Efforts are underway to make Maliau a Unesco World Heritage Site. NSTP/ Email

If there is such a thing as music to the ears, it must be last week’s declaration by Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal that the state government will not allow any coal mining activities to take place at the Maliau Basin Conservation Area.

He went on to say that the state government would find alternative energy sources instead of exploiting the coal in the area, also known as Sabah’s Lost World.

‘Even if there is a demand for coal as an energy source, we will import it from Kalimantan, which is cheaper,’he told the State Assembly, adding that they would look to gas or depend on the Ulu Padas hydroelectric dam for power generation.

This is not just a welcome decision but a particularly wise and farsighted one.

Coal has long been a reliable source of energy, but it is incredibly dirty and has profoundly harmful environmental impact, including air pollution and global warming.

As explained by the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, when coal burns, energy is released because the chemical bonds holding together its carbon atoms break, leading to other chemical reactions which send toxic pollutants and heavy metals - mercury, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides - as well as particulate matter (soot), into the air.

None of coal’s many environmental harms is more long-lasting or irreversible, however, as global warming — the result of additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acting like an added blanket on the planet. 

Consequences of the steadily increasing average global temperature are well known: sea level rise, more droughts and heat waves, more intense rainfall and storms, the loss of species, and other ecological disruptions, all of which impact us.

We are upending the Earth’s natural carbon balance.Carbon in the form of, for example, plankton and other lifeforms sinks to the seabeds, and it is eventually buried through subduction - the movement of a tectonic plate under another.

This burial of carbon occurs in volumes roughly equal to what the planet outgasses from deep below — via volcanoes, for example.

In other words,the volumes of carbon that Earth naturally absorbs deep into its belly and what it discharges back up to the surface have typically been in a steady state of balance for hundreds of millions of years.

We know, however, that burning coal and other fossil fuels is creating a huge imbalance in the planet’s natural carbon cycle.

Large-scale planetary carbon imbalances earlier in Earth’s history, caused by unusually large volcanic eruptions, for example, have had profound impacts on the planet’s climate and habitability, leading to mass extinctions.

Frankly, there should be no debate about the continued mining and use of coal. Its environmental wreckage through climate change is compounded by the damage caused by underground and strip mining or mountaintop removal, destroying large areas, and removing habitat and food sources for native species.

Coal mining leaves ugly, barren patches of land, and leads to the loss of valuable topsoil, erosion and dust storms.

Inhaled over a long time, coal dust is dangerous, leading to ‘black lung disease’,lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, and heart failure.

The idea of coal mining in Maliau Basin, of all places - a 58,840- hectare bowl of pristine tropical forest - is simply unthinkable to every conservationist.

The area’s unique geology has cut off flora and fauna from the outside forest for thousands of years. Consequently it has been designated a conservation area and Class 1 Protection Forest Reserve, with protected buffer zones around the perimeter.

Being separated from human interference has resulted in a huge area of untouched forest, comprising 12 forest types, including fruit-bearing trees, montane moss forest and heath forest (kerangas).

In the areas where these environments overlap, interesting and often new species are found.

In Maliau, scientists have catalogued about 2,000 plant species in all, including pitcher plants, rare orchid species and Rafflesia, and the number is due to rise rapidly as more land is surveyed.

Maliau is also home to over 80 mammal species, many of them endangered, such as the pygmy elephant, orangutan, and clouded leopard.

There are also 300 bird species, including all eight of Borneo’s hornbills and some species found outside the basin only on Mt. Kinabalu.

In order to further protect this complex and vast display of biodiversity, efforts are underway to make Maliau a Unesco World Heritage Site.

This would also enhance the area’s appeal as an eco-tourism destination, and prove helpful to long-term scientific research.

It is never easy for a political leader to commit to the conservation of large tracts of pristine land for future generations when he or she could conveniently opt for the immediate economic gain available by opening up those areas for resource extraction or other land use activities.

We applaud the chief minister’s decision, therefore, as one in the long-term socio-economic and environmental interests of Sabahans and all Malaysians.

The writer is an Asean Biodiversity

Hero (2017) and pro-Chancellor of

Multimedia University