December 25th, 2009 by Hafiz Noor Shams
Bernama wrongfully reported that the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, put up a conditional offer to cut 40% of Malaysia’s 2005 carbon emissions by 2020. The same goes with the New Straits Times, except it did it more badly by not directly quoting the Prime Minister. This is sloppy reporting. The truth is that it is a conditional cut of 40% to Malaysia’s carbon emissions intensity in terms of GDP within the base and time frame mentioned. Regardless of the inaccuracy, is the cut impressive?
The size of the cut seems big but cutting carbon emissions intensity is a lot easier than cutting outright carbon emissions; a cut in emissions is more expensive than a cut in carbon intensity. Achieving 5% cut as demanded by Kyoto is a lot harder than 5% cut in carbon intensity. The difference is clearer when one takes note that emissions itself can increase even under a situation of decreasing carbon intensity.
A demostration is in order. The most convenient way of showing this is by using intensity per capita as a unit rather than per GDP. In order words, this refers to emissions per person.
Assume that the emissions per person is 2 and there are a total of 10 persons in a neighborhood. The total emissions is therefore 20.
Assume further than emissions per person improves to 1.5 and total population increase to 15. Total emissions gets worse: it is now 22.5.
A cut in emissions will address total emissions. A cut in carbon intensity does not guarantee that.
A concrete example is the United Kingdom. According to the National Environmental Technology Centre of the UK, total emissions fell slightly between 1990 and 2005. Carbon intensity? It fell more or less by 40%. 
Hence, the act of stressing the difference is not a matter of splitting hair.
Carbon intensity has the tendency to decrease over time due to application of technology. The typical criticism directed at any commitment at reducing carbon intensity is that even without such commitment, carbon intensity will decrease anyway. This is especially true for developing countries where there is a lot of space for technological improvement through by merely copying.
Given this, the Prime Minister’s conditional offer is not something to shout about. China also made an offer to cut carbon intensity and it has been rightly criticized for trumpeting an unremarkable target and then demanding moral authority at the negotiation table in Copenhagen during the 15th Conference of the Parties that ended recently.
(Despite this tendency, Malaysia’s carbon intensity between 1990 and 2004 increased. I suspect a Kuznets curve. The ratio may increase up to a certain level before decreasing. Malaysia after all was industrializing during the 1990s and now, Malaysia is largely done with industrialization.)
It should only be seen as a brilliant diplomatic maneuver and not a big effort at cutting emissions. It is brilliant not just because that the commitment is very likely to be achieved anyway and thus, making the offerers look good, it is brilliant because it makes demand for aid — and making the exercise cheaper than it would — even when the cut in carbon intensity is very likely to be achieved without any binding commitment.
This is not to dismiss the importance of cut in carbon intensity. I myself believe that technology is the answer to climate change but it is important to get the right message across while the Malaysian mass media failed the public miserably.
 — COPENHAGEN, Dec 17 (Bernama) — Malaysia has agreed to reduce its carbon dioxide emission to 40 per cent by the year 2020 compared to the 2005 levels subject to assistance from developed countries.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said the cut was conditional on receiving the transfer of technology and adequate financing from the developed world.
“I would like to announce here in Copenhagen that Malaysia is adopting an indicator of a voluntary reduction of up to 40 per cent in terms of emissions intensity of GDP (gross domestic product) by the year 2020 compared to 2005 levels,” he said in his speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 here, on Thursday,
United Nations data shows Malaysia’s carbon emissions in 2006 stood at 187 million tonnes or 7.2 tonnes from each Malaysian. [Malaysia Announces Conditional 40 Per Cent Cut In Emissions. Bernama. December 17 2009]
 — PM Najib says Malaysia is committed to do its best in combatting climate change.
MALAYSIA will voluntarily slash by up to 40 per cent her carbon emission by 2020 compared with 2005 levels.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who made this commitment yesterday, said the cut was part of Malaysia’s contribution to global efforts to combat climate change. [40 per cent reduction of carbon emission by 2020. Mimi Syed Yusof. New Straits Times. December 18 2009]
 — COPENHAGEN: A roadmap towards realising the 40% reduction of carbon emission per capita from the 2005 level by 2020 will be presented to the Cabinet soon. [40 per cent reduction of carbon emission by 2020. Mimi Syed Yusof. New Straits Times. December 18 2009]
 — [Page 18 and 19. Carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption in the UK. The National Environmental Technology Centre]