From Khoo Salma Nasution
The world’s most important carbon sink is the ocean, and Sustainable Development Goal 14 is to protect “life below water”.
That is why the development of artificial islands is sure to be a net emitter of greenhouse gasses – even if the project proponents claim their development to be based on a “low-carbon city plan”.
These days, corporations tend to spend a lot of time and money marketing themselves as eco-friendly. The worse the environmental impacts of their project, the more money they might spend to make the project look green, attempting to draw in the authorities to play a part in the obfuscation, cover-up and greenwashing.
As citizen consumers might look for government endorsement to confirm their eco-consumer choices, government agencies have the responsibility to scrutinise – with its “eyes wide open” – the context and whole project cycle of any project it approves or endorses.
I was indeed surprised to read that the design of the proposed Penang South Islands (PSI) has been recognised with a Low Carbon City 2022 diamond award by the government agency, the Malaysian Green Technology and Climate Change Corp (MGTC), also known as GreenTech Malaysia.
The PSI megaproject, involving the reclamation of three islands with an area of 1,821ha near the Penang airport, was initially called the Penang South Reclamation (PSR). In its citation, the MGTC said the design of the project had the potential to reduce emissions by 45.47% compared with a “business as usual” scenario and that the development can prevent the release of emissions equivalent to 844,295 tonnes of carbon dioxide, through measures such as low-energy consumption, low-emission mobility, and greenery.
These claims need to be further examined. For example, the “low-carbon plan” promises to plant 200,000 trees. However, far short of the 147 million trees required (based on one mature tree sequestering 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year) to offset the 3.2 million tonnes of carbon emissions generated annually by the PSR, based on figures provided by the Malaysian Physical Planning Council in 2019.
Did the MGTC’s assessment of the PSR project take into account the whole project life cycle? Reclamation of the three islands would start with sand mining an estimated 207.0 million cubic metres of sand and dredging the bottom of an estimated 800 square kilometres of ocean bed – that is larger than the size of Singapore. The approval for the Environmental Impact Assessment report is still pending for the project.
In a school competition, a low-carbon project plan can win a prize if it illustrates how a new township can be designed to save energy. But in a real-world scenario, it makes all the difference where this proposed township is located. The carbon footprint of a project that destroys a “greenfield site” (such as an undeveloped countryside or mature forest) in order to build, is vastly greater than one undertaken by rehabilitating a “brownfield” site (a previously developed site or former industrial site).
The site of the PSR is not a brownfield site, it is an environmentally-sensitive area where the fish landings total 24.5% of the state’s overall landings (13,418.11 tonnes per year). According to the department of fisheries, the reclamation will threaten about 87 species of marine life, including high-value white pomfret and prawns (white prawn and swallow prawn).
At a time of global food crisis, Malaysia must prioritise its food security. Aquaculture, both big and small, could be jeopardised by the pollution resulting from the dredging and sand mining for PSR. The impacts might possibly reach the “golden triangle” of brackish water aquaculture in Sungai Udang in Penang, Tanjung Piandang and Kuala Kurau, as well as the mangrove areas of Kuala Gula and Kuala Sepetang in Perak, which are producing about half of Peninsular Malaysia’s supply.
Last week, the influential G25 group called on the government to respect the rights of the fishermen and to put a stop to Penang’s proposed 3-island reclamation “for the sake of remaining true to its pledge to ensure a sustainable future for our nation”.
Instead of propping up the “low-carbon city” greenwash for the proposed artificial islands, the authorities should be brave enough to interrogate the true risks and trade-offs.
Learning from the lessons of Forest City in Johor, it is not too late to mitigate risks and pull the plug on unsustainable reclamation megaprojects, whether in Penang, Langkawi, Melaka or anywhere else in Malaysia.
Khoo Salma Nasution is the vice-president of Penang Heritage Trust.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.