Coal Plant in Borneo Stirs Up Global Opposition

By: Nick Engelfried 
July 13, 2010

The tropical rainforest of Borneo, a large island in Southeast Asia, represents one of the world’s most impressive strongholds of biodiversity. The Borneo rainforest is home to unique species like the orangutan, the Borneo pygmy elephant, and a dwindling population of the highly endangered Sumatran rhinoceros. The nearby Coral Triangle is similarly rich in aquatic animal species, including 75% of all known species of corals in the world. Yet the area’s tropical ecosystems are now under threat, as the government of Malaysia plans to build a 300 megawatt coal plant in Borneo that would damage the rainforest and coral reefs while displacing local people living traditional lifestyles. Stopping the coal plant has become a major goal of international environmental groups trying to curb global warming.

Located on the coast in the Malaysian state of Sabah (part of the island of Borneo), work on the coal plant is slated to begin this summer with the Malaysian government’s backing. However residents of local villages fear seeing their traditional lifestyles transformed by pollution and environmental degradation from the plant, and are putting up a fight. Sulfur dioxide emissions from the plant threatens to cause acid rain pollution that would damage the surrounding forest and coral reefs, while transmission lines designed to connect the coal plant to areas of major energy demand would cut through vast swaths of rainforest and put endangered species under further pressure.

Carbon emissions from the plant would of course also contribute to global warming, another grave threat to Malaysia’s natural ecosystems. “Stopping this coal plant is about more than protecting one strip of beach,” says Jamie Henn, East Asia Director for the global climate action group 350.org. “It’s a symbol of a global fight to protect our increasingly fragile planet against the onslaught of dirty energy.”

Groups like 350.org have launched a web-based campaign to halt construction of the coal plant, centering around an online petition opposing the plant, which will be delivered to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. Concerned global citizens are also encouraged to leave a note on the prime minister’s Facebook page, urging the Malaysian government to cancel plans for the plant’s construction. “It would be a real shame if you allowed the building of the coal plant in Borneo,” wrote one Facebook user from the Dominican Republic. “It will have a devastating effect on Borneo’s environment and local communities.” Many postings so far on the prime minister’s wall echo similar concerns.

Studies show that Borneo can meet its energy needs without the Sabah coal plant or other fossil fuel energy projects. A variety of Malaysia-based organizations have forged a partnership with the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of Californian-Berkley to complete a report laying out the options to provide for Borneo’s needs with clean energy. According to the study, biofuels, geothermal energy, hydro-power, and energy efficiency could all serve as alternatives to fossil fuels in the short term, while in the longer term solar power and wave or tidal energy could also contribute to a clean energy future for Borneo.

These measures would help Malaysia achieve goals for reducing the intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions, which the country pledged to meet at last year’s international climate negotiations in Copenhagen. In Copenhagen, the Malaysian government to reducing carbon emission intensity from its economy 40% by the year 2020. Since coal is a very carbon-intense fuel, the Sabah coal plant project could make that goal very difficult to meet.

Though the Malaysian government has already given its approval for the plant, environmental groups hope that showing the prime minister there is global opposition to coal in Sabah could still persuade him to stop the plant’s construction. Initial opposition to the Sabah coal plant has come mainly from local communities that would directly impacted by pollution, and their concerns have so far been largely dismissed by the Malaysian government. But putting the coal plant in the international spotlight could cause the government to re-think its plans. The natural beauty of Malaysia’s rainforest and coral reefs is the nation’s main tourist attraction. If the coal plant comes to be seen as a threat to Malaysia’s image as a tropical paradise, and to tourism in the region, this might provide the impetus for the project to be shelved.

“It’s not too late,” writes Henn, to stop the coal plant in Sabah. “Malaysia’s Prime Minister can still pull the plug on the plant and emerge as a champion for clean energy and sustainable development.”

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