Deforestation and Climate Change

October 20, 2021

“Code Red for humanity”. This was not uttered in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic which engulfed the world in 2020, but as a warning by United Nations secretary-general António Guterres when describing the Sixth Climate Change Assessment Report released by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 1 last month.

“The alarm bells are deafening and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” he declared in a statement issued in response to the IPCC report. At this current rate of GHG emissions, we will reach catastrophic levels, 1.5°C global warming by 2040, and 2.0°C by 2060.

The world put together the best minds and responders and retaliated against the COVID-19 pandemic with vaccines within less than a year in 2020. If we are capable of this, Malaysia and the rest of the world can do the same for the glacier loss, sea-level rise, floods, heatwaves and wildfires caused by the climate crisis we initiated. In order for Malaysia to achieve their aims to limit the rise of the average global temperature to 1.5 degrees by 2100, we need to address Malaysia’s deforestation.

Deforestation refers to the action of clearing a wide area of trees, which accelerates climate change as forest clearing contributes to the increase in the staggering amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs), 10% of worldwide emissions to be exact, which are created by human activities such as burning fossil fuels. 

How does forest clearing directly impact climate change? Felled trees are left to rot on the forest floor and burned, worsening emission release, due to stored carbon in trees being released into the atmosphere. Felled trees are a part of human activities that contribute to at least 15% of all GHG emissions on the planet. The amount of released carbon dioxide (CO2) increases due to felling trees in two ways: 1) leaves fewer trees to absorb the gas 2) releases CO2 back into the atmosphere. 

Firstly, we could look at agriculture, which is responsible for 80% of tropical deforestation. Agriculture in essence is made profitable for big businesses to demolish forests in order to plant mega crops like soy and oil palm. From a smaller scale, community farmers are more often primarily dependent on planting crops through tree clearings. The consequence of rainforests clearing for agriculture is the poor condition of the soils left because the once highly nutrient-rich soil burned will lose its nutrient levels, exacerbating chances for replantation. 

Malaysia, deforestation and its contributions to global emissions

Our forests are Malaysia’s green lungs, as the world’s forests produce at least 20% of oxygen and play an integral part in our planet’s carbon cycle as they absorb tons of CO2, acting as carbon sinks. Forests also benefit mankind in a monetary sense, as about RM 6.38 billion of gross domestic product (GDP) was expected from forestry and logging industries alone, contributing to 7.4% to the country’s overall economy in 2019. 

Considering the plethora of benefits our forests have contributed to our wellbeing, what exactly are we giving back? It has been increasingly clear that we are taking them for granted, we are losing our forests at the global rate of 10-12 million hectares per annum due to human needs. Meanwhile, Malaysia boasts a rich rainforest landscape, a mega-biodiversity hub in Southeast Asia: 5.80 mil ha (or 43.9%) of the Peninsular Malaysia’s total land area, with 85% of them gazetted as permanent forest reserves. At the same time, Malaysia has dedicated investments in industrial and agricultural development, while watching hundreds of thousands of hectares of tropical rainforests being replaced by mono-crop plantations. 

Human activities alone emit 40 billion tons of CO2 every single year, with about 25% of global emissions from the land sector (2nd largest source of GHGs after energy). More specifically, the land sector involves deforestation and forest degradation for other land uses (agriculture, pastures, and infrastructure) and through extensive logging and fires. Globally, deforestation alone is expelling at least 12.5%, 5-10 GtCO2e (or 5-10 billion tonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide) every year. 

But how much exactly are 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide? Grasping a clearer understanding of its actual weight could be compared to cars. On average, a single-car emits about 5 tons of CO2 yearly, thus it would be equivalent to 2 billion car emissions, seven times the number of cars in the United States right now. Although, this colossal statistic dipped by 6.4%, or 2.3 billion tonnes in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite this, our natural forests continue to be devoured by companies and deforestation activities, amounting to 73,000 hectares in 2020 (approximately 180,000 football fields), resulting in 85.2 Mt of CO2. The recent close-call of the Selangor State Executive Council degazetting the Kuala Langat Utara Forest Reserve (KLNFR/HSKLU), a rare 8,000-year-old carbon-rich ecosystem potentially losing 536.7 hectares, is one of many pieces of evidence of Malaysia’s state and federal governments’ neglect of our prized green jewels.  

What ecosystems are carbon-rich?

A more targeted approach in protecting Malaysia’s ecosystems is by focusing more resources on protecting ‘carbon-rich’ ecosystems. Some include tropical forests, but more efficient ones are wetlands such as seagrass meadows, peatlands, and especially mangroves. 

Wetlands are dubbed ‘blue carbon’ ecosystems, as they contain large stores of carbon left by vegetation and various natural processes over centuries. For instance, approximately 1,000 tonnes of carbon per hectare are stored in mangrove biomass and underlying soils. They store much more carbon than terrestrial forests, thus resulting in the enhanced ability in removing CO2. This makes them crucial net carbon sinks, acting as critical tools in mitigating climate change. 

Mangroves and seagrass meadows cover a small fraction of the total ocean area but are overall widely distributed in 123 countries worldwide and 15.2 million hectares (mangroves), whilst seagrass in 159 countries and 30 million hectares. They are highly productive and form biologically rich habitats, support healthy fisheries, improve water quality, and provide coastal protection against floods and storms. For instance, seagrasses cover only 0.1% of the ocean floor but are valuable nursery habitats to one-fifth of the world’s largest fisheries and store up to 18% of the world’s oceanic carbon. 

In terms of local carbon-rich ecosystems, Malaysia has about 551,333 hectares (ha) of mangrove forests as of 2015. Unfortunately, more than 25,000ha of mangrove forests (larger than the size of Kuala Lumpur) were felled due to palm oil development and urbanisation in the past 12 years, pushing many coastal species towards extinction and exposing communities to elevated sea levels. Besides unmitigated development, pollution from reclamation and erosion also contributes to a sizable portion of Penang’s mangroves lost. 

How can Malaysia curb Climate Change?

Us Malaysians, policymakers, corporations and communities alike need to understand that we have already walked into an irreversible situation. The recent floods striking Kedah, droughts, and extreme rainfalls are hitting close to home, and we are solely responsible. Nevertheless, it is still possible to limit its effects. The public plays a huge role, as activists and communities in Malaysia, saw the recent cancellation of development plans for KLNFR, showcasing the awareness and urgency of Malaysian communities in protecting our flora and fauna. Additionally, Malaysians can reduce their carbon footprint by (but not limited to) having fewer children, living car-free by utilizing public transport, purchasing green technology and practising vegetarian diets. 

Amidst the U-turn of KLNFR degazettement, a legal provision to hold public hearings was proposed to include in the National Forestry Act (1984) by Selangor lawmaker Elizabeth Wong. Beyond revision of Acts, new and more stringent policies and laws are required to regulate CO2 emissions through the implementation of carbon tax, a practice introduced in 27 countries such as Singapore and Japan. However, the recent 12 Malaysia Plan (12MP) tabled in September shows promise in its introduction to measures such as carbon pricing and carbon tax after 2022. On the conservation of Malaysia’s natural resources, the recent 12MP also stated promises for improving the ecological fiscal transfer (EFT) mechanism, while increasingly enhancing endangered wildlife sanctuaries.

A Climate Change Act to address this global crisis should be tabled as soon as possible if Malaysia seriously intends to fulfil their commitments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement. In which Malaysia had pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 35% of its 2005 levels by the year 2030. A more “comprehensive act” would be ideal, one that would encompass, but not be limited to, institutionalizing carbon monitoring and monetary incentives for waste reduction and recycling. 

Restoring forest landscapes also helps in mitigating climate change. Malaysia has participated in the Bonn Challenge – a global effort to restore 350 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2030, which can see 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 being stored annually. However, it should be done right by planting new trees (the right way) or letting them regrow naturally, as recently sprouted up forests in the past 19 years represent a minuscule 5% of the current global forest carbon sink. Thus, while it is important to give these newly planted forests the chance to grow into old ones, protecting today’s primary and mature secondary forests is fundamentally crucial for curbing climate change. 

As Malaysia and the rest of the world recovers from the pandemic, our current challenge would be the largest project humanity has embarked on, and Malaysia has to take it seriously. If not for ourselves, then at least for our descendants and our legacies forthwith. The simple fact that 14,000 scientific papers were reviewed to produce the hefty IPCC report in which reiterates the same warnings uttered 30 years ago (glacier loss, sea-level rise, wildfires), it’s definitely a message that needs to be driven home in all Malaysians. One that drives action. 

Written By:

Ian Lim Han Yan

Nurfatihah Irdina Adlan

Khadeejah Abdul Halim