April 23, 2010
Sustainable Cities: Environment Issues in Penang and Selangor
First Published in the Penang Economic Monthly, hmm.. either the February or March 2010 issue, I forget. One of those
Sustainable Cities in Penang and Selangor: Are We?
(On Environmental and Sustainability Issues)
Much has been said about the little that emerged from the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December 2009. Well, the Copenhagen Accord was finally signed by major economies including the US and China, committing to limit the rise in global temperatures to two degrees Celsius. However, there were no specified caps on emissions to achieve this objective, and neither were there legal conditions to keep this in check. Although much more could and should have been accomplished, the global uproar over its lack thereof reflected the significant shift worldwide towards environmental concerns.
Climate change and environmental issues have been the buzz phrases of the past two years, partly thanks to Hollywood’s documentaries “An Inconvenient Truth” and “The 11th Hour”, which address the growing fears of carbon emissions and climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, Malaysia emitted 6.68 tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita in 2007, more than twice the world’s average and ranking it the fourth highest in the region after Brunei, Taipei and Singapore. However, compared to these three countries, Malaysia’s emission per capita percentage change between 1990 and 2007 was the highest, growing by a massive 143%.
Malaysia’s expanding carbon footprint jolted the Federal Government into including “Green Technology” as part of the Ministry of Energy and Water’s portfolio and in July 2009 launched its National Green Technology Policy, although a plan has not yet been released. More recently, Prime Minister Najib made a bold pledge during the Copenhagen conference to reduce carbon emissions by 40 per cent within the next 10 years, which seems rather bold given increasing emphases on establishing Malaysia as a regional aviation hub and dismal attempts at improving public transportation services.
Although environment is a federal matter, it also exists as a portfolio under the respective state governments. In their December 19th 2009 Convention, the Pakatan Rakyat’s Common Policy Platform (CPP) was unveiled, which includes environmental policies of recycling, controlled deforestation, studying alternative energy resources, restricting hillslope development, reducing carbon emission rates, and ensuring sustainable growth and green development by introducing infrastructure for a low-carbon economy and more green-based industries. These are positive steps forward, but the proof is in the pudding.
Penang and Selangor: Making it Real
The most public of “green” announcements has been that of the gradual elimination of plastic bags in supermarkets and hypermarkets. Penang, positioning itself as the first “green state in Malaysia”, announced the “No Plastic Bag Mondays” which has now been extended to three days a week, practised by hypermarkets, supermarkets and franchise stores. Selangor has also followed suit by implementing “No Plastic Bag Saturdays”, supported by major hypermarkets and supermarkets alike. This latter policy might have been more difficult to negotiate, as many families do grocery shopping over the weekend. This decision has been received positively by the public, with the exception of annoyed plastics manufacturers, whose businesses will be invariably affected.
In line with Penang’s intention of becoming Malaysia’s first ‘green state’, it is collaborating with the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) to develop Penang Cyber City into an Eco-Town, the objective of which is for commercial activities to co-exist with nature sustainably. Under the guidelines set by UNESCO, Penang has also committed to preserving itself as a World Heritage City. Incentives are also being given to housing developers who adopt the Green Building Index (GBI). The Penang Transport Council has also been running for almost a year, to improve public transportation in the city by moving people instead of cars.
This need for sustainable development has also been taken up by Selangor, which in December 2009 concluded its International Conference on Urban Regeneration Towards Selangor’s Sustainable Future, which concluded that all state development must be conducted holistically and comprehensively, taking into consideration all social, physical, and environmental needs. Urban regeneration is one of the Selangor state’s economic stimulus packages as announced in mid-2009 intended to renew old and dilapitated areas that have been left on their own. In 2010, Selangor plans to initiate the Klang Valley Transport Council in order for various stakeholders to come together in resolving local problems.
Another common thread between the two states is their focus on river-cleaning efforts. Penang has opted for occasional throwing of EM (Effective Micro-organism) mudballs into its rivers, which degrades pollutants, but has been criticised as being unsustainable. Selangor has incorporated into its stimulus package the rehabilitation of the Klang River, where in conjunction with private companies, expects to transform the river and its sidebanks into people-friendly eco-centres. This is a laudable effort but is a mid to long-term project, effects of which will not be immediately visible.
The previous Penang government commissioned an environment conservation strategy plan under its think tank SERI (Socio-Economic Research Institution) but this was never adopted as policy. The Selangor environment folk have been busy in the past year, finalising the Selangor Environment Policy, which is expected to be publicised in 2010. Another achievement of theirs was to recover significant mangrove forests which were given away by the previous government, to be rebuilt into the North Banjar Mangrove Forest. Most of the prominent moves involved saving forest land – Ayer Hitam Forest Reserve, Kota Damansara Forest Reserve and peat forests amongst others – and gazetting a Special Protection Zone for fireflies. It also banned the hunting of endangered species such as sambar deer, bearded pigs and flying foxes in Selangor and reduced open burning in 2009.
In the months to come, residents of Penang and Selangor can expect more specific environmental plans to come to fruition. Penang, for example, is considering tapping methane gas from landfills to reduce gas emission. Selangor’s announcement on a 25-year moratorium on all logging and requiring public consultation for any logging activity will come to fruition. Both state governments seem to have a consistent record in planting trees; in Selangor, a Men’s lifestyle magazine awarded its Forestry Department staff for planting 150,000 mangrove seedlings, which was an unusual but valuable recognition.
In the long-run, however, in order to truly make their environmental and sustainable policies succeed, the Pakatan Rakyat state governments will require decentralisation, co-operation and support from the Federal Government which includes financial contributions (I have written about financial federalism in the previous column). Alternatively, there must be sufficient public outcry, as in the case of the Bukit Antarabangsa. Here, the Selangor government worked closely with its residents and Pakatan Rakyat Members of Parliament to pressure the Federal Government to release the Bukit Antarabangsa Landslide report and the Hazard Map of Ulu Kelang. The declassification of these was a major achievement, reminding the people of their power to push for greater transparency and accountability.
Other controversies remain, of course, which will continue as battlegrounds for these states. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), for example, is currently paid for by developers, weighing suspicion upon its eventual report. One possibility is for the State Environment Agencies to administer the assessment directly, funded by developers. Access to information is also a problem, and more efforts towards declassification of official “secrets” must be made.
It is clear that the Penang and Selangor governments have been working in a concerted effort towards greener, sustainable and environmentally-friendly states. Very different in their geography and population makeup, each will need to explore respective methods to ensure that development – both also being highly-developed states in Malaysia – does not occur at the cost of nature. It is reassuring to note the consistency in some, if not all, of their environmental commitments, lending semblance to a credible Pakatan Rakyat stand, one that the Malaysian public is and will continue to demand. Ultimately, concrete policy will be needed in addressing climate change and environmental issues for Malaysia, on the road to a future of sustainable development.