Borneo Says No to Dirty Energy

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Heinrich van den Berg

A tourist takes in the view at the Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sabah State, Malaysia

Coal has been expelled from Eden.

On Wednesday the government of Sabah, the ecologically rich state on the northeast tip of Malaysian Borneo, announced it had killed a plan to build a controversial 300-megawatt coal-fired plant in the tourism-driven eco-paradise. The plant had been proposed to help meet the state's energy shortages, which regularly inflict brownouts on Sabah's 3 million residents. Instead, Sabah will tap its relatively abundant store of natural gas.

That's not the cutting-edge renewable-energy portfolio environmentalists consider ideal, but it's certainly cleaner than coal. And because the state's vast clean-energy potential is still largely undeveloped, it's the most immediate practical solution to the growing local power needs. Officials anticipate a 7.7% annual increase in demand through 2020.

Imperfect though the natural-gas solution may be, it marks a huge course change toward clean energy in Malaysia, says Daniel Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley, who directed an energy and environmental-impact study commissioned by a coalition of green groups, which was used widely in the discussions of Sabah's energy options. "It is a turning point that should bring deserved praise and partnerships to Malaysia at the upcoming climate conference in Durban, South Africa," says Kammen, now the chief technical specialist for renewable energy and energy efficiency at the World Bank.

This is the third defeat for the proposed coal-fired plant — which would have been Sabah's first such facility — in three years. The first two proposals were shot down by the federal Department of Environment and local opposition. And even though the latest one seemed to be heading in that direction after it failed a detailed environmental-impact assessment in August, anticoal activists nevertheless worried it would eventually be approved because it was slated for federal land and had the backing of the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

That backing has disappeared, according to a statement on Bernama, Malaysia's state news agency, by Sabah's chief minister, Musa Aman, who made the official announcement of the coal-fired plant's cancellation on Wednesday. That move followed a recent National Economic Advisory Council meeting attended by federal and state officials, including Najib and Musa. The decision was made in part, Musa said, because "the government under the Prime Minister's leadership is a government that always listens to the voices and feels the pulse of the people."

Maybe. But after a three-year campaign to get those voices heard, Sabah's environmental activists might beg to differ. Nevertheless, they're reveling in what is an unusual victory. Activism isn't exactly common in Sabah.

"I don't think there had ever been such a movement [in Sabah] over any other issue before," says Cynthia Ong, who heads one of the five environmental organizations that collaborated on the anticoal campaign. "The groundswell of dissent, which started local and became international, was a key piece."

High-profile environmental organizations like promoted Sabah's anticoal message. Some international media coverage didn't hurt either. (TIME's story about the coal-plant fight, "Malaysia: A Coal Plant in Paradise", was widely picked up by the Malaysian media and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.) Environmentalists don't fear a fourth site being proposed down the road.

"I think coal power is dead for Sabah," Ong says. "We are certainly going to do everything we can to ensure that."