacts of heavy rain and wind. They support a plethora of life, from plants of all varieties, to animal and human lives alike. Many forest communities and indigenous peoples around the world still rely directly on forests to survive and thrive.
- To ensure that we can continue to enjoy these resources, we must work with nature, not against it. We must treat our planet with the respect and appreciation that is not only its due, but that is essential for our own survival. Through applying the concept of planetary health, we can develop solutions that allow humanity and the natural systems upon which we depend, to thrive, both now and into the future.
- This is no mean feat, of course. It requires fundamental changes in the way we approach our lives and our world. This includes everything from the way we produce and consume our food, to how we manufacture products, and how we produce and use energy. The way we construct and live in our cities, rural areas and remaining wildernesses; the way we manage our natural landscapes and resources; the way we co-exist with technology – all must be adapted to serve the objective of promoting planetary and human health. Drawing again on the UNDP report, which I recommend all of you to look at closely, this involves ‘recalibrating the stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world, our relationship to nature, and what it means to live a good life.’ We must all learn to do many things differently.
- Sustainable development involves not only environmental sustainability, and broad-based social and economic inclusion. It also entails economic growth. All three elements – environmental sustainability, broad-based social and economic inclusion and economic growth – must be part of our just transition to a better world. Unlike some, I do not believe that this transition requires us to abandon economic growth altogether, or that there must be a trade-off between growth and sustainability. Such a trade-off would unfairly preclude further development for too many – including those who are yet to attain even the most basic levels of human wellbeing. It would deny them the fruits of economic growth – in terms of improved living standards – that others have been able to enjoy.
- Instead, we must adjust the mechanisms of our growth trajectory, to ensure that it respects the natural limitations that are imposed by our planetary boundaries. So rather than reduce our energy usage per se, what we need to do is to shift it away from unsustainable and damaging fossil fuels, and towards far greater usage of renewable sources. If such sources were effectively harnessed, energy consumption would not need to be rationed. Similarly, current methods of food production – whether of crops, livestock or fish – can be adapted so they become sustainable and regenerative rather than damaging. Technological advances will help us greatly in this quest, such as with the use of drones to make fertiliser delivery more precise, or the increase of battery capacity to facilitate energy storage.
- So we must look carefully into regenerative economic models. These are exemplified by Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’, Mariana Mazzucato’s ‘Mission Economy’, and Jeffery Sachs’ work on sustainable development. These all present compelling arguments for a different approach to development, one that takes planetary health and sustainability into consideration. In the state of Perak, we are currently embarking on a pilot to bring doughnut economics into our development plans. This is already generating a lot of interest, and getting our leaders to think about how to do things differently.
- Economic growth thus can and must continue. But it must be decoupled from its current overuse of limited natural resources and over-reliance on fragile ecosystems. Ways forward must be developed so that growth can continue, but at the same time remain within the planetary boundaries of what is possible, and reduce the current pressure on key resources such as water, air, land and the habitats of other species. The concept of planetary health can guide us in this process, as it helps us to understand which approaches will support healthy growth, and which will not.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- With these worrying trends to dwell upon it is clear that this transition to a better life cannot just be chatter and lip-service.
It must be made real. In order to get there, policies and incentives must be adapted to ensure that growth continues, but in a way that is sustainable and inclusive. Economic growth is necessary, especially for those poorer countries which desperately need to catch up. But it must be achieved in a way that stays within our existing planetary boundaries.
- I firmly believe that this change is possible. But it is up to us to find the appropriate strategies. Events such this provide important fora within which we can do so. On that note, I wish you all many fruitful discussions today and in the coming sessions of this conference.