It is all too easy to see environmental protection and economic development simply as competing philosophies, and nothing more.
A range of studies attest to the fact that this is a false dichotomy. In my earlier blog, I described the alternative vision that became a reality in a small Nicaraguan coastal community that chose to invest in a diverse set of clean energy alternatives. Even with cases like this one described in the literature, there remains in some circles a sense that these must be concocted.
The headlines often reinforce this simple dichotomy of environment versus economic growth, where the choice presented is “preserve a forest and forego the lumber,” “save a river and deny a community hydropower,” or “find the financing for more expensive solar power or accept ill-health and global warming from coal.” I have been convinced that another path or paths exist, ever since reading a remarkable paper on the “valuation” of a tropical rain forest (Peters, Gentry and Mendelsohn, “Valuation of an Amazonian Rainforest,” Nature.) This short paper got me thinking about how we ignore the longer-term economic wins of sustainability for short-term profit.
I recently had the wonderful fortune to get involved in a case that reinforced the fact that options always exist, if we work together to find them.
Early in 2010, a consortium of citizens from Sabah, Malaysia came to my laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, convinced that unexplored options must exist to provide the energy needed for this Malaysian Province without placing a 300 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant on the edge of the “coral triangle” off the coast of North Borneo. This plant was planned at a site only 20 kilometers from the last remaining reserve for the critically endangered Sumatran Rhino of Borneo (of which there may be only 30 individuals or so remaining). This plan would have required the weekly import of coal from South Borneo (Kalimantan). Just a few years ago, the coal plant seemed inevitable.
My research team specializes in looking at energy issues in new ways, and the community groups from Sabah – Green SURF (Sabah Unite to Re-Power the Future), a coalition of environmental and indigenous rights groups – thought that other options must exist. It seemed that the government was serious about exploring alternatives because at the 2009 Climate Summit, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, pledged to cut carbon dioxide intensity in the country by 40 percent by 2020. That goal – against a backdrop of increasing emissions (see figures, below) – would be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to achieve if a new coal-fired power plant were to be built.
It took only a few months to determine that by using the existing waste biomass supply from plantations in Sabah (which themselves are controversial because the biomass supply is from palm oil producing centers – a story I will address in an upcoming blog), as well as clean energy options such as run-of-the river hydropower systems, solar power, and energy efficiency, that Sabah was actually well endowed with alternative sources of energy. Our analysis showed that not only did options exist, but that they were low-cost. With Green SURF, we presented the findings in public meetings and to government officials.
It is never easy to motivate change, but it happened—Sabuhans conducted a vigorous discussion over the options in the local press, and through public forums on energy alternatives.
Last week, the Sabah State and the Malaysian Federal Governments announced that the clean energy options would serve Sabah and the nation better in the long-run.
What is most impressive in this story is the thoughtful nature of the discussion. We produced a report, but all sides looked at the data and participated in a critical open forum in the state capital, Kota Kinabalu, to evaluate the technical, economic, and social implications of each option. The government statement reflects that measured and collaborative response. In the end, all parties have committed to work as hard to make the alternative energy options work as they did in debating the coal. Cooperation won out over conflict.