Is Malaysia underreporting its greenhouse gas emissions?

Earlier this week, Malaysia was accused of underreporting its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by The Washington Post whose article questioned the validity of data that countries use to make their climate pledges.

The report came at a strategic time, as many country delegates and Ministers are gathered at COP26 or the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference 2021 to negotiate climate-related matters.

The Edge Malaysia approached the Malaysian delegation and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) at COP26 to get their thoughts on the matter.

Environment and Water Ministry (KASA) secretary-general Datuk Seri Dr Zaini Ujang, on behalf of the Ministry, stressed that Malaysia’s Biennial Update Report (BUR), which was highlighted in the article, is prepared in accordance to the rigorous process set by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This includes multiple stakeholder consultations and reviews from a team of technical experts from the UNFCCC, who analyse the report within six months of submission. After that, the BUR is subjected to assessments and questions from other countries.

“Our report was noted as ‘exemplary’ by the UNFCCC. When they train officials in other countries to prepare their BUR, they indicate that Malaysia’s report is a good example,” says Zaini.

According to The Washington Post, Malaysia’s BUR suggests that its trees are absorbing carbon four times faster than similar forests in Indonesia, which it questioned because the size of forests in Indonesia is more than five times that of Malaysia. The article also claims that Malaysia is underestimating emissions from drained peatland, which is released for years after the land is converted.

When asked, Zaini says that Malaysia does account for GHG emissions from forest land or peatlands converted to agriculture land. Most of the peatlands in Malaysia were converted in the 1950s and 1960s, he says.

“We still account for this. It’s definitely lower than those that are newly drained, like in Indonesia. Secondly, they looked at the carbon cycle of a peatland, so they look at soil respiration as well.”

But the 2006 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines for national GHG inventories only requires reporting on human-induced emissions and removals of GHG.

“I disturb the land and there are emissions. I will account for that. We don’t count the naturally occurring carbon dioxide in the peatland,” he says.

The scientists that the news portal interviewed also doubted Malaysia’s forest carbon storage numbers, which they think are unusually large and cannot be reproduced.

“They can reproduce it. All the figures we have given are transparently reported. The problem that they had was that our national forest inventory is in Malay. If it’s in English, they could have understood it better,” he says.

According to the Ministry, five land categories are estimated under the Land Use, Land Use Change and the Forestry sector. Emissions and removals from peatlands are covered under forest land and cropland. Emissions from deforestation, cropland conversion, peatland drainage, forest fires and commercial harvest are also reported.

The Ministry questions the article’s decision to single out Malaysia, which is a developing country that is contributing less than 0.7% of the GHG emissions globally. It also points out that this is just the third BUR that Malaysia is submitting, and it reports what is relevant to non-Annex 1 parties in the Convention.

“I think it’s important that they get their facts right before questioning our BUR, which has gone through a very rigorous review,” he says.

Could the government increase its transparency and engage with NGOs more, to prevent such situations from occurring?

The Ministry says that it has engaged with NGOs in their process. There is a list of organisations consulted in the BUR.

More consultations with NGOs needed

The Edge Malaysia also spoke to a few Malaysian NGOs present at COP26.

Faizal Parish, director of the Global Environment Centre, says the emissions factor used in the BUR3 are based on the 2006 guidelines, which are not the latest version, he says. According to the website, there was a refinement of the guidelines in 2019.

“We have discussed this twice with them. When we met with them in April, it was agreed that for the next BUR, they will update the emissions factor,” says Faizal.

Another issue is that the government was relying on land use data provided by the State governments, he says. This includes data on what area has been deforested or converted.

“The data they presented was that there was no land that was deforested or (converted) for agriculture in the last 10 to 20 years. There was a little bit of land converted to settlements, but none to agriculture. From our perspective, that data needs to be looked at,” he says.

According to the BUR3, forestry activity data was obtained from the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources and annual publications of relevant forestry departments. Geospatial imagery was used to monitor changes in the forest.

In 2016, land converted to settlements represented 4.12% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Ultimately, while he understands the constraints that the government faces in collecting such data, Faizal believes that a more inclusive approach with stakeholders is needed.

“They don’t have the capacity to go out and track all the data. We already had one meeting with the Ministry to talk about peatland emissions, so it is thinking about modifying or enhancing the approach of the next BUR,” he says.

“It is critical if there is much better stakeholder engagement, not just of the civil society but also the private sector and others. If you are going to make a change, you need to have an inclusive approach.”

The government has engaged with NGOs when preparing the BUR, Faizal admits, but “my understanding is that NGOs were only invited at the last week before the report was submitted. For the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) process, we were promised to be engaged but they never engaged us.”

NDCs are climate targets that countries party to the Convention must submit. Malaysia submitted its updated NDC earlier this year, as per the Paris Agreement’s requirements.

The same sentiment was echoed by Nithi Nesadurai, president of Environmental Protection Society Malaysia.

During the NDC preparation process — which is separate from the BUR — Nithi says while NGOs were originally part of the technical review team, they were not involved in developing the draft and weren’t called for meetings. By the time they were contacted, there was little time to address the issues before the NDC had to be submitted.

“The government should learn from this lesson. We (NGOs) can bring additional capacity in reviewing the data,” says Nithi.

“NGOs will bring more scrutiny into the data. We know what’s happening on the ground. For instance, Sahabat Alam Malaysia and Treat Every Environment Special had a workshop on forestry data, and they showed that there is no central depository (of forestry data) and each agency has its own means of reporting data.”

There were recommendations on data collection from the workshop that the NGOs would love to share with the government, he adds.

“State governments should also involve NGOs in the preparation of their reports before they submit to KASA because that’s where issues arise.”

Malaysia presenting its commitments

Minister of Water and Environment Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man is currently in Glasgow for COP26. He presented Malaysia’s climate commitments at the high-level segment on November 10.

“The Prime Minister has committed that we will achieve net zero as early as 2050, and we are doing many things to reach that goal. As a developing country, we have to face huge challenges to meet our goal. But we’ve succeeded in keeping 50% of our forests. That is the government’s commitment and this can offset our carbon emissions,” says the Minister.

He shares a few actions that the Ministry has already taken or plans to take. This includes the Long-Term Low Emissions Development Strategy, which will be finalised next year. The framework for the Climate Change Act is currently being reviewed, while a National GHG Centre will be set up to improve climate change data transparency. A Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) Roadmap and a National Adaptation Plan are expected to be introduced as well.

The Minister highlights the efforts of the Malaysia Climate Change Action Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, and emphasises the need to work with State governments, since forestry is under their purview.

“I once met the Kelantan Menteri Besar who said that if the government can get funding to protect their forests, they won’t cut any trees at all. But getting that funding is a problem. For States, forests are their source of revenue, one of which is through logging. That is what we have to discuss now,” he says.


This story ws originally published in The Edge Markets on November 10, 2021. It was produced as part of the 2021 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.  

Banner photo: Cedarburg Beech forest / Credit: Joshua Mayer via Flickr.

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