IN the past few weeks, we have felt the aftershocks of catastrophic weather that struck neighbouring nations. It hit closer to home when the Malaysian Meteorological Department put Sabah on tsunami watch on Oct 13.
Unstable climatic patterns, occurring at greater frequency and intensity, are reportedly the outcome of human activity. The situation may get worse unless we mend our ways.
A report released by the United Nations Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the world is completely off track in keeping temperature rise under 1.5°C as pledged in the Paris Agreement, heading instead towards 3°C. Going past 1.5°C is dicing with the planet’s livability, the report warns. Most at risk are coral reefs, mangrove forests, small-scale fisheries, tourism and the Arctic land mass.
To reset the 1.5°C clock, the report recommends urgent action to reduce carbon emissions, adopt renewables as primary energy, with close to zero coal use.
That is why it is disconcerting to read recent news reports that Malaysia is considering coal mining to meet domestic power demand. Coal extraction and coal-fired power plants are among the biggest culprits in greenhouse gas emissions, the primary cause of global warming. Even more disconcerting is the targeted area — Sabah’s Maliau Basin, known as the Lost World. This pristine and protected rainforest is a bastion of carbon capture and sequestration. Carbon dioxide (CO2) currently accounts for about 60 per cent of the “enhanced greenhouse effect”; with CO2 trapped in wood, global warming slows.
What is puzzling is why Malaysia prefers coal (mostly imported) when it has substantial gas reserves. Policymakers say it is a question of cost. Coal is the least expensive available power source and translates into lower electricity bills. Politicians and policymakers tend to shy away from raising electricity costs, a platform upon which elections can be won or lost.
This is a blinkered, short-term view because it fails to factor in the social costs of coal pollution — spikes in health and food bills borne by the population. The World Health Organisation calls pollution a “silent killer”. Despite killing more people than all wars combined, pollution does not get the headlines it deserves. It is largely manmade, caused by diesel vehicles, agricultural burning and power plants.
The 11th Malaysia Plan (2016-2020) acknowledges this reality, and advocates increasing the share of renewables in our energy mix. In Sabah, where rural electrification is a priority, the focus is on renewables, such as solar hybrid and mini-hydro electricity, supported by off grid networks to ensure wider coverage. In the longer term, solar, waves and wind turbine are to be considered as viable alternatives, with the potential to revolutionise electricity generation in the state.
So, why this sudden U-turn with coal? Perhaps it is to be a stop-gap measure until renewables are more readily available. If that is the case, why not choose gas instead?
Smithsonian.com (Feb 13, 2014) says that when talking about climate change, not all fossil fuels are created equal. Burning natural gas, for instance, produces nearly half as much CO2 per unit of energy compared with coal. The rule of thumb is coal is half the cost of natural gas, but twice as polluting. The magazine says that natural gas can help nations lower their CO2 emissions while transition to renewable carbon-neutral forms of energy.
Over-reliance on one fuel type, however, is foolhardy in our energy-hungry world. Natural gas and renewables are ideal complementary fuels — the intermittent nature of renewables can be offset by the reliability of natural gas, described as an on-demand energy source that substantially reduces pollution relative to cost.
Industry and transportation, the other two key culprits in pollution, can benefit from using gas. Besides enhancing energy and operational efficiencies in industry, gas reduces carbon emissions substantially compared with other fossil fuels. This is becoming a priority with growing pressure for industry to be held accountable for carbon emissions.
Malaysian policymakers and captains of industry have some difficult decisions to make. The Paris Agreement commitment to cap the temperature rise to 1.5°C post-2020 requires a rethink of our energy sources. And there is a crying need to reduce pollution, given its maleficent impact on climate.
Climate change goes beyond extreme weather. It accelerates everything from the threat of diseases to the scarcity of essential daily items. Floods and droughts affect food crop yields and livelihoods of farmers. Healthcare systems are challenged by dengue and malaria outbreaks, with mosquitoes thriving in wet conditions. Rural populations are especially vulnerable to vector-borne and waterborne diseases in the aftermath of floods.
In 2015, Malaysia pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 45 per cent by 2030 and introduced measures, such as developing carbon-neutral cities, tax incentives to companies that report and limit emissions and procuring more environmentally friendly government assets. There is a programme to plant 13 million new trees since 2011.
We can expect even more sweeping outcomes by taking one more critical step: by making gas and renewables our fuels of choice. This action will accelerate Malaysia’s journey towards carbon neutrality by 2050. And accrue savings, both direct and indirect: savings from coal-import costs, saving our rainforests, saving our seas (coal-powered plants are located on the coast), saving our air, and savings on medical bills, food bills and livelihoods.
The argument that natural gas and renewables cost more than coal is myopic. They are complementary fuels that make as much economic sense as they do social and environmental sense. In short, this is a sustainable solution that will benefit mankind as much as Planet Earth.