Written by: Lee Ee Jenn & Azierah Ansar

The Malaysian Youth Delegation (MYD) organized its second study session of the year with Dr Wong Ee Phin on the topic of ‘Protecting Natural Resources’. Dr Wong is the Principal Investigator of the research project ‘Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants’ (MEME) & Assistant Professor at University of Nottingham Malaysia. She has extensive experience in conservation efforts, in particular with elephant behaviour and Human-Elephant Conflict.

Why is conservation important? Links to climate change

The session commenced with Dr. Wong emphasizing the importance of conservation, both on its own merits as well as considering its role in climate change. Biodiversity loss and natural resource mismanagement are imminent threats, as can be seen through the concept of planetary boundaries, the predetermined “safe operating spaces” for humanity. Crossing certain boundaries (biophysical thresholds) could have catastrophic consequences to humanity, including abrupt environmental change that make the planet far more unstable and hostile to humans (Steffen, W. et al., 2004). Currently, three of nine interlinked planetary boundaries have already been overstepped, as illustrated below—the rate of biodiversity loss being at critical levels. As seen in the second screengrab, our rate of development is far exceeding the ability for the planet to regenerate.

[The inner green shading represents the recommended “safe operating space” for nine planetary systems. The red wedges, on the other hand, represent the approximate state of the current position for each of the planetary systems. Currently, the boundaries for the rate of biodiversity loss, climate change, and human interference with the nitrogen cycle have been exceeded. The highlight of the chart is the devastatingly high rate of extinction (unit: the number of species per million species per year), which conservatively exceeds by 1,000% of its proposed value and 1,000 times its rate compared to its pre-industrial rate (Image & description taken from: Rockstrom, J et al, 2009).]

[The equation above shows that when demand, the rate at which the biophysical subsystems are consumed for the purpose of economic development (or any other reason) is higher than the supply, which is the biosphere regeneration, Earth will stray from its state of stability, known to geologists as the Holocene, and enter instead the Anthropocene (Crutzen, 2002) where humans become the main driver of global environmental change (Steffen et al, 2007).]

Since the industrial revolution, 75% of the Earth’s ice-free land surface has been significantly altered, more than 85% of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed, and plastic is expected to outnumber the populations of fishes in the oceans by 2050. The catastrophic destruction of our ecosystem has led to over 1 million species of animals, plants, and insects to be threatened by extinction.

Every natural ecosystem exists in an equilibrium, with all the organisms of an area influenced by and interdependent upon one another. If one element in the ecosystem is altered, a knock-on effect occurs to disrupt the food chain — if one population decreases, other species’ populations will also be affected. As Dr Wong put it: ‘‘The more the web of life is untangled, the faster it is going to collapse’’.

[Example of a food web: where the decrease in the primary producers will affect the apex predators (tertiary consumers) due to the disrupted food chain for other organisms’ survival.]

Extinction is an irreversible phenomenon that permanently reduces genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is highly important in sustaining and improving agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. Dr Wong highlighted that as new strains of disease evolve and climates become ever more volatile, our best hope for finding plants that are resilient—to continue growing food we can consume, for instance—is in nature’s gene bank. Take the 1860s European grape vine catastrophe: an insect completely annihilated every vineyard in the continent, paralysing the European’s wine production industry (Olmo, 1976). The industry was only saved due to grafting, a procedure made possible by the variety of vine genes conserved at the time. We will be unable to adapt to such threats if we continue on our current trend.

Furthermore, the effects of mismanagement of natural resources are not only felt within a limited geographical area, but worldwide. It is estimated that 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere due to deforestation alone (UNEP). Such consequences feed into a vicious cycle, where events that lead to loss of biodiversity exacerbate climate change and climate change could also become an important driver of loss of biodiversity. Hence, it is important for climate change and conservation to be addressed together.

One of the ways to do this is through the implementation of Nature-Based Solutions (NBS).

What is NBS?

Nature-based solutions (NBS) is a catch-all term encompassing a broad range of actions that ‘use’ natural habitats to tackle socio-environmental challenges. This can range from managing and protecting ecosystems, to green infrastructure in urban areas, to applying ecosystems-based principles to agriculture (University of Oxford, 2021).

Nature-based solutions can help us:

  • Adapt to the impacts of climate change;
  • Slow global warming by storing carbon;
  • Increase water and food security;
  • Manage disaster risk: controlling floods, stabilising shorelines;
  • Safeguard public health.

Engineered interventions, such as seawalls and irrigation infrastructure, have been the dominant approach to coping with climate variability so far. NBSs stand starkly in contrast to such ‘hard’ and ‘grey’ methods, and have the advantages of relatively low costs and additional benefits for people and nature. Restoring natural forests, for instance, can not only protect communities downstream from flooding, but also increase carbon sequestration and protect biodiversity.

However, nature-based solutions are treated with caution by some conservationists and researchers, as  poor implementation can have adverse effects. For example, an afforestation (tree planting) project using a non-native monoculture (one species only) could result in poor biodiversity and degrade soil quality. Moreover, NBSs such as afforestation or creating new ecosystems can distract from the need to protect existing intact ecosystems, and have even been framed as a climate change solution by fossil fuel giants, allowing them to claim to reach net zero without substantially cutting emissions. NBS have an important role to play in climate policy, but individuals must be wary of their potential misuses (Seddon et al., 2020).

Solutions

Many nature-based solutions can be implemented in Malaysia, two of which are detailed below.

1. Coastal habitats such as mangroves protect coastlines from the damaging effects of wave erosion and tropical storms, and slow the intrusion of saltwater that can damage crops and livestock. Mangroves in particular are massive carbon sinksbeing one of the most carbon-dense ecosystems in the world—and contribute to food security and local communities through fishery resources.

However, an estimated 24% of Malaysia’s mangroves are not under legal protection, and thus vulnerable to deforestation (The Star, 2021). Mangrove habitat loss is ever-ongoing to clear space for more plantations and developments, and we should oppose this.

There are a number of initiatives currently ongoing to preserve mangroves which should be more widely implemented. For instance, the ecoCare Centre managed by the Malaysian Nature Society in Terengganu fosters the regeneration of mangroves by planting nurseries and raising awareness through workshops (Malaysian Nature Society, 2021). In regards to climate policy, Malaysia should extend full protection status as permanent forest reserves to its mangroves, cooperating with local communities to ensure enforcement.

2. NBSs are not limited to the wild, but can also help urban spaces mitigate and adapt to climate change by bringing ecosystem services back into cities. Tree-lined streets and green spaces can provide natural shading and reduce cooling needs (which guzzle energy otherwise) while lessening noise pollution and air pollution. Tree-shaded walking and cycling paths simultaneously function as ecosystem and mobility corridors. NBSs have human needs at the forefront of their considerations, and more green space further serves to provide recreation and health benefits, improving quality of life across the board.

Think City, an urban policy outfit, is currently working on a Climate Adaptation plan in partnership with Penang City Council. It aims to reduce the Urban Heat Island effect, referring to metropolitan areas experiencing significantly warmer temperatures than surrounding rural areas due to human activities and infrastructure. They are working on greening Penang (rooftops, parking spaces, pocket parks etc) and using plant-based methods of increasing water catchment to alleviate flooding (Think City, 2021). Given the rising threat of heat waves especially in sweltering tropical Malaysia, other cities are encouraged to follow their model as well.

Aside from the aforementioned solutions, NBS also include:

  • Coral reef and rainforest conservation;
  • Agricultural solutions, like using existing agrobiodiversity to increase biodiversity and landscape resilience to extreme events;
  • Rebuilding and stabilising river banks and wetlands;
  • Upsloping vegetation to reduce the risk of landslides.

Malaysia is a megadiverse country, and it is time to recognise that all of these solutions have a place in climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. We should challenge the idea that climate risks must be tackled by gray infrastructure like dams and drainage systems, as there are better nature-based alternatives that address our socio environmental issues whilst restoring our relationship with nature and preserving habitats for wildlife.

Conclusion

In conclusion, biodiversity loss and natural resources not only have biophysical effects, but could also impact the survival of human society and its development. Whilst we could justify protecting our natural resources on moral principles alone, our session with Dr. Wong and our further research prove that there are practical reasons for conservation that greatly impact humanity and our daily lives. Proactive and efficient conservation regimes must be rolled out, or we must prepare for the worst possible outcome if it is business as usual.

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