We are literally living beyond our means and borrowing Earth’s resources. To be exact, we are currently consuming the resources of 1.6 planets, says Nithi Nesadurai, president of the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM).

“Our planet is in distress. Our bio-capacity, or the ecological limits by which we all must live, is at 1.7 global hectare per person. Yet our average consumption is 2.9 global hectare per person, which means we have overshot by 60%,” Nithi emphasises at a recent interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

“This is not good and it means we are shortchanging future generations from their fair share of resources. If we keep going like this, we will have more water stresses, air pollution, extreme weather events, flooding, and it is not going to end well.”

Nithi points out that there seems to be no signs of this over-consumption slowing down.

“In Malaysia, our consumption is at 4.2 global hectares per person, which means we are consuming 2.5 planets, and that’s above the global average. But everyone must live within 1.7 global hectares.

“Malaysia has a bio-capacity of 2.4 global ha, more than many countries naturally, because of where we are located and our weather and land resources, but we are still at a 77% overshoot,” he explains, quoting figures from the Living Planet Report 2016.

ecological footprint

Air pollution is another result of unsustainable living and development. Photo: The Star/Chan Li Leen

Furthermore, all the components which contribute to our Malaysian ecological footprint are on the uptrend – carbon footprint, water and electricity use, loss of forest cover – and there is no intervention to show that it’s going to taper off and start going down.

EPSM held a two-day conference earlier to mark two major milestones for the society – to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its introduction of Local Agenda 21 in Malaysia and the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the Ecological Footprint Analysis (EFA). (Local Agenda 21 or LA21 is a local action plan towards sustainable development in the 21st century.)

Established in 1974, EPSM is the first environmental NGO in the country to focus on the adverse impacts of human activities on the environment. Its Sustainable Living in Malaysia (SLiM) campaign, initiated in 2007, highlights the impact on the EFA, which at that time showed that we were already living 50% beyond the earth’s biocapacity.

ecological footprint

Nithi Nesadurai, president of the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM), says Malaysia is consuming the resources of 2.5 planets. Photo: The Star/Sia Hong Kiau

GDP Is Not Everything

The EFA, Nithi explains, is basically how much bio-capacity we have to support us, how much bio-capacity we use, and how much waste we generate.

From the conference, he says there was a lot of concern for sustainable development among agencies, including from the government, public and private sectors, who aspire to achieve sustainable living in Malaysia.

“The first thing is, consumption-driven growth needs to be looked at again. It’s time to start looking at other criteria other than the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to measure how well we are doing.

“The second thing is lack of data. For instance, if we want to move into a sustainability pathway, we need good, reliable data available not only at the federal level but also at the state and local government levels. And we need more cross-sharing of data among agencies,” Nithi urges.

On the upside, he adds that there are many positive initiatives in the country at the moment, like low-carbon cities programmes and low-carbon development strategies.

“But often, there is no data to enable anyone to let you know that this is our baseline and we want to improve from that. Sometimes, a lot of claims are made. But these are not backed by evidence, which leads to a lack of trust,” he says, citing an example of how much we have supposedly reduced traffic from the MRT.

“But with proper, accurate data, we can drive good policies. Then we start looking at implementation frameworks.”

Three key recommendations that arose from the conference were:  One, the need for a dedicated Pemandu-style lab, bringing people together to discuss and come up with a road-map for sustainable development in Malaysia. (Pemandu, or Performance Management and Delivery Unit, comes under the Prime Minister’s Office and drives the Government Transformation Programme and the Economic Transformation Programme.)

ecological footprint

Better waste management is an important aspect in sustainable living. Photo: The Star/Zahid Izzani

Local Government

The second recommendation is to have a pilot project in the form of an ecological footprint study of a local authority.

“Only when a local authority goes out and does an ecological footprint survey can we get real data and facts. Then based on the outcome of the footprint analysis, they can introduce policies to address the issues and bring the footprint down,” Nithi says.

The third recommendation is to revisit the Athi Nahappan Report, which came out in 1968, and is a review of the concepts and objectives of local authorities.

“It was a landmark study of how the functions of local authorities can be enhanced, and local authorities are so important because they are the closest level of government to the people,” he says.

“The biggest change in terms of what environmental policies and actions can happen is at the local level because people want to see their locality as ideal. They want good quality of life, easy access to public transport, waste minimised and collected efficiently, all which can be achieved through the Local Agenda 21 programme, with local communities working with local authorities.”

The Report also welcomed the re-introduction of local council elections. “Whether in the form of regular elections or a form of democratisation of selection of councillors, it is something we can look at,” he adds.

The framework for how local authorities should function and how they are functioning now is quite different. So it may be useful to look at (the Report) and see if some of the principles can be applied today. Nithi expresses hope, “This is to create a better structure to implement sustainable development at the local level.”