My first non-staycation holiday after the pandemic was late in 2021. A lot of things were happening then, both in our domestic politics as well as geopolitics. Many of the latter were to come to a head in the months since – but I digress. Big changes were happening in my day job too, due to the energy transition, and while my own job was not too much affected, the entire context of the rest of the company was in flux.

But the major topic of the day was climate action. Specifically, the need to go faster, the demands loudest in the developed countries. Whereas the developing countries, especially the middle income ones, were finding it difficult to underscore our dilemmas, insisting on operationalising Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, against the evasions of the former group.

(Of course, in the year after, developed countries finally experienced what it is to have energy insecurity and transition dilemmas, just like us – but again, I digress).

~

A vacation in the shadow of COP26

I don’t know whether the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow subconsciously influenced me, or if it was just my personal habit of avoiding crowded tourism destinations. But, while thousands of people immediately jetted out to tourism favourites the moment pandemic restrictions were dropped, I decided to stay within my own state. I opted to drive not too far away to Sungai Besar.

As an environmentalist, albeit one who had acquired broad spectrum competence in sustainability – all the aspects covered by the 17 UN SDGs – my social media feed at the time was spammed with posts from climate-only advocacy and activism groups. These were overwhelmingly groups from, or led by, developed country people. And the lack of insight on the complexity of what climate change as well as climate action means across human societies far more diverse than our imaginings, was grating on me.

And yet… and yet I knew, that but for the grace of God, I would have been them. Had I not gone through the series of life experiences I somehow did, I would understand far less of the world, of the core priorities of nation building, of the living and the working world, of culture and history, of energy and industries and engineering, of economic systems and domination, of the costs of peace and sovereignty. And when you do, you take fewer things for granted, and actually do understand what intersectionality really means for the energy transition.

And so, the Facebook album that I normally create to share my trips in real time with my friends, had a different tone for this trip than usual. I decided to put on my sustainability lens on purpose, and mention those extra things that a sustainability professional sees, though we look at the same things.

Low carbon cities, and then what?

I remarked on the GoKL electric city buses that were coming into service in Kuala Lumpur. On the bike lanes and pedestrian amenities that were slowly appearing in the streets. The charging bays for electric vehicles, and the electric scooters, becoming more and more normal. The numerous rail options available to me. The efforts to move towards becoming low carbon cities.

It was a grand ambition.

And then, the moment I left the dense city, these all vanished. The suburbs and towns were utterly dependent on the internal combustion engine.

It was the same in Sungai Besar, but flipped. Out on the banks of the rice fields, the atmosphere is peaceful. Though villagers preferred motorcycles, you could just as easily cycle around the flat rice fields. The pace of life is much slower, which means there is less need to be mobile. Immediately it became easy to be low carbon in one’s movements.

Yet, leave the agricultural fields to the main road, and the haven is gone. The low density meant that people don’t always go en masse to the same places, rendering mass transit unprofitable. Low density housing development dotted the way from KL to Sabak Bernam, not integrated, but constructed one by one. For every need, the people must all pour into the main trunk roads, just as dependent on fossil fuels as the sprawling suburbia further south.

In middle income countries, both cities and suburbia are growing at pace. Globally, 20% of all carbon emissions come from transport. In Malaysia, the transport sector is the second largest emissions contributor – ahead of even industry.

There is no energy transition with only low carbon cities.

Rice farming, methane, and net zero

I thought about the net zero “controversy”, as I gazed upon the peaceful green scenery before me. All Malaysians recognise the scene as the nostalgic idyll of our farming culture. The growing green shoots, stretching to the horizon. Saujana mata memandang. White egrets gliding low, alighting amongst the ponding water, hunting.

In the coming weeks, the fields will turn yellow. Gold, as the fabled grains turned golden on the day Sang Sapurba arrived from Bukit Siguntang, and as the legend goes, thus began the various lines of Malay royal houses.

And I posted, what if I told you, this scenery so close to our identity, is not net zero?

For rice farming, because of the waterlogging, will emit methane, a greenhouse gas 80x more potent than carbon dioxide. No doubt rice farming contributes to Malaysia’s methane emissions, eating into our NDC. Yet Malaysia’s still not far from net zero, because of our rainforests and mangroves doing the heavy lifting of carbon sequestration.

But this wasn’t good enough for some activists. Every single activity needed to be net zero carbon by itself, without offsets from a different activity (as in, ‘merely’ carbon neutral).

Now, we could figure out how to farm rice differently, dropping its emissions way down. Hopefully without losing yield, so as not to jeopardise food security. The remainder can be offset by our still-considerable forests. The country would be net zero, even if its rice farming isn’t.

Or, we could agree with them, and impose net zero per activity, even though the signatories of the climate COP are countries, not sectors or companies. And close the chapter on rice farming in our culture, forever.

I trust that the prospect of no more nasi lemak will cause us to question whether it’s necessary to be so dogmatic.

~

Cattle farming do not all yield the same carbon footprint

I wandered the countryside, tramping along the tall grass along limpid canals that criss-crossed Sungai Besar’s rice fields. Inevitably, you’d come across a cow every now and then. They wander amongst the grass, rope dangling, grazing at leisure.

And it reminded me to note, that not all cattle farming has the same carbon footprint.

For here, land wasn’t cleared just for grazing cattle. Fields of crops aren’t grown just to be fed to cattle. Cattle aren’t housed in high density barns so that their excrement had to be collected like sewage, generating methane. They still burp methane, but really, that’s about it. So the carbon footprint from these cows would be no different from keeping goats and camels and deer and sheep – all of which also burp methane, normally not farmed intensively, and turned loose to feed on foliage.

Now, cattle farming isn’t core to our identity. In fact, some cattle projects hilariously failed due to having a poor fit to the culture! Arguably, we shouldn’t need to farm cattle intensively, with such abundant alternative proteins in our cultural landscape. But on the other hand, keeping cows grazing on parts of the farmland that we’re not using, doesn’t really move the needle on carbon emissions.

Is it worth harassing our already under-appreciated and under-compensated farmers for keeping some cows, when there are bigger impacts they could look into instead? Like, learning how to farm lower-methane rice. Or perhaps, setting up methane capture for agricultural waste instead of burning them.

What do we do with all the gas stoves?

It was a pertinent thought, as I boiled water on the homestay’s gas stove. At home, my kitchen is fully electrified. I even subscribe to renewable electrons. But outside the new-build homes and apartments, the normal setup is the gas stove. Heck, even my mother’s kitchen is still gas.

Of course, you could easily swap these countertop stoves with electric hobs, even out here. But it costs money, as you have to change the pots and pans as well. Not everyone has that kind of disposable income. And you might have inherited cookware with sentimental value, that you won’t be able to use as your ancestors did.

People think about these things. Transitions always come with some degree of heartbreak, and the energy one will not be an exception. It’s not just logic and equations, electrons and joules. You could ask people to choose their goodbyes, for the sake of a better future. But it would be much tougher to ask them to choose all of them.

On the bright side, there’s a lot of organic waste in rural areas. They’re not really very well managed right now. But maybe these communities could, you know, make their own renewable methane gas. Agricultural methane emissions could fall, and there would be one less heartbreak – and they’d never have to buy fossil gas again.

What about the boats – will they be EV or what?

Sungai Besar is not just a farming district. It also has a fishing community, crowded around the mouth of the river which gave the area its name.

It didn’t take long for me to drive out to the coast, passing by the canals and water locks. I feel compelled to check out what the coastline looks like, whenever I go anywhere that has one. Along the way, I thought about how the countryside might evolve over time to support electric vehicles and farm machinery. Perhaps the farm store would stock battery swaps. And the local fuel stations would have them as well, and charging bays.

However, standing on the riprap boulders, watching the motorboats go out and return, thinking of yet more fishing boats lining the banks of the rivers, I contemplated the category of vehicles people don’t talk about.

Perhaps it’s because most people who talk about climate action are landlubbers. Their countries are on continental land masses, not archipelagoes. But boats are important in many communities in Malaysia, as well as to food security, and by now almost all are motorised. They all run on diesel.

I’m not even talking about the big ships, owned by corporations. But the boats owned by regular boatmen and fisherfolk. All of the talk focuses on EV cars, but are the boats going to be EV? Or are we going for something else? And if people can’t afford the capital to change their ICE cars to EV, how would rural fisherfolk have it to change their boats?

There’s no energy transition away from fossil fuels, with only renewably powered land vehicles. And perhaps, as a once-famously maritime people we should be making boats again, and build them ourselves.

Just Stop Oil… and roadworks?

I amused myself trying to get to every little beach along the Sungai Besar coastline marked on the map, quickly finding out that just because a road was marked, does not necessarily mean they were built for cars. In hindsight, this was probably not a good idea to have done. If I had gotten stuck, there were portions where it wouldn’t be very straightforward to turn around.

That said, being a civil engineer intently staring at roads with eroded sections with a far greater focus than I usually would have, did lead me to observe what was missing in the scene. They were not paved with a protective asphalt layer.

Worldwide, there are well over 63 million kilometres of road, paved and unpaved. Yes, million. Mind you, there are still entire continents that have yet to really build road infrastructure.

The ambition of most countries and municipalities is to keep them all paved, to sustain heavier and more frequent traffic. Since the invention of the macadam road, this surface paving is usually asphalt, which comes from petroleum.

Roads don’t get paved just once in its lifetime either. The paving wears out, and will need to be re-done. It takes a considerable amount of asphalt to keep roads in good condition around the world. So, even if we no longer need petroleum inside the vehicles, we still might need it for the road underneath them. Recovered waste plastic is not a permanent substitute, and anyway can’t scale to match the worldwide asphalt demand.

It’s entirely possible that we could accomplish the energy transition from fossil fuels, and yet still can’t just stop oil.

~

Rural areas: The most behind, yet closest to the finish line?

Now I’m not pointing out the narrowness of some climate activist logic, to despair of climate action. I don’t need to add this disclaimer to my Facebook album because my friends are fully aware of my lifetime environmental advocacy, and that I’m ahead of them in trying out more sustainable living habits. In fact, the reason I highlight these gaps is to show why the mainstream can’t follow. I don’t list them to effect feelings, but to effect doing, to point out the ‘vacant jobs’ needed to open the way.

The energy transition is not going to happen just by activism and stopping fossil fuels. And then what? is the unanswered question in many countries which stalls buy-in and progress. And then what, requires all sorts of jobs to pitch in, in all kinds of fields of human endeavour whether existing or yet to be created. Practical ones, like architecture and engineering and mechanics and farmers, not just mass media and PR. Activism had been crucial in the 2000s, to get global finance to switch from one paradigm to another. But that’s basically over, whatever societal denialism may still exist in some (very loud) countries.

The 2020s is a time for practical action, the difficult and perhaps boring work of learning and creating knowledge and building practical real things. And generally speaking, practical types don’t like to work with a lot of irrelevant emotional nagging in the background.

Which brought me to another observation on the rural district of Selangor. And that is, I couldn’t really see that they were wanting for anything. In the past ten years, Selangor has provided for this zone such that you couldn’t make believably sad telenovela scripts about rural life anymore (at least, not in Selangor). The only place the 4G network is sort of weak, is right on the fields. I saw a banner advertising agricultural drones, and a sign for the village wifi. There was a maker hub in the local school. They had an activity centre for the elderly. There’s water and electricity and data and affordable food. And have you seen modern interior design for rural homes?

Sure, they don’t have the mega malls and the skyscrapers and the branded stores. But that’s not an essential, more like a lifestyle difference. There is nothing inferior about the rural lifestyle, it’s just different. With a good government assuring equality of opportunity with urban zones, there is nothing to be pitied about rural communities anymore.

Sure, the cities are getting a lot of projects to drop their carbon footprints, such as mass transit, which is enabled by its density. And yes, rural areas aren’t quite carbon neutral just yet. But on the other hand, it will take a lot less to get it there, compared to the nightmare of fixing suburbia. And you know, we have enough urban climate keyboard warriors. What we need now are people who will step up to be the EV electro-mechanics, solar technicians, low carbon farmers, and asphalt recyclers – who will all probably come from rural and working class areas.

Resilient small towns in the energy transition

I had a similar thought in Sungai Besar town. At first impression, the number of cars really strikes you. The double parking situation is nearing USJ/Klang Valley levels of obnoxiousness. But once comfortably inside a shady cafe, it occurred to me to realise that all the shops in Sungai Besar were open.

This was just after the economic devastation following the Covid19 pandemic lockdowns. In the cities and suburbs, shuttered businesses and half empty mall spots were relatively common. Yet the small town economy of Sungai Besar was resilient, clearly puffing along sustainably through thick and thin.

As for the swelling traffic? Sungai Besar is still fixable with a bit of town planning. After all, it’s just in the one town, surrounded by more productive land, unlike the Klang Valley suburbs, where towns connect to sprawling towns, in ever-growing tangles of highways. You could easily re-plan the flow here, put parking to one side where the charging services can be concentrated, and make the shopping streets for walking. Increase shade for comfort, perhaps provide cycle and scooter facilities, or electric buggies for the elderly. After all, a prime space in town is already a green nursery (instead of multi-level parking!), so that amidst the car engines you could also hear the twittering of birds.

A TNB power utility substation occupied a ground floor shop lot. I thought, if some shop lots become vacant with the penetration of online shopping, TNB could just as easily rent them to place Sungai Besar’s grid battery storage, for when renewable energy begins to supply the majority of power.

Why can’t we make better stilt houses?

Returning to the homestay reminded me of the similarity of traditional Malay houses with the fishing kelong I had seen out beyond the sea shore. Both were raised well over the ground (or water) on stilts. Indeed, most of the homes of the fishing community, built in the mangrove zone which clearly anticipated some flooding sometimes, were also on stilts.

COP26 brought a lot of heated arguments on funding for climate adaptation for poor countries. This was especially so for Small Island Developing Countries (SIDS), at once the most at risk from sea level rise due to global warming, while having the least means to adapt. Although a middle income country, this isn’t a risk Malaysia can ignore, with its long coastline and numerous communities and valuable cities along it.

Normally, there’s a lot of hand-wringing over the loss of property value, should homes become flooded and unliveable due to sea level rise. Now, I don’t know what to do with cities and high rises, but small fishing communities could actually adapt. We need a reincarnation of the ancestors who devised the stilt houses, at least in spirit, to evolve this architecture with modern augmentations. After all, if the stilts were hydraulic, you could design the housing area to receive modern amenities, while also make it able to adapt to a greater range of water level situations.

Or you know, we could build floating villages on purpose – and then this will become another lifestyle that would no longer be associated with poverty and destitution.

Supposedly Malaysia has a strong construction sector, with mega construction companies. And yet somehow we’re not at the forefront of these ambitious innovations of the future.

~

Rice fields are the perfect landscape for cycling, but there’s a problem.

The breezy space beneath the stilt house was perfect for watching the world go by. The rice fields are generally still landscapes, broken occasionally by birds fluttering and gliding across. Kingfishers and swallows and egrets.

Occasionally, cyclists would pass by along the paved lanes separating the planted fields. Other tourists, I thought. Rice fields on the delta are really flat, perfect for cycling. Even someone who doesn’t really enjoy cycling like myself, was tempted to hire one.

You wouldn’t have guessed it a generation ago, but today Malaysia has a strong core of cycling enthusiasts. Their dream is for Malaysia to have nationwide bike lanes, and for cycling to be the default mode of transportation in daily life. I suppose if you’re used to it, cycling would feel normal. And you know, amidst the green, waterlogged open fields of Sungai Besar, the climate is mild and not too hot, even at midday.

But I didn’t hire one, and the main reason was that I had my period on the trip. You see, driving is a lot easier with period cramps, than cycling. And it reminded me that the no-car-cycling-only proponents were all able-bodied men.

It also got me imagining what my family life would be like, growing up, had the default been to cycle. We had bicycles, but they were mostly recreational. Asian family life is congregational, children following their parents. I remembered the times my parents would go over to visit their friends; there was no way they’d leave us with a babysitter. No, they’d take us with them, whether we wanted to go or not. If we had to cycle there as well, there would have been rebellion!

~

How much is food security worth?

Therein lies the source of nearly all societal resistance to climate action. When action is imposed from on high, or copied and pasted across countries, ignoring cultural context and dismissing the different things that different societies want and cherish.

Yes, we’re running out of time. And yes, we have to move faster. Absolutely, this will mean culture needs to change. But it will not happen by taking agency from those who have always been the ones to choose how and to what their cultures shall evolve: the communities.

And you’ll certainly not persuade communities to mortgage their ability to feed themselves. Especially if they will bear the risk of hunger more than yourself. Once, on a local sustainability group on Facebook, someone posted a concern that Europe’s aggressive agricultural decarbonisation and bitter opposition from farmers, might infect our leadership.

I said then, not as long as we remain Asian. As along as we don’t think in binary, linear terms. We are cultures of diversity and moderation, of the middle path and the yin and yang. Who know that if you want to find shortcuts, you ask locals, even if they’re not as ‘clever’ as you.

Many of our countries have SDGs yet unmet – including hunger. Not to mention that both climate breakdown and climate action would cause trade and geopolitical instability. Food security is then national security, and priceless. No, inspired by nature itself, our way is to figure out a way to decarbonise agriculture, that also makes more food. Less methane, and more rice. And, not ‘or’.

Effortless food. The roads are lined with fruit trees, yams, spices, palms. The rice fields double as a form of aquaculture as well. And, not or.

Go nowhere, understand nothing.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

— Robin Jones Gunn

When the Rapa Nui came to Easter Island, they began by seeing it in a king’s dream. They then sent a band of expert navigators, so that they may go fast and unburdened over the horizon to find this land. Having found the way, some of the scouts stayed and others returned. And when they migrated to their new land, it was with many great canoes, women and children, bringing everyone, provisioned to live along the far journey.

This was probably how it was, with all the great human migrations.

You don’t expect everyone to go as fast as the scouts. And the scouts’ job is not to find a way on the horizon that only they can traverse, but a way that their community – altogether – can use. The leader’s job is not merely to dream up the promised land. They also have to help their people make the journey.

But you can’t know what it takes to make a new society, if you don’t even know how to build your current one. And how would you know how another nation should make the journey, if you’ve never gone anywhere, don’t know where they start from, and what tools they have? This logic is the same within a nation as well. For someone from one part of a country, may not know what is possible or difficult in another. Yet somehow, those who have gone nowhere, are always the ones to prescribe solutions for everywhere.

There’s a reason why the Paris Agreement finally achieved universal pledges, by recognising that each country had the right to set its own commitments, and how those commitments shall increase in ambition. No one country knows another to specify it for them, nor do they bear the consequences should their advice be wrong.



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