Malaysia’s new voluntary carbon market disappoints

The first auction on Malaysia’s new voluntary carbon market, the Bursa Carbon Exchange (BCX), took place on 16 March, with around RM7.7 million in carbon credits sold.

Malaysia's Petronas Towers from the KLCC park lake and fountain at night. Image: Kyle Hasegawa, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Although the auction was described in the official press release as evidence of “strong interest and [a] healthy price signal by the domestic corporate sector”, it must be noted that all credits were sold at the minimum reserve price set by the exchange operator, Bursa Malaysia, and that Bursa itself appears to have been one of the 15 buyers.

Viewed from this perspective, the claim by Bursa CEO Datuk Muhamad Umar Swift that “we now have a proven market mechanism which provides price discovery” seems somewhat questionable.

Although the BCX has been launched at a time when there is broad agreement that Malaysia needs some kind of carbon pricing scheme to realise its international climate change commitments, it can be argued that the BCX was doomed from the start.

Malaysia has no large pool of domestic carbon buyers and sellers and no supporting regulatory framework, such as a carbon tax. While the government has hinted at the introduction of a carbon tax for several years, it continues to subsidise carbon emissions through its petrol subsidies.

One can also wonder whether there is a need for Malaysia to have its own voluntary carbon market, given the many alternative platforms available elsewhere.

Despite these questions, it can be argued that the anticipation of a carbon tax, a net-zero commitment by some large firms such as the state-owned oil company Petronas, and pressure from foreign investors and customers, is creating some domestic demand for carbon credits. If the first BCX auction is any guide, then clearly, domestic demand is weak.

While Bursa Malaysia’s attempts to spin a disappointing first auction is understandable, it should not lead to complacency about the progress Malaysia is making in terms of its carbon reduction commitments.

On the supply side, there was also no domestic supply of carbon credits on the BCX. The carbon credits that were auctioned on 16 March are from greenhouse gas reduction projects in Cambodia and China. China itself has a voluntary carbon market, but it was suspended in 2017 due to a lack of standards and transactions.

While Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s announcement of financial support for green technology startups and a RM10 million fund to generate carbon credits may increase the supply of Malaysian carbon credits in future, there is actually already a small but lively Malaysian carbon market ecosystem. This ecosystem consists of carbon credit project developers, local certifiers and sellers, including projects supported by Malaysian state governments.

None of these projects made it to the first auction on the BCX. Why is that?

The reason is that carbon reduction and offset projects are often transacted through direct negotiations between buyers and sellers. This is because carbon reduction targets tend to be long-term, and the development of carbon credits through nature-based solutions or emission reductions, likewise, take time. Such transactions do not appear on a spot carbon exchange like the BCX.

A second concern is fungibility: carbon credits are not all created equal. Aside from concerns over their certification, research done by MBA students from the Asia School of Business for Malaysian carbon and ESG firm Kitaran Tabah Sdn Bhd shows that the prices of carbon credits from nature-based solutions vary depending on the inclusion of other sustainable development goals (SDGs) in a project.

That is to say, nature-based carbon capture projects that support the local community through education or poverty reduction, or that conserve biodiversity (for example), command higher prices. Such value-added has led to the growing popularity of ‘blue carbon’, generated from the protection of coastal ecosystems in Malaysia.

This means that a spot carbon market like the BCX will function primarily as a market of last-resort: with sellers providing carbon credits with the lowest social and biodiversity value-added, and buyers who have failed to plan adequately for their carbon footprint reductions. While there may be a place for such a platform within the broader Malaysian carbon market ecosystem, this also signals its limitations. At best, the BCX will represent only a small slice of total carbon credit trading in Malaysia.

While Bursa Malaysia’s attempts to spin a disappointing first auction is understandable, it should not lead to complacency about the progress Malaysia is making in terms of its carbon reduction commitments.

The auction’s lack of substance and real price discovery shows that a great deal of work still needs to be done, especially by the government. There is an urgent need for a carbon tax and other regulatory infrastructure.  The government should step up and make the hard policy choices necessary to fulfil Malaysia’s climate change commitments, starting with the termination of extremely expensive and harmful subsidies for carbon fuels.

Dr Pieter E. Stek is a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Technology, Strategy and Sustainability (CTSS) at the Asia School of Business in Kuala Lumpur.

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