Knowledge Transfer: Nature’s Role in Penang’s Fight Against Climate Change

The Climate Crisis in Penang

Cities like Penang are creating their own nature-based climate action plans and programmes to deal with climate change and provide blueprints that other urban centres can adapt and adopt.

Frequent flooding. Heat stress. Changes in weather patterns. Increased rainfall. As we approach the the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement on 12 December 2020, those descriptions sound more like a daily weather forecast than a dire warning of where the world is heading. With attention focused on the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the other ‘biggest story of the year’ has struggled to receive the same kind of attention. The calving of Canada’s largest ice shelf, record numbers of hurricanes, early melting and late forming sea ice, wildfires raging from California to the forests and peat deposits of the Arctic tundra, landslides, earthquakes, typhoons and floods should be dominating our newsfeeds. 

From Dhaka to Denver, the economic, social and political fallout of these disasters is being amplified by the chaos that COVID-19 wreaks. Countries, stretched by the economic chaos  of a pandemic that is destroying jobs and incomes, have struggled to marshal the resources required to react and rebuild, even as the shocks escalate. 

As cities around the world head towards the maximum 1.5°C temperature rise limit established by the Paris accord, cities like Penang are creating their own climate action plans and programmes to deal with climate change and provide blueprints that similar urban centres can adapt and adopt. In October 2020, Think City hosted an exhibition to showcase the impact of climate change on Penang island and to publicise its Penang Nature-Based Climate Adaptation Programme (NBCAP), an initiative developed by Think City and partners to offset some of the stresses that rising temperatures are subjecting the island to. 

We spoke to Sofia Castelo, Lead of the Resilience Community of Practice: Environment and Climate Change at Think City about the project and its aims. 

What is the Penang Nature-Based Climate Adaptation Programme and how did it come about?

Sofia Castelo: By different organizations, Think City, Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang (MBPP), Jabatan Pengairan Dan Saliran Pulau Pinang (JPS) coming together and understanding that the impacts of climate change are already here. We are already facing extreme heat stress, flooding, increased rainfall, and changes in weather patterns. Vulnerable communities are already feeling the stress from this impact. We have a partnership with the climatology department at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). They have examined temperature data from the Penang Island weather station at Bayan Lapas from its creation in 1950 to 2018. Their climatologists calculated that the increase in temperature within this time frame is 1.5°C. It was a surprise because this is the target of the Paris Agreement for 2100 and relates to pre-industrial levels. We can see that even though Penang in Malaysia is very near to the equator, the impact is felt very strongly. The impacts are supposed to be stronger the higher the latitude. 

Can you tell us about some of the key projects that fall under the NBCAP?

Sofia Castelo: The Climate Adaptation Program (NBCAP) has four main areas of work: the first is the nature-based solutions to reduce temperature; the greening urban Penang programme. The second is to reduce flooding and improve stormwater management, which also uses nature-based solutions. Introducing strategies like water retention, green corridors, swell and retention wells. These are the built components. Then we have strategies and actions components. The first is the vulnerable communities component; we have several projects addressing the need to increase social resilience. Not only to specific targeted groups but also to societal groups that have been identified as being more vulnerable. By this I mean women and girls, and youth. 

Finally, we have the institutional capacity component by which we try to address existing gaps in institutional capacity. I would say that one of the biggest gaps is that there is no [classification for] heat stroke in public hospitals in Malaysia. We might hear in the news that more than a hundred people have died in a heatwave in, for example, Japan or various different location in the world. There is no such data for Malaysia. So, our programme includes a pilot project for the detection of heat stress and heat stroke in public hospitals in Penang, which hopefully will become mainstream for public hospitals throughout Malaysia.

Within that institutional capacity, how will information be distributed?

Sofia Castelo: We’re creating a knowledge transfer platform to mainstream the framework for municipal climate adaptation for cities throughout Malaysia. Not only the framework, but also the results of the assessment of the programme. I’ll give you an example, regarding greening urban Penang – street trees, urban agriculture, greening of car parks, rooftops and green facades – we will assess the impact and the reduction of temperature using remote sensing and other strategies. This assessment will be made yearly and will be made available via the knowledge management platform. Cities in Malaysia will be able to analyse the impacts and maybe choose from the best strategies [for them]. Our goal with this platform is that maybe we can contribute to other cities developing even better adaptation programmed than your own. The third component of the capacity is the creation of the Penang Climate Board. This will be a unit inserted into the city council which will take a holistic approach to all Penang island-related issues from a climate focused point of view.

Why is it important to take a nature-based approach, rather than engineering or technology approaches, to solve the climate issues that Penang is facing? 

Sofia Castelo: For two reasons. The first is that nature-based solution are more cost-effective and more impactful. If you want to cool a street you can introduce fans, you can introduce air-conditioning but you will never reduce the temperature as much as with street trees. You can see this in Singapore. Singapore has several streets with fans and air-con but it’s never as cool as when you have a well-developed and mature canopy of trees. The second reason: do we really want to continue contributing to the problem of carbon emissions? If we don’t use nature-based solutions and we continue to use technology-related solutions, we’re just putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

How important is it to frame climate change mitigation programmes in an economic context?

Sofia Castelo: It’s essential for policymakers and government officials. As you can probably imagine, natural scientists are not so very focused on the economic costs but rather on the impact on the natural world and its well-being. For policymakers and public officials, it is crucial to argue for these changes in economic terms. For a one dollar of investment in nature you get a return of nine dollars. In terms of the public health impact, we have the cost of heat waves mapped: not only the cost in terms of public health and hospitals but also as losses to productivity. We have several reference studies that we use as Malaysia does not have these studies. And then we have the costs of avoiding disaster. In the case of Penang island, we have a very simple case; the floods of November 2017 in which seven lives were lost and damages were around RM1 billion.

What do you think would happen if we did nothing? If Penang simply grew and developed on the same way as it has since 1950 but with no intervention?

Sofia Castelo: I will use the year 2050 as a reference. If we do nothing, by 2050, the temperatures in the urban areas of Penang island are going to rise, approximately, by a further three degrees. Not only because of carbon emissions but the combined impact of increased temperatures with the urban heat island effect. If that happens, and it is not mitigated in any way, walking and the experience of mobility, the simple pedestrian use of the city, will become unbearable. In Penang, and in George Town in particular, the intrinsic character of the city is expressed in its streets; street food, street art, street life. We would lose that main attraction, that cultural specificity of the city. 

What was the underlying purpose of the exhibition? Is it simply to inform and empower the public?

Sofia Castelo: Beyond the sense empowerment, we want to bring everyone together to collaborate. Everyone can do something. As an example, people with private properties can remove some of the paved areas. We know that those hard materials absorb radiation and contribute to the heat island affect. We want people to become more aware of small strategies that they can adopt, enabling this climate adaptation program to be a fully collaborative programme. There are so many different NGOs working in the areas of social resilience, in youth-related issues, women and girls-related issues. They can come and talk to us and be partners for the implementation of this program.

You can listen to Sofia Castelo discussing the NBCAP on the Reflexive City podcast.

Take a virtual tour through the Penang Nature Based Climate Adaptation Programme exhibition. For more information about Think City’s programmes head to