Good News on Climate Change from Malaysia

Construction of a 300 megawatt coal plantin Malaysia, which would increase the Southeast Asian country’s contribution to climate change while threatening fragile ecosystems, just ran into a major hurtle. According to news from AFP, the environment minister for the Malaysian state of Sabah has rejected the plan for the coal plant, citing worries that environmental impacts would be too great. This victory comes after months of work on the part of Malaysian environmental groups and international climate organizations attempting to stop the coal plant’s construction.

In December of last year, Malaysia committed to cut its “carbon intensity”—or carbon emissions released per unit of energy generated—40% by the year 2020. Since then it’s been unclear exactly how the country plans to achieve this goal, particularly if it increases its reliance on coal for energy. Because coal is one of the dirtiest of all fossil fuelsand among the most important causes of climate change, heavy reliance on coal makes it very difficult for a country to reduce emissions intensity. If the proposed Sabah coal plant is never built, it will increase the odds that Malaysia can achieve its climate goals.

Rejection of the coal plant is also good news for Malaysian biodiversity and the country’s natural ecosystems. The site proposed for the plant was located in the heart of the Malaysian rainforest, which of course is also a valuable carbon sink. Pollution from the coal plant’s smokestack would have threatened forest health, while construction of power lines would have fragmented wildlife habitat by cutting through vast swaths of forest. Pollution from the plant would also have threatened some of the most diverse coral reef ecosystems on the planet, which are already at risk due to the effects of climate change.

Even so the government of Malaysia seemed poised to rubber-stamp permits for the coal plant, until local environmental groups sent out a global plea for help. International climate organizations like 350.org joined the fight to stop the Sabah coal plant, urging residents of the US, UK, and other countries to leave a message on the Malaysian prime minister’s Facebook page and rally around an online petition. Apparently the global controversy had an effect: on Thursday Sabah environment minister Masidi Manjun rejected the plan for the coal plant.

The Sabah coal plant isn’t completely dead yet, as its backers could appeal the recent decision. Grassroots pressure in Malaysia and beyond is still needed to secure final victory against the plant and its associated carbon emissions. Yet Minister Masidi Manjun’s willingness to stand up to powerful corporate interests marks a win in the fight against the coal plant, and is a hopeful sign that at least some government officials in Malaysia are ready to crack down on the causes of climate change. If the Sabah coal plant and destructive energy projects like it can be stopped in their tracks, Malaysia might achieve its national climate change goals after all.

Photo credit: Ben Sutherland

Nick Engelfried is a freelance writer on climate and energy issues, and works with campuses and communities in the Pacific Northwest to reduce the causes of climate change.