I am terrified for the future of young people. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, industrialised and developing countries need to go further
To borrow from Greta Thunberg’s powerful reminder at the World Economic Forum last week, it is our youth – those who will inherit the planet – who will be most affected by the decisions we make today.
As Malaysia’s youth minister – and Asia’s youngest cabinet minister – her stark words resonate with me deeply. I have seen first hand how young people across the region and the wider Muslim world are disillusioned with the business-as-usual approach to the planet.
Thunberg represents a new generation of young people across rich and poor countries who are demanding urgent reform. They won’t be silenced. Their anger is not just about the climate emergency, but about everything: corruption, economic inequalities, hunger.
In the Muslim world, this wave of unrest extends the same outbreak of rage we saw in 2011. The food, climate and economic drivers of that unrest are now worse than ever.
A decade ago, unemployment in Muslim nations was the highest in the world. Since then, it has grown more than anywhere else. Now nearly a third of young people across the Middle East and North Africa are unemployed – over double the international average.
Across the region, economic growth is sluggish; economies are dependent on diminished revenues from oil exports; public services are languishing and science spending is less than 0.5 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, Muslim-majority nations are among the most corrupt in the entire world.
But the biggest threat of all is the climate crisis. The region has faced almost continuous regional drought since 1998; floods in Saudi Arabia; heat waves in Kuwait; and rising sea levels in the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria. Within 30 years, large areas of the Middle East and north Africa could become “uninhabitable”.
As a government minister representing the issues that young people face, I am terrified of what’s in store for our youth in this region.
South Asia could face extreme drought and food insecurity as early as the 2030s. Bangladesh could experience a sea-level rise on a scale that could force tens of millions from the homes. Progress on poverty alleviation by Malaysia and Indonesia could be reversed due to climate-induced economic losses being bigger than anywhere else. The impact of the climate on agriculture, tourism and fishing, for example, could shave off a tenth of the region’s GDP, and as much as 50 per cent of rice yields.
Neither the east nor west can tackle these challenges alone. Western nations are right to point out how developing nations resort to environmentally-destructive practices. But they are responsible for creating a highly unequal global system dependent on fossil fuels, the legacy of empire.
One area where we desperately need co-responsibility is global deforestation – the world’s second-largest source of carbon emissions from human activities.
Undoubtedly, oil palm plantations have been among the main drivers of deforestation in southeast Asia. But shortly after winning landslide elections overthrowing decades of corruption, my government was the first to declare a moratorium on oil palm expansion to conserve forest cover at no less than 50 per cent, while introducing mandatory standards to make oil palm production 100 per cent sustainable.
Yet within months, the European Union snubbed these efforts and declared a ban on palm oil for biodiesel. My country did not have a chance.
I’m not convinced that this was about deforestation. The EU sought a trade deal with Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay last year, although this would see European beef imports escalate. Yet beef consumption is the single biggest driver of climate-linked deforestation.
I don’t believe we can simply ban our way to a more sustainable and inclusive world – there’s a real risk of displacing rising demand onto to other commodities.
Numerous scientific studies by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Oxford University, and York University among others show that replacing palm oil with soy, rapeseed or corn would drive great levels of deforestation. They are less efficient and use more land, fertiliser and pesticides.
Similarly, killing off livestock industries would degrade soils irreparably under continuous crop production. In contrast, sustainable approaches like “mob-grazing” cattle can help reverse climate change by increasing soil’s capacity to store carbon.
Malaysia’s efforts to transition to sustainable palm oil are not perfect and there remains much work to be done. Yet instead of working with us, the EU has simply ignored our efforts while fuelling greater causes of deforestation elsewhere.
Instead of pointing fingers at each other, industrialised and developing countries must work together to support more sustainable production practices. In the Amazon, that means rearing cattle in ways which protect and nurture the rainforest. In Malaysia, that means cultivating sustainable palm oil in a way which allows precious species like the Orangutan to not just survive, but thrive – as we are trying to do.
Across the east and west, we must find ways to support each other. If we don’t, civil unrest will not only become a perfect storm, it will be the new normal. That means co-responsibility and collaborative approaches not just on problems like deforestation, but on the urgent task of building new kinds of societies where governments and businesses provide for citizens within planetary boundaries.
This is the only future where the next generation has a chance, not just of surviving but thriving. If we political leaders do not work towards that, we can expect to be removed from power: the next generation will make sure of it.
Syed Saddiq is Malaysia’s minister for youth and sports, and Asia’s youngest ever cabinet minister. He is also youth chief of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party in the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition