By Khoo Salma Nasution
The world’s most important carbon sink is the ocean, and the UN’s 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 project proponents claim their development is based on a “low-carbon city plan”.
These days, many companies 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 a responsibility to scrutinise – with their eyes wide open – the context and whole project cycle of any project they approve or endorse.
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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 a government agency, the Malaysian Green Technology and Climate Change Corp (MGTC), also known as GreenTech Malaysia.
The PSI mega-project, involving land reclamation to create three islands spanning 1,821 hectares near the Penang airport, was initially called the Penang South Reclamation.
In its citation, the MGTC said the design of the project had the potential to reduce emissions by 45.5% compared with a business-as -usual scenario and that the development could 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, this is 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 project, based on figures provided by the Malaysian Physical Planning Council (MPFN) in its 18-point advice in 2019.
Did the MGTC’s assessment of the project take into account the whole project life cycle? The reclamation of the three islands would start with sand mining about 207 million cubic metres of sand (2022 environmental impact assessment) and dredging the bottom of an estimated 800 sq km of ocean bed – that is larger than the size of Singapore. The approval for the 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 something, is vastly greater than one undertaken by rehabilitating a “brownfield” site (a previously developed site or former industrial site).
The site of the Penang South Reclamation is not a brownfield site: it is an environmentally sensitive area where fish landings total 24.5% of the state’s overall landings (13,418 tonnes per year).
According to the Department of Fisheries Malaysia, 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 a 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 the 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 the peninsula’s supply (2019 Malaysian Fisheries Development Authorities figures).
Last week, the influential G25 group called upon the Malaysian government to respect the rights of the fisherfolk and to put a stop to Penang’s proposed three-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 mega-projects, whether in Penang, Langkawi, Malacca or anywhere else in Malaysia.
Khoo Salma Nasution is an environmental and heritage activist based in Penang