Sustainable Development

by Tan Jiong Jian

Consider this – the Easter Island, home to a remote civilisation that has long since died out, its barren landscape watched over by ancient stone statues. Whether they were gods or guardians, we may never know, and it doesn’t matter now. It wasn’t always like this, the island was once covered in trees and flourishing bird colonies. Within a span of 400 years, the trees and birds were gone – harvested to extinction. And the people soon followed.

The Moai statues of the Easter Island with their sad stories left a mark in my mind. It is not the image of starvation due to over-exploitation that haunts me. It is the thought about how the occupants of this remote island failed to sustain their civilisation that serves as a grim reminder. If a civilisation on a small island that must have been aware of their isolation could not achieve sustainability, how will we who live on this vast island called Earth fare better?

To secure our future, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions. Here is one such question: Do you think that Malaysia is doing enough? To be more precise, are we as a nation, doing enough to ensure the sustainability of the country’s development?

It is easy to answer such a question based on one’s immediate judgement. However, such conclusions are often based on one’s biased recollections and sometimes by exaggerated incidents highlighted by the media. Examples of such highlights are plentiful: the success of planting 28 million trees, the LYNAS dispute, illegal logging and even the relentless haze choking parts of the country annually. As Daniel Kahnemana, the Nobel Memorial Prize winning psychologist puts it, “Familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

I believe that this question needs to be answered and it needs to be answered carefully. It needs to be answered because without a solid idea of where we stand, a strategic course cannot be plotted; it needs to be answered carefully because a misinformed plan may be worse than an absence of a plan. I believe that the lonely Moai statues of the Easter Island would gladly take a break from being slowly eroded by time to testify to that.

In this article, I take a stab at the aforementioned question by assessing a few arbitrary parameters. Obviously, the selection of these arbitrary parameters is subjective and I am by no means implying that this assessment is complete (to do so would be quite a complex task, I would imagine). It is simply my limited answer to the question. To justify the selection of parameters (they are arbitrary but not baseless), a definition for sustainable development would be necessary. The cliché that is the Brundtland Commissionb definition of sustainable development as development that does not compromise future generations is far too broad. Instead, I focus on two complementary elements: living within our biocapacity and reducing our ecological footprint.

Figure 1: Ecological footprint per capita in units of global hectares (gha). Interactive graph and definitions of footprint categories available from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Figure 1: Ecological footprint per capita in units of global hectares (gha). Interactive graph and definitions of footprint categories available from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Having established the parameters, it is constructive to examine some data about our country’s ecological footprint. Figure 1 is a reproduction of selected countries’ ecological footprints compiled by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the organisation’s Living Planet Report for the year 2012, with Malaysia highlighted [1].

As of 2012, Malaysia’s ecological footprint per capita is about four global hectares (gha), where a global hectare represents the productive capacity of one hectare of land (roughly the size of two football fields) at world average productivity. In other words, on average, each of us requires four hectares of productive land to sustain our current standards of living. At first glance, it may seem that the average Malaysian’s resource usage is relatively moderate. However, the concept of our planet’s biocapacity puts things in better perspective.

To help explain Earth’s biocapacity, just imagine that you are a lone castaway on an island where the only source of food you have is a small lake with one hundred fish in it. Imagine also that you have the appetite of Hercules and need 10 fish a day just to sustain yourself. Luckily, the fish in the lake are very productive and they reproduce at a rate of 10 new full-grown fish a day. Therefore, whatever fish you consume will be replaced by new fish and you will have an amazing life being the king or queen of the island. However, if you decide to increase your appetite to eating 15 fish a day, there will be a deficit of 5 fish a day. Therefore, assuming the rate of fish replenishment miraculously stays the same even though there are fewer fish by the day, you will run out of fish in 20 days. That 10 fish a day is analogous to the lake’s biocapacity. For Earth, WWF estimated it to be 1.8 hectares per person in 2008. That figure would be lower now considering that Earth’s population has increased.

Figure 2: The per-person Ecological Footprint and biocapacity in Malaysia since 1961. Note that biocapacity varies each year with ecosystem management, agricultural practices and population size. Source: Global Footprint Network.

Figure 2: The per-person Ecological Footprint and biocapacity in Malaysia since 1961. Note that biocapacity varies each year with ecosystem management, agricultural practices and population size. Source: Global Footprint Network.

Another angle from which to gauge Malaysia’s performance in terms of sustainability is to explore the country’s change in ecological footprint and biocapacity over time. The Global Footprint Networkc has compiled the relevant data, estimating that on a per capita basis, the country’s ecological footprint has exceeded its biocapacity since the year 1995 [2] as shown in Figure 2. With the steady increase in population and improving health care, the downward trend in biocapacity per capita is likely to continue on trajectory. This means that unless significant changes occur, the trends are likely to persist and our biocapacity deficit will continue to increase.

With all the above in mind, how is Malaysia doing?

Perhaps, one may argue that we are doing quite well considering what other countries at the top of the ecological footprint table are consuming. Some may argue that it has been a fair price to pay for increased prosperity, or that the increase in ecological footprint is part and parcel of economic growth. Others will point to inadequate data or possible flaws within the assumptions made in calculating both the biocapacity and the ecological footprint . Looking at Malaysia’s ecological footprint data alone will also bring up the usual criticism that the effects of international trade were not taken into account.

Personally, I think all of the above are secondary. They may well be sound arguments but they are secondary to the fact that the Earth is one. I believe that we will collectively experience the effects of each country’s actions or inaction. Think of it as collective punishment. The Earth is one means that every country needs to contribute as much as it possibly can regardless of past contributions; it means that none of us are isolated. For example, the Maldives will still be among the first to be submerged if sea levels continue to rise even if they reduce their ecological footprint to zero; overfishing in one country may cause its distant neighbour’s fishermen to suffer. A consolidated global effort is not an option. Similarly, Malaysia needs to do all it can while encouraging others to do the same, even though we may not be the worst in terms of biocapacity deficit.

The fact that we only have one Earth means that we cannot afford to choose inaction or half-heartedness, regardless of any possible doubts in the methodology used to assess carrying capacity or ecological footprint. The risk is too high. To borrow a term used in banking, I think that research and assessment done on the subject have been done on a ‘best effort basis’. Changes and improvements may well arrive (as they almost always do, even radical U-turns) but to not intensify efforts for ecological footprint reduction globally now is a gamble taken against the welfare of future generations. Delaying via inaction is akin to increasing the leverage taken on this gamble (with the odds stacked against us).

So how do I think Malaysia is doing? I think we could be and should be doing more.

It seems to me that there is an obvious area where we can make significant ecological footprint reductions. That area is our carbon uptake footprint, of which fossil fuel burning is a large contributor. For example, I am puzzled by our country’s slow adoption of solar energy. Consider the facts: Malaysia is the fourth largest photovoltaic (PV) module producer globally; we have on average about 5 KWh/m² of daily solar radiation on an annual basis with relatively little seasonal variation [3], comparable to the climate in the state of Arizona in the USA (which has seen vast investments in harvesting solar energy), with an annual average solar radiation of about 6 KWh/m² [4]. However, only a small amount of our energy is generated from solar energy. According to a study by researchers at University of Malaya [5], as of 2008, the cumulative installed photovoltaic capacity in Malaysia was 9 MW whereas the total installed electricity generation capacity was about 20,000 MW.

More recently, a report by SEDA suggests that as of 2011, Malaysia has about 69 MW of installed renewable energy capacity linked to the power grid and another estimated 1,000 MW installed capacity off grid [6]. The National Renewable Energy Action Plan of 2009 is aiming for 6% (975 MW) and 10% (2,065 MW) of our total peak electricity demand capacity to be from renewable sources by 2015 and 2020 respectively [7]. Although we seem to be on track towards achieving this commendable target, for a country with our natural resources, I think we are not being ambitious enough. Without a doubt, the picture is far more complex with various technological and economical challenges, but I think the fundamental unchanging physics and climate conditions put Malaysia in a favourable starting position to increase our usage of renewable energy sources. For example, by SEDA estimates, the widespread use of building integrated photovoltaic panels alone has the potential to supply up to 20% of the country’s residential and commercial electricity demand in 2005 [7]. This is one area where I think that Malaysia can do so much more. There are of course many ways that we as individual consumers can help as well. For starters, just following the “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” framework will do wonders in reducing our ecological footprint.

We need to do more today to secure our future. But just whose responsibility is that? As Michael Jackson puts it, “Who am I to be blind?”. So let’s start with the man in the mirror.

Note: An earlier version of this article was published in CEKU (

About the Author

Tan Jiong Jian is a University of Oxford graduate (Masters in Engineering Science) who believes that everyone can make a difference. He can be contacted at [email protected] Find out more about Jiong Jian by visiting his Scientific Malaysian profile at


[1] World Wide Fund for Nature WWF. Living Planet Report 2012. [Online].
Interactive graph:

[2] Global Footprint Network. Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity, Country Trend. [Online].

[3] J Engel-Cox, N Nair, and J Ford, “Evaluation of Solar and Meteorological Data Relevant to Solar Energy Technology Performance in Malaysia,” Journal of Sustainable Energy & Environment 3, pp. 115-124, 2012.

[4] USA National Renewable Energy Laboratory. U.S. Solar Insolation Maps. [Online].

[5] S Mekhilef, A Safari, W Mustaffa, and R Saidur, “Solar energy in Malaysia: Current state and prospects,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, no. 16, pp. 386-396, 2012.

[6] Sustainable Energy Development Authority. (2012, December) Renewable Energy Status in Malaysia. [Online].

[7] Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water, “National Renewable Energy Policy and Action Plan,” 2009. The National Renewable Energy Action Plan is available in the policies section of the Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA) website or


a Daniel Kahneman is a Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus at the Woodrow Wilson School and is also the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University.
b The Brundtland Commission is formally the World Commission on Environment and Development, formed by the UN in 1987 to focus on sustainable development and global environmental issues.