Monday 22 Apr 2024
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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on April 24, 2023 - April 30, 2023

The Endau-Rompin river delineating the border of Johor and Pahang in the southeast of the Malaysian peninsula is a gentle, wise and ancient being. Old man river. It has a lazy flow of ochre-hued water from the mud that it carries from its rain-fed catchment areas upstream, as it gently winds along the border of the two states.

Standing on the banks of the river in Tanah Abang, a small Orang Asli settlement about an hour’s drive out of Mersing, one could be lulled into serendipity, wishing to spend a longish weekend on one of the “homestay” boats that line the banks of the river.

There is, however, a shocking visual on offer — 6m-tall trees on the fairly steep banks of the river have polythene bags dangling from their uppermost branches. The ketua kampung (village chief) explains that it is how high the water flowed during the recent flooding in Johor, and river detritus flaps mockingly from six metres high, into incredulous faces.

Code red on climate

It’s almost rhetorical to ask, are we losing the climate race? Rapidly, if not apocalyptically?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thinks we are precariously perched, but that consequences could be mitigated if we jump to a “code red” action plan. The task is significant; it should have begun much sooner.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the scale of the transition that is needed, that we have committed to as a global community. New actors will emerge; some older actors will pivot, many will not. New vendors, new technologies, new skill sets will come into play.

To illustrate, new electricity grids that would support the distribution of solar-generated energy at scale will take until 2030 to build and commission if we started today.

Prioritising electrification and energy efficiency will affect the way we live, work, move, cook and everything in between. New financing arrangements will be needed, including the difficult conversations on whether the pivot should be funded by public or private resources, or blended, and who pays for what.

The mobility industry will undergo no less of a transition than the one involving horse-drawn buggies to the internal combustion engine, including ubiquitous petrol stations pivoting to provide other sources of charging and fuelling, all across the country.

If the reader is hearing early 20th-century Austrian political economist and author Joseph Schumpeter whisper “creative destruction, I told you so” ringing in his ears, he would be entirely accurate.

Some large capital-intensive assets will be rendered rapidly obsolete and would need careful and responsible decommissioning. Many skill sets will be rendered obsolete and the human beings that embody them will need to be informed and transitioned, with utmost care and compassion.

The role of government will need to evolve to facilitate a smooth and just transition. To put an order of magnitude: When the UK switched from coal and oil-generated gas (or “town gas” as it was then called) to gas sourced from the North Sea in 1965, the retrofitting of 13 million households in London was an “enormous project” completed by an “army of contractors” over 12 years and finished in 1977.

Whither fit for purpose institutions

We contend that one major gap in the overall narrative on the transition is the description of institutions of the future, which requires a redefinition.

All of our institutions — manufacturing and service sector entities, labour markets, key ministries (including the ministries of finance), prudential and capital market regulators, chambers of commerce, institutes of directors — essentially evolved around and are purposed for traditional models of economy and society.

Discombobulated trends without the necessary accompanying institutions can quickly be a recipe for out-of-joint outcomes. Witness the cryptocurrency world, for example, where institutions did not evolve commensurate with the trend itself, leading to the chaotic landscape that currently prevails, not least, in the spectacular implosions like the one of FTX. The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, followed by a close shave for Credit Suisse, bear witness that even venerable, time-tested institutions are not future-proofed to deal with the upheavals coming their way in a rapidly changing and “different” world.

Nimble, fair and planet-positive

The need to evolve new institutions and new kinds of institutions presents an opportunity. But we will need nature and nurture to build and sustain them.

Institutions of the future will need to be designed on three fundamental principles. First, they would need to be capable of managing one of the biggest transitions in human history, well resourced, well informed and staffed by intelligent, courageous and compassionate leadership.

Second, they would need to be planet-positive, so never again in the future will this resilient but delicate 4.5-billion-year-old precious planet — our only home — be endangered by the activities of one species, what the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) calls the “Age of the Anthropocene”.

Finally, these institutions must foster, signal, encourage and enforce a fairer and more just world.

A reset, not a reboot

So, where should this quest begin? Where must these conversations happen?

First, the good news is we are not starting from scratch. The world has a robust, if occasionally sub-optimal architecture of multilateralism, including the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the European Union, over 300 multilateral trade agreements and the IPCC’s Conference of Parties.

We submit that envisioning and, thus, future-proofing institutional capabilities and capacity, both existing and new, will require multi-stakeholder roundtable sessions, providing a permanent platform for respectful and informed dialogue among practitioners and veterans to collectively crowdsource for easily actionable, hyper-localised solutions, that balances carefully the above three criteria, even if imperfectly.

It would be fair to expect that these conversations will be long and protracted, but the planet does not have the luxury of time, nor does the taxpayer have the forbearance. But which well-informed person has the courage to consider the alternative?

To this end, there are already powerful coalitions of aligned purpose-building coming together as many repurpose national priorities, business strategies and social imperatives to be aligned with the direction of travel which all of society demands.

Second, the social contract needs renegotiation at multiple levels. Not only do national governments have to rewrite compacts with those who dwell within them but, globally, we must facilitate conversations of fair and just transfers of knowledge, skills and finances; the wherewithal of affecting a nimble, fair and planet-positive transition.

The process will be messy, with societal, nationalistic and global fault lines coming into play. But Churchillian aphorisms of “jaw-jaw” as better than “war-war” would need to be transposed into the reality of the times: to self-destruct or not to self-destruct (with our deepest apologies to the venerable William Shakespeare) is the question. The answer is obvious.

Third and finally, We the peoples, the founding tenets of the United Nations: Fit-for-purpose institutions must come together in an unprecedented way to work with businesses, communities and regular folk to change behaviours, encourage wise choices and incentivise changes in mindsets in planet-positive ways.

A green and clean economy will generate billions in new business, new jobs will be created and even newer opportunities will arise in the medium to long term. But there will be an adjustment cost in the short to medium term.

The pandemic has clearly demonstrated that we are able to collaborate deeply and act collectively, at short notice, with a heightened sense of urgency, including developing and manufacturing on a global scale multiple vaccines within 18 months and where universal norms were issued, including what is possibly the world’s largest social experiment, where almost everyone was instructed to stay home — and they did.

It is possible to align behind purpose, on an unprecedented scale, where values and priorities might differ but a common purpose draws us all together.

Conclusion

Our ecosystem is changing beyond imagination.

Malaysia’s otherwise fairly advanced infrastructure to deal with monsoon rains was lastingly impressive, until the unseasonal rains — deluges — of the last two years brought reality home: the Karak Highway was washed away in 2021; Bentong and surrounding townships went under water; Batu Pahat remains hobbled by the Johor floods of 2022/23.

This is patently not a time for soft ruminations. It is a time for action.


Niloy Banerjee is the head of the United Nations Development Programme for Malaysia, the UN’s largest agency on energy transition, climate change, biodiversity conservation, inequality and good governance. Datin Seri Sunita Rajakumar is the chairman of Climate Governance Malaysia. This column is part of a series coordinated by Climate Governance Malaysia, the national chapter of the World Economic Forum’s Climate Governance Initiative (CGI). The CGI is an effort to support boards of directors in discharging their duty of care as long-term stewards of the companies they oversee, specifically to ensure that climate risks and opportunities are adequately addressed.

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