The theme of the 47th World Environment Day on 5 June 2021 is “ecosystem restoration”. As many countries continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic that was caused by a virus that likely had zoonotic origins, World Environment Day is an apt moment for humanity to reflect on its relationship with the environment and what can be done to restore natural ecosystems. This article looks into Malaysia’s commitment to ecosystem restoration.
The World Health Organization (WHO) report on the origins of COVID concluded that the most plausible hypothesis is that the novel coronavirus spilled over from animals into humans. Some of history’s deadliest pandemics such as the medieval Black Death had zoonotic origins. As humanity continues to encroach on natural ecosystems, the risk of more deadly pathogens crossing the species barrier and triggering new pandemics will likely increase.
The destruction of natural ecosystems will also result in, biodiversity loss, the loss of ecosystem services such as water purification and pollination, as well as increasing the risk of catastrophic climate change. Exploitation of natural ecosystems is causing the destruction of carbon sinks such as forests and peatlands. Additonally, global greenhouse gas emissions grew for three consecutive years from 2017 - 2019. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), over 4.7 million hectares of forests are lost every year. This is the equivalent of a forest the size of one football pitch being lost every three seconds. Furthermore, over half of the world’s wetlands have also disappeared in the last century.
Consequences in tropical developing countries
The consequences of the encroachment and destruction of natural ecosystems are likely to be felt most extensively in tropical developing countries such as Malaysia. According to research published in Nature Communications, tropical countries, where wildlife biodiversity is high and where land use changes notably through deforestation, are hotspots of emerging infectious diseases. According to the FAO, between 1990 and 2010, Malaysia lost an average of 96,000 ha or 0.43% of forests per year.
The loss of Malaysian forests had lethal consequences. In 1998, the Nipah virus crossed the species barrier to humans leading to a deadly outbreak in Malaysia. Deforestation and intensification of animal farming in Malaysia created higher virus exposure to humans. More than 20 years since the emergence of the Nipah virus, there is no vaccine against it and it kills up to 75 percent of people it infects.
Deforestation releases carbon dioxide previously stored in forests, which further increases the risks of catastrophic climate change with more severe impacts on tropical developing countries. According to Malaysia’s Second Biennial Update Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), by 2050 it is projected that the average air temperature of Malaysia will be up to 1.6°C warmer than historical averages and the annual rainfall over central Malaysia will be up to 10.6% higher than historical averages. Such changes will lead to more intense heat waves and increasingly frequent and destructive floods.
Malaysia is however not condemned to a future of deadly new disease outbreaks and loss and damage from adverse weather events due to climate change. Ecosystem restoration presents opportunities to help to heal the wounds of the planet and can create pathways to a more hopeful future. World Environment Day, which will coincide with the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is an opportunity to start mobilizing everyone across countries, sectors, and levels to do their part for the planet.
Ecosystem restoration will be a massive global undertaking. According to a study by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, 115 countries have committed to restoring up to 1 billion hectares of land lost to development, an area roughly the size of China. These commitments to restoring land have been made under at least one of three major international environmental conventions – the Land Degradation Neutrality targets, Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Climate Agreement and National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans – along with the Bonn Challenge, which is an effort to restore degraded and deforested lands.
If implemented, such large-scale ecosystem restoration would ensure that people can continue to have access to food and clean water. It would also enable species that are at risk of extinction to undergo population recovery. Ecosystem restoration also presents economic benefits. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that for every dollar invested in restoration, at least seven to thirty dollars in returns for society can be expected. Investment in restoration can also create jobs in rural areas, contributing to more equitable economic development. Some countries such as Pakistan, the host of the World Environment Day 2021 celebration, are investing in restoration as part of their Covid-19 pandemic recovery plans.
Call for Malaysia
Malaysia, despite being an early environmental leader having made a historic commitment at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to maintain at least 50% of the country’s land mass under forest cover, is currently not leading on commitments to restore ecosystems nor in investments into green post-COVID recovery. Malaysia is not among the 115 countries that have made restoration commitments according to the aforementioned Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency study.
This lack of commitment to ecosystem restoration is concerning as Malaysia has experienced ecosystem loss and damage. According to WWF Malaysia, while almost half of Malaysia is legislated as Protected Areas and Forest Reserves, a substantial amount of these forested areas is either degraded, fragmented or deforested. Most of the lost and threatened Malaysian forests are biodiverse lowland forests, peat forests that are rich carbon sinks, and coastal wetlands that are natural buffers against coastal erosion.
Civil society and non-governmental organizations are urging the Malaysian government to step up on ecosystem protection and restoration. WWF Malaysia has outlined three major aspirations for Malaysia’s forests: 1) At least half of Malaysia is legislated under natural forest cover by 2030; 2) At least 1 million ha of degraded forest landscapes restored by 2030; 3) To promote the idea that 60% of Malaysia’s landmass can be sustainably managed to boost a green economy. While the goals are ambitious, they are also achievable given Malaysia’s historic commitment to conservation and ongoing efforts at nature preservation.
Malaysia’s only youth-led climate diplomacy organization, the Malaysian Youth Delegation (MYD), meanwhile had organized the Malaysian Local Conference of Youth 2020 (MYLCOY2020) with the theme of “Mobilizing for a Green Post COVID-19 Recovery” with a Nature-based solutions track to educate and inspire Malaysian and Southeast Asian youths to call for pandemic recovery strategies and plans that will also help to heal the planet.
Scientists have stated that the coming decade will be critical in preventing catastrophic climate change and bending the curve on biodiversity loss. Hence the urgency and importance of taking effective action to restore ecosystems. Restoring ecosystems will enable the post COVID-19 recovery to be more sustainable and also contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Malaysia should build on its historic commitment towards forest preservation and commit to ecosystem restoration. The country can leverage the motivation, ideas, and initiatives of non-governmental organizations, civil society, and youths to pursue an ambitious ecosystem restoration agenda. Ordinary Malaysian citizens can also take actions in their communities and neighborhoods to contribute to ecosystem restoration by e.g. planting trees, rewilding parks and gardens, and cleaning up trash alongside rivers and coasts. Starting with World Environment Day 2021, Malaysia can leverage the momentum towards upcoming global environmental summits this year such as COP 26 in Glasgow and the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming to raise its ecosystem restoration ambitions and establish itself once again as an international environmental leader, as it did back at Rio 1992.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
Julian Theseira is a Climate Activist and Policy Researcher from Malaysia.