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Can Malaysia Be Carbon Neutral by 2050?

By Alizan Mahadi and Darshan Joshi

The writers are Director of Research, and Analyst, respectively, at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

This Chapter is extracted from the report “ITALY-ASEAN PARTNERSHIP FOR DEVELOPMENT SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT” (February 2021)



Five years since the landmark Paris Climate Agreement was adopted, the quality of the policy responses to climate change remains mixed. Last week, the United Nations (UN) secretary-general António Guterres declared a ‘state of climate emergency’.


He suggested that ‘the state of the planet is broken’, and that ‘humanity is waging war on nature’, on the back of UN reports projecting the 2020s to be hottest decade on record.

His message is clear – there is a need to raise ambitions on climate action. In particular, one key call by Guterres is for all nations to embark on the quest for carbon neutrality (or ‘net-zero carbon-dioxide emissions’) by 2050.


To this end, the 26th UN climate change Conference of Parties (or COP26), to be jointly chaired by Italy and the United Kingdom next year, has the explicit aim of raising the ambitions of emissions reduction pledges internationally.


As of today, at least 35 nations (or blocs, such as the United Kingdom and the European Union) have either pledged, enshrined laws, proposed policies, or stated their intent, to achieve carbon neutrality at some point between 2040 and 2060.


Some observers even argue that both countries and companies alike, are in a ‘race to zero’, in transitioning towards carbon neutrality. The question is then, where does Malaysia stand in this race?


Broadly speaking, carbon neutrality refers to the achievement of a balance between carbon emissions, and the absorption of carbon in the atmosphere into carbon sinks, the most significant of which are forests and oceans.


For Malaysia to be considered ‘net-zero’, all its emissions would have to be offset by the carbon it sequesters in its sinks.


With over half of Malaysia’s land covered by tropical rainforests, these naturally play an instrumental role acting as carbon sinks. Indeed, Malaysia’s biennial update reports to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) confirm the importance of these natural carbon sinks – in 2014, Malaysia’s 317,627Gg of CO2e emissions were met by 267,148Gg CO2e in removals, meaning net emissions in Malaysia amounted to just over 50Gg.

The protection and sustainable management of Malaysia’s forests is hence, a key policy imperative and pathway if Malaysia were to strive for carbon neutrality. It must be cautioned, however, that while long-term ambitions and targets should be considered, the ‘climate emergency’ requires catalysing action now.


This includes a heightened focus on the sort of aims and policies already in place to mitigate emissions. This includes enhancing energy efficiency, deploying renewable energy technologies in place of fossil fuels, greening transportation, and developing a more circular economy.


Much of Malaysia’s present-day climate action is guided by the pledges made to the UNFCCC, to achieve a 35% reduction in the emissions intensity of GDP by 2030, relative to 2005 levels.


With COP26 looming, it is timely for Malaysia to think about its climate ambitions by considering the utilisation of a target to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century. While setting a long term ambition will provide a powerful signal, it will require actual commitment from all stakeholders to achieve carbon neutrality.


Moving forward, there is a need for Malaysia to gather support both from within the country and beyond.


Recent events suggest that industries in Malaysia may lead the transition to carbon neutrality. The state-owned energy giant, Petronas, recently announced a target to become a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050. Further commitment from private sector is crucial. Beyond that, climate action must be an agenda at all levels of the society and be seen as a shared responsibility.


Externally, Malaysia has a role to play to take leadership on climate action. As highlighted in this article, the natural conditions as well as the capacity and knowledge available in Malaysia puts it in a strategic position to champion an issue that is not going to go away. Coming on from successfully chairing APEC, Malaysia should continue to utilise multilateral and regional platforms such as ASEAN to address the challenge that has become the zeitgeist of our times.


Ultimately, climate action is not a one country problem, and similarly, there is no single bullet to solve the challenge. Nonetheless, raising the ambition and gathering collective action is a good place to start.


Read the whole report here:

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