Will raising fuel and power bills make Malaysians go solar?

Malaysia’s climate minister says he’ll cut subsidies from the rich and help the poor to help better the environment.

The Ulu Baram rainforest in the Miri interior, eastern Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak
A rainbow forms over the Ulu Baram rainforest in the Miri interior, eastern Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak - a climate-change project aimed at encouraging poor developing nations to conserve their tropical forests [AFP]

This year saw an increase in natural disasters the world over, from floods in Libya and New York and deadly wildfires in Hawaii and Greece – all very real effects of climate change.

Globally, there have been twice as many days where temperatures exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) than 30 years ago, with this year being declared the hottest on record.

Malaysia is just one country that has been facing its own set of climate issues. In recent years it’s faced an unprecedented rise in temperatures causing heat islands to devastating floods, like the ones in 2021, displacing thousands as homes submerged under water.

Although the Southeast Asian state was once criticised for its contribution to global warming, caused by deforestation on land used for palm oil cultivation and more recently for its use of coal-fuelled power stations – it’s also been at the forefront of climate mitigation.

But its new minister for natural resources and environmental sustainability, Nik Nazmi, has said more needs to be done. Since taking the helm of his country’s climate change measures last year, he’s already said no more new palm oil plantations and coal plants.

Instead, he wants to increase electricity tariffs for the wealthy hoping to direct them towards alternative energy, while continuing to subsidise electricity and fuel for the less well-off.

Ultimately, steering his country towards a more sustainable way of living, he says, cannot be achieved through governmental policies alone, but through changing mindsets and returning to shared human values.

Here’s more from Al Jazeera’s conversation with Nik Nazmi, Malaysia’s minister for natural resources and environmental sustainability:

Al Jazeera: Can you tell us more about Malaysia’s climate adaptation plan and when it’s expected to come into action?

Nik Nazmi: Our target is for the National Adaptation Plan and the Climate Change Act to be ready by 2025.

It’s a multifaceted approach that will deal with creating infrastructure.

In recent years we’ve faced flooding, so we are trying to move away from impermeable surfaces like concrete and tarmac and towards other breathable materials. We also want to build more homes and services further inland – because Malaysia is a mountainous country overall, people tend to be pushed to live near the coast or the river basins, but that also means a lot of people are then exposed if there’s a major sea level rise.

In the last few years, the level of heat has been much higher than usual. We noticed temperatures can be lower in green spaces compared to built-up areas – by as much as 6C (42.8F). We are planning our cities using a nature-based approach, by planting more greenery and parks. We are trying to slowly move and change so that ultimately we can overcome the urban heat island effect.

Al Jazeera: Would you say Malaysia’s production of palm oil – the country’s top crop for three decades – is contributing to this rise in global temperatures, as a leading contributor to deforestation and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?

Nazmi: It may have been at one time, but that isn’t the case now.

In Malaysia, most of our plantations, [98 percent] are covered, even the smallholders are covered, under the Sustainable Palm Oil initiative. It’s a move that has been recognised, even by international studies, in significantly decreasing deforestation from palm oil.

Yes, we have a very widespread sustainable palm oil industry, but there is a limit to the size of our oil palm plantations. Both the timber industry and the palm oil industry in Malaysia are very much regulated.

Palm oil production has been considered a key contributor to the effects of climate change
Palm oil production is thought to be a leading contributor to the effects of climate change [Binsar Bakkara/AP Photo]

Al Jazeera: But hasn’t the State of Kelantan been giving out concessions encouraging more palm oil production? Is the federal government trying to stop it?

Nazmi: Under our Constitution, the state authority is in charge of land and forests, and the federal government regulates and coordinates it.

If there has been an issue in Kelantan where the environmentally sensitive areas have been deconstructed, and this includes areas of permanent forest reserves which are going to be given to a palm plantation, then they will not get the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil certification.

Our Sustainable Palm Oil initiative has been a major element in protecting the forest, and it’s something we don’t get enough recognition for.

The Sustainable Palm Oil initiative has made a huge difference, but so has our Sustainable Forest Management Programme. This looks at ways to protect the forest and allow it to redevelop, to regrow.

We are a federation with land and forests all under state control. We give state governments a certain amount of money for them to reserve their forests. The amount is based on how large the size of the forest that they continue to maintain is, whether they continue to add to forest reserves, or whether they do any other initiatives to improve that.

We used to pay 70 million ringgit a year [$15m], but last year – 2022-2023 – we managed to increase it to 150 million ringgit [$32m]. And for 2024, the Prime Minister has already announced in the budget 200 million ringgit [$42.9m]. So that’s a massive amount.

Is it enough? It’s not enough, but it’s a good start. We’ve also had a national Forestry Act, which was passed in 2022. This means that for state governments, they have to do public inquiries before they can work on any forests. They also have to instantly replace those forests, by replanting.

Those are all the things that we tried to do in order to make sure that we protect our greatest asset – the forest.

Al Jazeera: What about the wildlife within the forests? Al Jazeera has covered the near extinction of the Malayan Tiger before – there are now thought to now be less than 100.

Nazmi: We have several measures in place here.

First, it’s about dealing with the fragmentation of habitats, the loss of wildlife corridors, right? If you build a road through a forest, or if you build a plantation in that, then it will affect the wildlife. You may still maintain a decent size of forest cover, but if you split it up, then you know, animals like elephants and tigers, they need a huge range to travel. So we are trying to keep the forest intact as much as possible.

Yes, there are still some roads and rail, but it’s limited. Places where it’s impossible for us to not have that infrastructure, we are building wildlife crossings – safe spaces for animals to cross roads and rail tracks – that’s in the works.

The Malaysian government says it has measures in place to protect the forests' wildlife
The Malaysian government says it has measures in place to protect the forests’ wildlife [Saeed Khan/AFP]

There’s also an ASEAN initiative called the Heart of Borneo, which covers the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, but also Brunei and Kalimantan, Indonesia. So it’s basically the North East centre of Borneo that is a protected nature reserve, where you have pygmy elephants and orangutans.

And lastly, we also have an internationally acclaimed programme of Community Rangers, where we work with military veterans and Indigenous tribes – because they know how to move in the jungle. They help to put boots on the ground to deal with poachers, illegal mining and deforestation. They’ve been very effective from our studies, in terms of helping to protect our tigers and elephants and other wildlife.

Al Jazeera: Malaysia is the third-largest producer of solar panels globally, and despite falling costs of solar technology, adoption rates in Malaysia remain low, why is that?

Nazmi: It’s because our electricity is so cheap, it’s one of the cheapest in the region. Although our salaries are probably higher than many countries in the region, the tariffs are among the lowest and the subsidies are very high.

In the past, you know, the government wanted to attract investors, and cheaper electricity helped that, and the people working for these companies, also had subsidised electricity. That won’t encourage people to install solar and other things, because it’s just cheaper to get it from the grid.

But since I took over in December last year, we’ve gradually increased the tariffs for electricity for both the bigger businesses and also for factories – but also for richer households.

The idea is that the subsidies should be targeted, more for the poor, and maybe some of the middle class, but certainly not the rich. They are the biggest consumers, using air conditioners, clothes dryers and swimming pools. So it’s totally unfair.

We have shifted away from that, and we’ve seen the clamour for solar has increased tremendously, even for businesses now. It’s partly because of new regulations with regard to sustainability, but also because now the electricity bills are higher, they complain, obviously. But after a while, then they started doing energy efficiency and installing solar. I mean, that makes economic sense. So I think we will see that to be growing tremendously over the next few years.

Al Jazeera: Isn’t the electricity in Malaysia mainly generated by coal? Why is coal still being used there when other countries have moved away from it? And is anything being done to reduce its use? 

Nazmi: Recent data shows that in 2021 we’ve passed the peak of coal usage. 

At the point of independence [from the British in 1957], a lot of our energy came from diesel power plants. And then when we had the increase in oil prices [in the 1970s], we started to use more coal – remember this is before we had hydroelectricity. Coal continued to become more popular in the early 2000s, because of price issues at the time.

But now, we’ve declared that there’ll be no more new coal plants in Malaysia.

The challenge – that we accept – is the economics of it all, because, unlike many Western countries, our coal plants in Asia tend to be younger. So when you want to talk about retirement, it is much more expensive than in other countries.

We know that it’s a dirty fuel – and that’s why we’ve said no new coal plants, and that’s why we are looking at ways to reduce the carbon from coal.

It has to be done in a just and proper way so that the burden is not then placed on ordinary Malaysian consumers.

We are also seeking a request for information to get ideas on how to reduce carbon emissions from coal from early retirement of coal plants, but that’s still challenging.

We’ve seen what Indonesia is trying to do and Vietnam is working on it, as well as the Philippines. We are looking at mothballing, it’s what Germany and China did. Or even co-firing, either with ammonia or biomass, so you reduce emissions or move from brown to green – so rather than coal, you can give the same company a licence to use solar or other forms of green energy and slowly reduce.

More than 40 percent of Malaysia’s total energy consumption comes from transport
More than 40 percent of Malaysia’s total energy consumption comes from transport [Mohammed Rasfan/AFP]

Al Jazeera: Talking about ordinary Malaysian consumers, they have the highest rates of per capita private vehicle ownership in the region: More than 40 percent of Malaysia’s total energy consumption comes from transport – are there plans to turn this around?

Nazmi: Public transport is of course the best way forward. In KL [Kuala Lumpur], we are adding a third line for the MRT [Mass Rapid Transit], a major connector for the various rail lines in the city, and then there’s the Light Rail Transit [LRT].

But at the same time, we also recognise that we need to look at EVs [electric vehicles] because people still need cars, and not everyone lives in areas with a developed public transportation system.

Al Jazeera: Is anything being done to change mindsets? To get more people willing to jump on a bus or a train, instead of taking their own private cars?

Nazmi: Yes of course. Fuel here is heavily subsidised, but if you drive a huge, luxury car, like a Porsche, or BMW, you actually get more subsidies than the guy who rides a motorbike, so that’s problematic and that’s why we are working towards fuel subsidies to be targeted, where only the poor, and maybe some of the middle classes can be given assistance.

So changing attitudes and habits. It’s not just about going for an EV, because the way you charge cars is different and needs the infrastructure, the charging stations.

It also requires a lot of political will, and the government is working on that. We are trying to push both EV and public transport to go hand in hand slowly.

Al Jazeera: You were at COP28 this year and you’ve said the Loss and Damage Fund should do more to reduce the burden on all developing countries – can you tell me more?

Nazmi: The definition that is always mentioned, is it should be reserved for least developed countries and small island states, and definitely they need it, I do not question that.

But to limit it to those countries alone… If you make it so small, then it makes it meaningless.

In Malaysia, we have a huge impact from climate change. Yes, we are middle income, even perhaps high middle income. But, you should also look at the fact that Southeast Asia is a major victim of climate change – that makes it in the same category as small island nations, right?

Pakistan, Bangladesh, even Libya are not eligible. And of course, they have been massively suffering from floods and various calamities – and I think that’s a problem.

As for the money that’s been promised, the pledge, it’s been mentioned since 2009. The 2015 Paris Agreement, stated $100bn a year from the developed world, right? We are now nearing $1 trillion, that should be the case right now, but we have $80bn – so there’s a huge pledge, but there’s always a shortage of money in the bank.

We are not just speaking on behalf of Malaysia, but we’re looked at as being one of the voices of the developing world, and we want to champion that.

Al Jazeera: You’ve also mentioned the need for a global stocktake – why is that important?

Nazmi: The global stocktake under the UNFCCC is important for us to assess the collective progress of implementing climate actions so that we can achieve the objectives under the Paris Agreement.

For us, the science is clear, we can see climate change happening in front of our eyes. And obviously, many countries have announced their targets, the pledges, so it’s important to have the global stocktake, to see where we are at.

So we don’t delude ourselves, and we can understand the urgency of achieving our goals, and to see what more needs to be done. Business as usual is not an option.

The next step is the principle of equity, you know, common but differentiated responsibility, countries that have done this, they have not only torched their own forests, but they’ve also razed our own forests, for hundreds of years and become rich out of it. It’s time some of the developed world nations busy expanding their own oil fields stopped lecturing and implemented climate measures.

Al Jazeera: How do you ensure that all this work that you’re doing, at governmental level, is implemented at the grassroots levels as well?

Nazmi: There’s this nice quote by this American environmental lawyer, Gus Speth, where he mentioned that he used to think that the problem, the planetary crisis that we are experiencing, is as a result of climate change, biodiversity loss, but it’s actually an issue of selfishness and spirituality.

That’s the heart of it, right, and that’s what needs to be addressed at the grassroots level. At the same time, you have the poor, who are not even getting basic energy, basic water to survive, and you have the rich who are living beyond the limit. So I think working towards a “spiritual and cultural transformation”, as Speth suggested, is what’s most needed.

In a country like Malaysia, religion is important across the board, whether you’re Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist – so finding common values to deal with climate change, will work towards living in a more sustainable world, it’s important.

We’ve launched several awareness campaigns addressing these values, using language and ideas that are universally understood – very basic values, like how to be more mindful and not being wasteful, these are concepts encouraged by all faiths, right.

Source: Al Jazeera