Kapar Power Plant up close emitting smoke. (Nicole Fong)

Rise of Coal in Malaysia

Malaysia’s dependence on coal stands in the way of the country’s ambition to tackle the climate crisis. This article looks at the numbers behind coal use in Malaysia.

MALAYSIA runs on coal. The black, solid remains of plants that died millions of years ago now make up 43% of our energy supply. 

In 2000, coal contributed to only 7% of our energy mix, but our demand has risen steadily since.

(Photo: The coal-fired Kapar Power Plant in Selangor | Pic by Nicole Fong)

Coal has been one of the dominant fuel sources throughout the 20th century globally.

In 2018, Malaysia burned 35.3 million metric tonnes of coal. About 92% of that was imported, mainly from Indonesia (63%) and Australia (22%). 

Cheap coal is ‘good’ coal

Malaysia imports almost all of its coal for practical reasons – it’s a cheaper and more reliable source. In fact, a 2020 report from Tenaga National Berhad attributes the country’s reliance on coal to the fact that it is the “cheapest source of fuel in Malaysia”.

And that appetite is growing  due to a combination of economic growth, political pressure to keep energy prices low through energy subsidies, and a priority to export our natural gas production, according to energy expert Dr Renato Lima de Oliveira’s policy paper on the topic.

Also driving the increase in Malaysia’s coal consumption are the national energy policies – the National Energy Policy 1979, and the 4th and 5th Fuel Policies. These policies guided the growth of the energy sector to provide a cheap and reliable supply.

Under these policies, the country increased coal consumption to reduce its dependence on oil.

Malaysia’s reliance on coal however, poses a challenge for its carbon balance.

Key factor

Coal is the single biggest contributor to the climate crisis globally. Coal comprises 41% of global fossil carbon dioxide emissions in 2021, generating more emissions than any other fossil fuel.

In Malaysia, the energy industries (gaseous, liquid, and solid fuels) have been the largest contributors of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between 2011 and 2016, accounting for between 41.3% and 52% of total emissions.

Specifically, GHG emissions from coal use increased by almost one-fourth between 2014 and 2016.

Manjung Power Manjung Power Plant in Perak seen from a distance. (Nicole Fong)Plant sat in the distance amidst overgrown trees by a river, in Perak. (Credit: Nicole Fong)
Manjung Power Plant in Perak seen from a distance. (Nicole Fong)

As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Malaysia has committed to reducing its GHG emissions by 45%. The deadline for this reduction is 2030, and the target is pegged to our economy. The country also aims to achieve net zero carbon emissions as early as by 2050

To fulfil these international pledges, Malaysia must divest from coal. But the country has been giving mixed signals on this ambition.

Here to stay

On one hand, the federal government has repeated pledges to no longer build new coal-fired power plants and to reduce coal’s share of total power capacity.

And yet in 2019, Malaysia fired up two new coal power plants: Jimah East Power in Negeri Sembilan and Balingian Power Plant in Sarawak.

And at the COP26 climate summit in November, Malaysia did not join the 40 countries who committed to shift away from coal by 2030 or 2040.

It appears that coal is and will continue to make up a large part of the country’s energy generation mix. While that might fare well for the industries’ bottom line now, it could spell a worse future for all.

Many pieces of coal wash up on the beach next to a jetty that used to transport coal in Negeri Sembilan (Nicole Fong)
Many pieces of coal wash up on the beach next to a jetty that used to transport coal in Negeri Sembilan. (Nicole Fong)

On paper, coal is cheap to mine and burn. But our electricity bill doesn’t include damages and compensation that result from coal pollution. What power plants pay for coal and what we pay for electricity is only a sliver of the real cost to current and future societies. 

Next: In Malaysia, two communities who are suffering as a result of Malaysia’s continued coal use are the fisher folk and Orang Asal, or indigenous peoples. Their stories will be published tomorrow, in Part 2 of this series.

This article is Part 1 of a two-part series that examines coal-use in Malaysia. The series is produced with the financial support of the European Commission for Nicole Fong in the form of a grant from Internews Malaysia as part of a Data Journalism workshop. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Internews and Macaranga and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission.

  • Project coordinator: Nicole Fong
  • Researcher & Writer: Nicole Fong
  • Data Analyst: Danial Zulkifli
  • Editor and Layout: Yao-Hua Law
  • Photographer: Nicole Fong
  • Illustrator: Nicole Fong

Further Reading

Darshini K. et al. 2021. Shedding coal: the good, the bad, the ugly of Malaysia’s coal industry. Kini News Lab.

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