We meet Luqman Chuah, Professor and Deputy Dean from the Universiti Putra Malaysia. We set up the appointment in the complex of the Petronas Tower, the symbol of Kuala Lumpur. Professor Chuah has agreed to give us an introduction of the energy and environmental situation in Malaysia. The following is the summary of our conversation. We also enriched our research on palm oil with the book “Un fléau si rentable: Vérités et mensonges sur l’huile de palme”, from Emmanuelle Grundmann.

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Energy outlook. Even if the share of renewables has kept growing recently, Malaysia’s energy production is strongly based on fossil fuel. Before 2000, the energy production was mainly based on gas, petrol, hydroelectricity and coal. Nowadays, renewables account for 7% in the energy mix. 60% of Malaysia’s energy need is satisfied by gas and petroleum. Hydro and coal account for 20-30% and 10% respectively. There are plans to increase the share of coal, in order to have a great diversity of fuel supply.

Malaysia possesses reserve of fossil fuels, which are gas and petrol (they usually come together). Both gas and petrol extracted in Malaysia are of good quality. The gas produced is “sweet” and is exported to Japan. The gas consumed by Malaysia is a sour gas which is imported from other countries such as Kuwait. The petrol extracted is used to produce kerosene for the aviation. In Malaysia, both the gas and petrol are subsidised (up to 60%!) by Petronas, the governmental company. Since these subsidies are not sustainable, they are gradually diminished. Of course there is a strong public opposition to their diminution since it impacts the price of many products but also because many Malaysians are driving big oil-greedy cars.

Biomass. The main source of renewable in Malaysia is biomass. The biomass plants are used in a small scale, due to the several following drawbacks: the power they can supply is too low, they are expensive, and they are far from the cities (transportation cost of biomass becomes very important with the distance). In the transportation sector, biomass is used as biofuel: cooking oil is recycled and replaces diesel.

Other Energy Technologies. On Borneo Island, the rural states of Sabah and Sarawak use mainly mini hydro as power supply. There is a project of a giant dam in Sarawak, called Bakun Dam, which has been many times planned, cancelled, modified. It entered in service recently, but with a lower capacity than originally planned, due to ecologist and local opposition. Professor Chuah said that the solar energy is promoted, but the photovoltaic technologies stay very expensive. The panels have to be bought from Germany, with no transfer of technology possible. As for nuclear energy, the government wants to build a nuclear plant by 2020, but it has not chosen yet the location. In addition, Malaysia being a Muslim country, the use of nuclear technology may pose some problems with the USA. In Malaysia, there are many Independent Power Plants, where private companies sell energy to the government. It seems that there is a lot of corruption involved here…

Waste to energy. There are some small projects of valorised landfill (less than 5 MW). However, such projects are complicated in the country due to the high moisture content of the wastes: It is not possible to get a lot of energy from them. Another problem of waste management in Malaysia arise from the fact that wastes are not segregated. Furthermore, the government has problems to install new incinerators, because of the public opposition. There is a fear of dioxin contamination. Consequently, most of the waste goes into common landfills. In one week, Malaysia produces a mountain of rubbish as high as the Petronas towers.

Air pollution. In Malaysia, 70% of the air pollution comes from the transports. A Clean Air Act has been redacted in 1974, but has not been enacted yet. In fact, this act would significantly affect the economy of the country; therefore the government refuses to sign it. Currently, there are penalties for pollution emission although they are ridiculously low and therefore, ineffective. An annual concern of Malaysia (along with Singapore) is the haze produced by the slash and burn farming in Sumatra and Kalimatan (Indonesian part of Borneo). This smoke comes to contaminate the skies of Singapore and Malaysia in July and August, and reaches a level of 200% or 300% of the admitted limits (for the particulate matter 2,5 micrometers). Malaysia does complain a lot officially. Unofficially, one needs to know that most of the land which is burnt in Indonesia is in burnt as part of operations from Malaysian companies.

Climate change. There is a low awareness of climate change in Malaysia. Professor Chuah told us that many of his MSc students never heard of the Copenhagen summit. Malaysia has signed the Kyoto protocol and agreed to reduce its emissions by 40% until 2020. Now, this target looks impossible to attain.

Palm Oil. Malaysia used to be the world leader of palm oil exportation; it has now been passed by Indonesia. Palm oil has a long history in Malaysia and it was already produced 50 years ago. The palm oil produced is mainly used for chemicals and cosmetics, although we also find in the food. Malaysia promotes the use of palm oil as biodiesel. In the country, 5% of the diesel should come from palm oil. Officially, the forest coverage is stable in Malaysia, around 70% of the country surface. But, behind this figure, one may notice that palm oil tree plantations are also counted as forest, so it does not reflect anything. Due to the many complaints of EU, Malaysia does not deforest anymore for plant palm oil trees. Most of the deforestation are now made now in Kalimatan. Palm oil industries are very polluting. The people mainly focus on the water rejected by the palm oil industry, since it contains a lot of oil (Biological Oxygen Demand = 60 000 and Chemical Oxygen Demand = 40 000). However, the air pollution is also important, especially when the branches of the palm oil trees are burnt: they produce many air particles. The state of Sabah has stricter rules for the palm oil industries, because the main income of the state is tourism.

Palm oil is a very lucrative business, although it has big impact on the environment. Great areas have been deforested in the tropical belt. Borneo and Sumatra have lost 60% of their forest due to the increase of the monoculture of palm oil. These deforestations have a great impact on the biodiversity (especially on the well-known Orang-Outan). It also has a big impact on climate change. Palm oil plantations have a negative impact on the locals as, in many places, their rights are being violated. Palm oil also has a negative impact on health as it is a great contributor to overweight and obesity. On the other hand, palm oil tree is preferred due to its high productivity (2 fruit seasons per year); it doesn’t require a big mechanisation but a lot of labour instead). Palm oil has good physical characteristics: it gets liquefied at high temperature, it doesn’t go rancid, and it contains beta carotene! Overall, the palm oil is very cheap compared to other oil, except that the externalities caused to the climate are not included in the final cost! The positive side of it is that there are more and more organic palm oil produced.