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Back | Programme Area: Social Dimensions of Sustainable Development

A Fair Green Economy? Studies of Agriculture, Energy and Waste Initiatives in Malaysia

A Fair Green Economy? Studies of Agriculture, Energy and Waste Initiatives in Malaysia
This paper proposes that a green economy needs also to be a fair economy. Following broader global trends, in 2009 the Malaysian government established the basic architecture for green economy by incorporating a green technology portfolio into the newly established Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water. This was followed by a suite of interventionist policy instruments. However, Malaysia’s approach raises the question whether the full range of social, economic and environmental goals is considered in its policy objectives, since a strictly economic approach to sustainability risks marginalizing the social equity aspects of green economy.

Parallel to the debate on sustainability, the social dimension of green economy has proven elusive both in definitional and substantive terms. There is no single understanding of integrated/comprehensive greening coming from either green growth, green economy or global green new deal discourses. However, the allocation of green goods and services is considered key, and it is recognized that this will eventually demand greater resources (not just economic) to achieve the necessary level of greening. For these reasons, although green economy does present an alternative pathway for development, it only partially resurrects the broader vision of sustainability as originally outlined by the sustainable development concept. For instance, focusing on green growth does not automatically lead a community to pathways to sustainability. Likewise, pro-poor investment alone cannot guarantee the diffusion of green projects that can lead to positive socioeconomic development outcomes. Since established poverty reduction programmes do not necessarily target the environment and vice versa, a green economy must integrate both poverty and environmental objectives.

Malaysia’s national green economy framework reflects a mainstream economics framing, such as that of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). That is, it attempts to strengthen the economy via incentives, the tax system, pricing, regulatory frameworks and prioritized investments. Its target group, however, is industries located in urban centres and not the poor communities living in the rural areas of Malaysia. Consequently, the social dimension is not clearly spelled out in terms of programme and policy tools, despite the fact that “improving the quality of life for all” is one of the four pillars of Malaysia’s National Green Technology Policy. This is manifested in the country’s green policy design, evincing an urban bias. Given this scenario, the empirical section of this paper surveys piecemeal greening projects in a subnational context, particularly in Malaysia’s rural frontier where poverty is still a major challenge. These projects are not officially considered a part of the country’s recent response to the green economy agenda. Through case studies of agriculture, renewable energy and waste-to-wealth initiatives, the paper illustrates that green economy in Malaysia has most potential when it arises from the engagement of communities. The paper explores the contribution of these three sectors in meeting social policy objectives, as well as the challenges. Specifically, the paper investigates the benefits from a greener economy that will accrue to society members who are disadvantaged economically and geographically.

The first case study describes the application of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a sustainable agricultural technique. It illustrates how green economic activity can alleviate poverty while simultaneously preserving the environment. Capitalizing on local leadership and technical assistance from government agencies, the SRI broadens the base for justice by benefiting small farmers (as opposed to industrial agriculturalists). The promotion of sustainable practices has also resulted in smallholders receiving a premium price for their rice products, thus helping to alleviate poverty.

The second case study focuses on the challenges in improving electrification rates in remote areas. Green economy approaches to energy should shift away from “hard path” solutions such as hydroelectric dams, toward decentralized “soft path” energy systems such as micro-hydropower and solar photovoltaic. However, past efforts to improve energy security and alleviate poverty in the rural areas in Sarawak have been bedevilled by failures in implementation. Best practice cases point to the need to spend adequate resources (technical and financial) in order to find appropriate solutions at the community level.

The third case study shows the potential of using a waste-to-wealth project to empower a marginalized group (in this case, single mothers on Tuba Island) by improving their livelihood via income-generating activities. Focusing on making crafts from waste, the project considers the whole business supply chain to ensure that handicraft products are properly marketed and eventually sold. With better resources and coordination, the (currently small-scale) economic strategies practiced in Tuba Island could be scaled up and replicated elsewhere as a means to achieve economic growth through pro-poor and pro-disadvantaged investments.

There are issues of distributional and procedural justice in the greening of any economy. The paper considers the distributional justice or consequences of greening policies or practices on different groups of people and places. Procedural justice considers questions of governance, voice and participation within decision making. They are elusive at first glance, and therefore require increased attention from scholars and policy makers. In both, there are five areas in which issues of equity or fairness relate to either processes or outcomes. Together, they form the preconditions for a greener economy in Malaysia.

1. Rectify urban bias in national green economy formulation.

2. Address the silo effect by improving policy coherence through better coordination and implementation.

3. Improve problem framing and scaling of responses.

4. Enhance locality-based green income-generating activities.

5. Address distributional and procedural justice through improved consultation and public participation.

The paper concludes by arguing that a transition to a green economy requires more than a mere tinkering with the economy. Indeed, it must also include the reform of social institutions to address underlying biophysical conditions at local, national and global levels.

Adnan A. Hezri is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia. He holds a PhD in Public Policy from the Australian National University and publishes in the area of comparative environmental policy. He has served as consultant to Malaysian government agencies and international organizations on sustainable development strategy, indicator-based assessment and policy evaluation.

Rospidah Ghazali is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Environment and Development, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Her PhD thesis, entitled Sustainability of Paddy Sector in the Integrated Agriculture Development Area of Northwest Selangor, has been submitted for examination in Universiti Malaya. Her research interests cover areas such as agricultural sustainability, food security and rural development.

This UNRISD Occasional Paper series, produced in collaboration with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) for Rio+20, aims to stimulate debate around the social dimensions of green economy and sustainable development.

For a list of the papers in this series, go to the project page.

  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 30 Dec 2011
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISBN: 978-9-29-085082-3
    From: UNRISD