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The Worst Way to Measure Emission Reduction

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

The focus on “emission intensity” is hurting Malaysia’s fight against climate change

In the days leading up to the pivotal Climate Summit COP 26, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, reiterated the country’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas intensity per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by 45% by 2030 relative to 2005. The Prime Minister further added that the commitment was made unconditionally and that it was 10% higher than the earlier target.

According to the graph below, the emission intensity of Malaysia has declined by 32% from 2005 (base year) to 2018. This means the carbon emission per unit of income has declined over the past decade.

Sounds great right? Except it’s not.

When examined more closely, the country’s overall carbon emission had actually increased by 31% in 2018 from 2005 base year, and because we were measuring our emission using an intensity target, which is normalised to account for economic growth, it appeared as though the emissions have decreased.

The very structure of the emission intensity ratio (emission CO2 per PPP $ of GDP) is problematic. When the economy is growing faster than carbon emitted - when the GDP denominator is growing faster than the emission numerator - emission intensity falls. This overstates the extent to which carbon emission reductions have occurred in the economy. But the planetary ecosystems do not care about carbon emissions per GDP. All that matters are the absolute carbon emissions.

The bottom line is that Malaysia has been contributing more to climate change now than it was in 2005. Even if we achieve our “ambitious” target of reducing emissions intensity by 45% by 2030, our absolute carbon emissions are set to nearly double.

The above graph plots Malaysia’s GDP and emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) excl. emissions from landuse change and forestry (LULUCF). Both the historic data (from 2005) and the projected data (up until 2030 as per the 12th Malaysian Plan) are shown including compliance to Malaysia’s current 45% GHG emissions reduction target per GDP. Two remarkable conclusions can be drawn from the graph:

  • Malaysia’s absolute greenhouse gas emissions are set to nearly double from 2005 to 2030

  • Malaysia's 45% GHG emissions reduction target per GDP is nothing different than business-as-usual

In other words, in terms of addressing the climate crisis, Malaysia’s “commitment” is effectively to do nothing other than follow a business-as-usual scenario. This sentiment of empty words from governments around the World was eloquently expressed at the recent UN Youth Climate summit:

"Build back better, blah, blah, blah. Green economy, blah, blah, blah. Net-zero by 2050, blah, blah, blah. Climate-neutral, blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words, words that sound great but so far has led to no action," – Greta Thunberg

What matters most is absolute emission reduction

The root cause of climate change is the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that causes extreme weathers around the globe. Cutting current and future greenhouse gas emissions significantly will avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

But here’s the catch. Even if all countries fulfill their nationally determined commitments (NDC) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, these climate commitments are not on track to meet the Paris Agreement. Even though the majority of countries have increased their greenhouse gas emissions commitments, the recent NDC Synthesis Report concludes that more ambitious climate actions are needed. Currently, even if all the voluntary NDCs are achieved, the global greenhouse gas emissions would only reduce by 1% in 2030 compared to 2010. This is in stark contrast with the 45% reduction target recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in order to stay within the 1.5°C global warming limit in the Paris Agreement.

In order to adhere to the Paris Agreement, there is only one way. We need to immediately transition away from fossil fuels in a much faster and more aggressive manner than we are currently doing. This forces us to entirely stop combusting fossil fuels, and to leave them in the ground, right where the dinosaurs left it.

Notice one thing at this point: GDP does not feature in any way when it comes to curtailing emissions and mitigating climate change. In fact, tying emission reductions to GDP is a misleading distraction.

The message is clear, our emissions are rising, and the only way to cut down our emissions is to phase out our fossil fuels.

With this in mind, it is hoped that our government decouples Malaysia’s emissions reduction goals from GDP in the upcoming COP26 conference. Instead, Malaysia should set a total, absolute emissions reduction target.

Keeping our global temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius hinges on a singular, unwavering focus from all governments, businesses, investors and citizens. It is hoped that Malaysia too will takes its role seriously and play its part in combating the serious effects of climate change.


The above article was published in the @green, Nov-Dec 2021 issue, page 26-27.

This entire @green magazine can be read online at this link:

A high-resolution pdf version of the Yamona's article above can be read and downloaded here:


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