[Letter to the Editor] A look back to move forward for Sarawak: The changing roles on forests for climate

Letter. — DayakDaily.com file pic. // Photo: Pixabay

Letter to the Editor

By Belinda Lip, Forest and Landscape Specialist, WWF-Malaysia, Sarawak Conservation Programme

(Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1 can be read here.)


This is the second part of an earlier article that intends to provide a layman’s perspective on what’s going on in the world of environmental conservation. This part talks about Sarawak’s position in this whole scenario and the changing roles of her forests as the state moves towards its net zero and green economy aspirations. 

Part 2

1. Sarawak’s changing roles on its forests

Conventionally, forests in Sarawak are sources of timber that generate economic income. As awareness on the global climate, energy and species extinction crisis escalates, actions to recognise the broader values and services provided by forests have also increased. 

Sarawak has announced its intention to develop a green economy and has rolled out laws for supporting carbon trading. There are many definitions of green economy. However, all definitions revolve around a common element, which is an economy that is low in carbon and promotes efficiency. Currently, our energy needs are still dependent on carbon-based sources from oil, gas and coal. And the top contributors of carbon in Malaysia are energy production and transportation for land and water. Oil and gas production and sale is one of the top income earning activities for Sarawak. Sarawak has significant sources of coal and 17 per cent of our electricity is generated from coal-fired power plants while 22 per cent is from gas. (Source:  https://mut.sarawak.gov.my/web/subpage/news_view/596)

Moving into a green economy would essentially mean change—carrying out our activities consciously so as to minimise carbon and other GHG emissions and using our natural resources sustainably. And more importantly, how we value and manage forests which serve as carbon sinks. A green economy is also a combination of policies, initiatives and activities that a country undertakes intentionally to be low carbon and efficient—an economy that is sustainable yet profitable without comprising nature and the environment.

Timber extraction is an important income to Sarawak. © Zora Chan / WWF-Malaysia
Ecotourism that places nature first is a type of green economy. © Zora Chan / WWF-Malaysia

2. Unpacking some of Sarawak’s net zero, green and blue economy directions and its forests

Taking the definition above, we try to unpack some of the terms that have risen in Sarawak. Net zero target, hydrogen economy, circular economy, blue economy are some terms that are increasingly mentioned in mass media and by our state leaders. Let’s start by trying to see how they are related. 

What is net zero: “Net zero means cutting GHG emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere, by oceans and forests for instance” (Source: https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/net-zero-coalition). Sarawak needs to know where its starting point is, and work from there to reduce its emissions and increase its ability to absorb carbon in order to reach a net zero emissions by 2050.   

Hydrogen economy: The industry and transport sectors are the bulk consumers of energy in Malaysia, including  in Sarawak. Naturally, these are the sectors that need to transition to greener energy sources in order to bring down emissions. For example, the hydrogen economy promoted by the government, is targeted to reduce emissions from the transport sector in particular. Hydrogen-fuelled buses and the soon to come Autonomous Rapid Transit (ART) are examples. Hydrogen, generated from a sustainably produced and fully renewable energy is known as green hydrogen. Other sources of hydrogen include those generated from fossil fuels paired with carbon capture storage (blue hydrogen), from coal (brown hydrogen), and natural gas (grey hydrogen). Other than green hydrogen, the production of hydrogen from other sources still contributes to GHG emissions. Therefore, Sarawak’s promotion of a hydrogen economy should be from one that is based on green hydrogen. The question remains on how much would the hydrogen economy in Sarawak contribute in terms of reducing emissions from the transportation sector in the state? 

Blue economy: The Premier of Sarawak announced that Sarawak will develop a Blue Economy Policy and Roadmap. According to the World Bank, the blue economy is, “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem. Similar to a green economy, it is about low carbon and resource efficient approaches for the use of marine resources.  

Circular economy: Circular economy has also been touted in Sarawak. One of the simplified and direct descriptions is from a paper by Pauline Deutz in 2020, where it stated as “an economic system designed with the intention that maximum use is extracted from resources and minimum waste is generated for disposal.” It simply means, reduce waste from productions as much as possible and production of consumer goods is designed to consider its waste becoming an input to other production processes. For example, wastes from timber processing being made into pellets for energy generation. 

Bioeconomy: The interest in bioeconomy was announced in tandem with the blue economy. There are opportunities in nature-based solutions, particularly from the forestry sector, where biodiversity can be promoted as a natural capital for carbon sinks and biomass energy resources. Currently there is no single internationally recognised definition. The Food and Agriculture Organisation defines bioeconomy as “The production, utilisation and conservation of biological resources, including related knowledge, science, technology and innovation, to provide information, products, processes and services across all economic sectors, aiming toward a sustainable economy.” It incorporates the concept of circular and cascading resource uses to reduce waste, similar to circular economy. In the forestry sector, it means more products generated with the same amount of wood. Applying this in Sarawak would require that biodiversity is mainstreamed into all sectors. 

Hydrogen bus. © Sarawak Metro 
Autonomous Rail Transit, upcoming zero emission public transport in Sarawak. © Sarawak Metro

3. How do low carbon economies and forests fit together for net zero in Sarawak? Are we already on the right track?

If we put ‘Net Zero’ as the goal in which  Sarawak wants to get to, all economic activities that contribute towards emissions need to be aligned with and transition towards low emissions processes. Hence, the various green, blue, circular and bioeconomy models which focus on low carbon, low wastage and efficient use of resources. Pivotal to this is to keep the natural functions of the environment that contribute towards emission reductions. In Sarawak, they are the forests that  provide carbon sink services. 

According to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, Sarawak currently has a net GHG emission of -79,436 GgCO2eq. This means that the state is still a carbon sink and its emissions are well below the capacity of its carbon sink removals. Total carbon emissions were 33,628 GgCO2eq compared to its removals which are 113,064 GgCO2eq. The carbon sink capacity in removing the GHG are calculated under a category called LULUCF, which stands for Land Use, Land Use Change and Forests. This is based on data from 2016 when forest cover was reported to be 7.91 million hectares (Source: Malaysia’s BUR3).

To remain as a dominant carbon sink, this means balancing land use changes, in particular maintaining forests in balance with emissions. However, the forest cover in Sarawak has reduced since 2016, to 7.65 million in 2023. At the same time, agricultural expansion, oil and gas exploration and development have accelerated, while transitions of low carbon economies are mostly still at infancy stage. Activities which are counterintuitive still occur. For example, we must not lose anymore of our mangroves. Mangroves hold five times more carbon sequestration potential compared to dipterocarp forests. At the same time, Sarawak is embarking on bio-energy generation for production of green aviation fuel, but this could happen at the expense of critical habitat such as mangroves. Hence, it is best to keep or conserve natural ecosystems that provide free carbon sink instead of destroying them and then, recreate the wheel to address the problem later.  

Questions still remain on how much emission reduction will the activities from the different low carbon economies produce, how much will our emissions continue to rise from emitting activities that are at the same time intensifying and how much forests are being lost, restored and maintained to keep the balance. The numbers are not visible. Achieving a balance of all these activities towards Sarawak’s target for net zero requires a clear coordinating framework, supported by robust science-based targets and monitoring systems. There is still much alignment needed and we hope that the roadmaps that are planned to be developed will shed more light onto how these are being done in a coherent and strategic manner for Sarawak. 

As we just celebrated Earth Hour this year amidst the transition towards a greener, more climate-friendly, technologically advanced and resource efficient state, let us not forget that all of us have a role to play. Society in Sarawak must also transform to a more resource efficient society to support the initiatives. 

Societal actions can range from more complex actions such as investing into capacities and technical knowledge to support advancements towards green economies, to simple daily actions at home to save electricity. Lights at home can account for up to nine per cent of a typical home’s electricity use and many times, we have been wasteful by unnecessarily leaving lights on. A single 100-watt incandescent bulb left on for two hours a day results in 6kWh of electricity use per month. Multiply by the number of bulbs used at home, this can become significant and can reach up to 300kWH per month, bringing the cost of electricity from lights alone to RM96/month. Use of energy-efficient LED lights, installation of timers and motion sensors on outdoor security lights can all contribute to less wastage and more efficient energy uses, with the added benefit of cost savings for the home. Hence, the symbolic gesture of turning off your lights for one hour in support of earth hour celebrations.

As we participated in the Earth Hour celebrations this year, let us laud and support the green economy transition efforts of the State, transition ourselves to also move in tandem and support the achievement for net zero Sarawak. We are all a significant part of the global movement committed towards saving our planet and reducing climate change impacts that affect all life on Earth. 

There is a need to increase our natural forests to support Green Economy transitions. © Mazidi Abd Ghani / WWF-Malaysia
Installation of timers for electrical appliances can contribute to less wastage of electricity. © Zora Chan / WWF-Malaysia

Established in 1972, WWF-Malaysia is part of WWF, the international conservation organisation. Working to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, WWF-Malaysia’s efforts to conserve nature focus on six major goals—forests, oceans, wildlife, food, climate and energy, as well as freshwater—and three key drivers of environmental problems—markets, finance and governance. Our mission is to stop the degradation of the earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature. Find our latest news here: https://www.wwf.org.my/media_and_information/media_centre_and_updates/

This is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of DayakDaily. Letters to the Editor may be edited for brevity and clarity.