Malaysia is burning more coal now than it did 20 years ago

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Sahabat Alam Malaysia refers to Mangai Balasegaram’s recent columns in StarLifestyle about Malaysia’s coal-fired power plants, and wish to express our wholehearted support for her call to stop building more of them (online at and

In the interest of mitigating the climate crisis, we urge the Malaysian government to halt the country’s reliance on coal as a energy source and urgently expedite efforts to reform the energy sector towards renewable energy and away from a dependence on greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.

Attempts at reforming Malaysia’s energy sector through a series of policies and interventions since the 1980s have mainly focused on preserving national energy security above all else. It was only in 2000, when the Fifth Fuel Diversification Policy (FFDP) was rolled out that biomass, biogas, solar and mini hydro as sources of energy – collectively identified as the “fifth fuel” – were first introduced. It has been 20 years since the FFDP and Malaysia continues to burn more coal than ever today, contributing to the climate change crisis with carbon dioxide emissions.

Malaysia aims to achieve 20% renewable fuel penetration by 2025 but it is currently at a meagre 2%, mainly from solar power. So simply electrifying sectors such as transportation and labelling them with the magical word “eco” does nothing in reality to mitigate climate change since the fuel used to generate that electricity is a dirty fossil fuel.

As much as 38% of global electricity generation continues to rely on coal, while Malaysia’s reliance is even higher: Coal made up 50.6% of the fuels burned to generate electricity in 2017. Shockingly, just 20 years before in 1997, coal only contributed a meagre 7.4% as a source of electricity because natural gas dominated at 63.4%.

Globally, the burning of coal is responsible for 46% of CO2 emissions and accounts for an astounding 72% of total greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector alone.

As is well-known by now, we are facing a climate emergency and all countries must do their utmost to ensure that the planet’s average surface temperature does not exceed 1.5°C compared with pre-industrial levels – and we are already at 1°C higher at present. Relying on coal at this point, when there are viable and affordable renewable energy alternatives, is simply irresponsible.

Also, generating electricity from coal is inefficient even with technological improvements. As Balasegaram points out, what Malaysia needs today are energy sources that are flexible enough not to be wasteful, not “big dinosaur plants”.

Currently, Malaysia imports as much as 98% of that coal that is burned to generate about 40% of the country’s electricity. In 2018, we were the eight largest importer in the world of coal briquettes and the 12th largest importer of bituminous coal (not agglomerated).

Although renewable energy can effectively compete with oil and gas in general, the existing coal-fired thermal plants in the country continue to operate as usual because coal is a cheap source of fuel for electricity generation. However, burning coal comes with a range of externalities, such as negative costs to the environment and public health, that are not fully acknowledged let alone internalised in the pricing of electricity.

If the government fails to seriously rethink the energy choices made today, it will lock the country into a higher carbon emissions trajectory for years to come with this reliance on coal. This is inconsistent with its obligations under the Paris Agreement, where countries are expected to move towards long-term low-emissions strategies.

Such a carbon lock-in irresponsibly exposes the nation and its people to grave risks in the future from the adverse impacts of climate change, which can bring untold suffering.

Like any other country in the world, Malaysia has a duty to safeguard its energy security. However, securing such energy security cannot be at the expense of climate risks, especially when safer renewable energy alternatives exist.

In view of this, we urge the government to halt the building of more coal-fired power plants and to stop short-sighted, carbon-intensive development that fails to lay the critical groundwork needed to ensure climate resilience and prevent a carbon lock-in.

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