(Delivered in Parliament on 27 February 2020)
Budget Speech 2020
A Bold Green Agenda to address Climate Change in Singapore
Mr Speaker Sir, during last year’s Budget debates, I spoke of building resiliency in Singapore in economic and security matters. This year, I would like to devote my time to speak on environmental resiliency.
The world today is at a crossroads facing down the existential threat of human-induced climate change. Over 11,000 scientists worldwide now warn that the world “clearly and unequivocally faces a climate emergency” . Singapore’s vulnerability to climate change is also evident.
Our island is now being heated up twice as fast compared to the world and maximum temperatures could reach 35 to 37 degree Celsius by year 2100.
Many countries seek to take concrete action. 1 in 10 people on the planet now live in a place that has declared a climate emergency and have effectively used it as a jumping point for real action. Inspired by young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, youths across the world are rising up and demanding immediate action to address the climate emergency we are facing. Singapore’s recent SG Climate Rally is a cry for action from our youths, one that the leaders of today ought to heed.
My colleagues and I in the Workers’ Party have heard it loud and clear. We agree with them and have sought actively to raise concerns about climate change and the policies that can be taken by the Government. We are glad that some policies have been looked into and taken up.
Yet, it would be prudent to recognise that there is a long way to go in building environmental resiliency in view of the lessons the world has learnt and is continuing to learn about our relationship with our environment. With the certainty of climate change, we as a nation should be daring and set a bold Green Agenda to guide Singapore’s trajectory of development. Please allow me to put forth some ideas to this House.
A holistic view on the Climate Emergency
We need a holistic response to all issues of climate change. In other words, the success of efforts to combat climate change must not solely be measured by the effectiveness of any one policy narrowly. We must also invest in and track efforts to address the wide-ranging impacts of climate change and our policies on society at large, whether be it on urban drainage systems, food security, water security, waste management, urban liveability or public health, to cite but a few impact areas.
An example of this is coastal adaptation and flood protection. 30% of Singapore’s land area lies less than 5 metres above mean sea level. Even under an optimistic emissions scenario, it has been projected that sea level in Singapore could rise by about half a metre by 2100, posing a coastal flood risk. Therefore, the establishment of the new Coastal and Flood Protection Fund with an initial injection of $5 billion is a timely move.
As the Government commits to investing more in coastal adaptation and flood protection though, where will this money be spent on? Will the money be invested in the best science so that better projections of sea level rise can be made for Singapore? Will investments be made in the best social science so the prioritisation of coastal land uses can be better assessed? Will soft-engineering, nature-based approaches such as the restoration of intertidal ecosystems which have the potential to protect our coastlines be considered for use under this fund, or will only hard-engineering approaches such as polders and land reclamation be chosen? It would be useful if the Government could give a sense of its spending priorities in this regard.
Preparing to adapt to climate change alone would be unwise. There must also be a move to mitigate climate change while we still can. Even as we have committed to the 36% cut on emissions intensity by 2030 in our first pledge, how have our efforts been to date? Perhaps the Government can provide an update.
The Workers’ Party also welcomes both the announcement by Minister Masagos Zulkifli’s at the Madrid Climate Conference last December that Singapore will submit its long-term Low Emissions Development Strategy soon , and the announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister that Singapore’s commitment to the Paris Agreement will be updated this year.
We look forward to the Government’s updates, and to understand how they represent progress beyond our current commitments and strategies.
Greening our Transport Infrastructure
Climate change has also accelerated the need to calibrate Singapore’s infrastructural development to meet environmental challenges.
Transport is a major sector which requires such calibration. The Workers’ Party therefore welcome the Government phasing out all ICE vehicles by 2040. However, many practical EV issues are to be hammered out in the interim and I will like to ask what actions the Government will take on them.
The biggest elephant in the room is on rebuilding an infrastructure currently tailored for ICE engines. The power grid in particular will be taxed. While Singapore is in a power glut now , electricity demand will only go up as Singapore moves on in its Smart Nation ambitions. One looks to Sweden with a ban on ICE vehicles slated for 2030, where demand for electricity is currently outgrowing capacity in local grids, forcing EV charging networks to compete with other infrastructure projects for electricity.
This is not to mention that Singapore currently generates upward to 95% of its energy via natural gas. While it is the least-polluting fossil fuel and has higher efficiency compared to ICE vehicles, there will continue to be a carbon footprint generated. While our current power generation mix will improve by 2030 due to more solar capacity, how are we moving to lowering the carbon footprint of our power generation in 2030 – 2040?
Also, with regard to charging points, the government expects to have 28,000 charging points by 2030, but even assuming a 30% conversion from the current vehicle population to EVs, it still means about 1 charging point to 10 EVs by 2030. Should we even be contented with this ratio? Besides intelligent charging solutions, should the government also consider the alternative of battery swap stations which have the advantage of speed, ensuring load on our power grid can be managed well, as well as providing a ready infrastructure for battery recycling? This has been tested in China and should be a key consideration here.
How soon can we electrify our public bus and private hire infrastructure to EVs will also be important as many Singaporeans rely on such services. Would the Ministry of Transport give a timeline on this happening separately from the 2040 overall target?
ASEAN cooperation is also needed if we are to successfully electrify our transport system. A key consideration here is Malaysia, where people and trade currently travel via the Causeway and the Tuas Second Link on ICE vehicles currently. If we do phase out ICE vehicles here, are we also implementing a ban on foreign ICE vehicles from entering Singapore? If there is no infrastructure in place in Malaysia to support commercial EVs, would that also impact our businesses with a top partner in trade?
This is important to get right as, on one hand, foreign ICE vehicles and how we handle the issue, may have a significant impact on our EV plans, and on the other hand, we should not be seen to export our green problems away with unilateral bans. Indeed, we can work with Malaysia’s state and federal authorities to build a sustainable and inclusive ecosystem for EVs. To go one step further, we ought to propose an ASEAN Autonomous Vehicle and Electric Vehicle project that holistically looks at all the challenges of EVs that my colleague Mr Leon Perera had previously mooted in this House. This will help to focus minds towards a target and benefits interconnectivity across the region.
The effective solving of these issues I have highlighted in the adoption of EVs can turn us into the bellwether state in ASEAN for EV adoption, just as Norway is for both the Nordic region and the world.
Green Housing Initiatives
Housing is another area where calibration is required. If urban planning is right, we can reduce the Urban Heat Island effect, increase energy-efficiency and promote better waste management in our towns.
We therefore welcome the HDB Green Towns Programme as it encourages sustainable living. However, will the benefits afforded by this concept be accessible only to new towns, or will our current HDB estates in places such as Hougang and Aljunied be retroactively upgraded to enjoy these benefits?
We should also not forget about private properties and improving green efforts there. Even as they make up around 21% of the total resident households in Singapore , they account for 41.4% of the total electricity consumed in 2018. Therefore, improved greening efforts there can help net bigger gains.
Would the government consider expanding the Estate Upgrading Programme to include greening items for private estates? This may include solar-friendly installations in common areas and greening up shelters or building community gardens that act as carbon sinks.
Also, could there be further incentives to push for solar installations across private households that allow excess power to be sold back to the power grid? Currently, payment is made by way of a credit adjustment based on the prevailing nodal prices. However, there does not seem to be incentives beyond that for private households. If private property owners can buy in to such plans, this can help us reach the 2 GWp capacity target sooner and give further sustainability and robustness to our power grid.
Protecting our Green Areas and Redefining Development
In addition to gearing up our economy and infrastructure to prepare for the climate emergency, it is worthwhile to ask ourselves whether we are doing our best to reap the benefits of environmental sustainability for our society.
The Government often lauds its green accomplishments under the City in a Garden paradigm – on increasing accessibility to parks, on the upkeep of community gardens, and on projects like Gardens by the Bay, for example. Each of these efforts bear their own positive outcomes for environmental education, community involvement, ecotourism, and liveability. But, amidst the continual urban greening of Singapore, are we prepared to risk undermining the benefits provided by the relatively more natural and more sensitive green ecosystems in our country?
These ecosystems benefit us in a plethora of ways – from helping us store carbon and cool Singapore, thus aiding our response to climate change, to acting as havens for biodiversity with educational value. In addition to their potential as sites for low-impact, sustainable eco-tourism, they provide Singaporeans with recreational value and with relief from our stressful urban environment – a benefit that is much harder to quantify but is nonetheless important.
Already, an NParks study indicated that Singapore’s land became a net carbon emitter in 2014. Over the past few years, we have seen the prioritisation of development projects over the benefits afforded by sensitive ecosystems due to such projects as the Cross Island Line, the Tengah HDB project and the Mandai Project. The latter two of these have been styled as a “forest town” project and a “nature destination” respectively. Thankfully, environmental groups, academics and public agencies have come together seeking to reduce the negative impacts these projects will have on the environment, in particular on our local biodiversity and forest cover, even after mitigation measures.
However, the question remains whether the Government will commit to securing the inviolability of our nature reserves and greater protection of the little that is left of our more natural, green ecosystems in the future, while finding better ways to plan land use for housing, transport and tourism. I will speak more on this in the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources Committee of Supply debate next week.
Shifting mindsets, improving accessibility to information
Beyond good policy, Singaporeans also need to come together in buying in to this Green Agenda. Mindsets must shift in the way we consume, to only use what we need to use.
Just to cite a common example: single-use plastic bags. Can we take or use what we really need? Can we pack more things into each plastic bag? Do we really need to double bag all our groceries at the checkouts? If we only need to use say 1 or 2 plastic bags for refuse disposal a day, do we need to take 20 bags from the supermarket a week? We can also reduce the number of single use plastic bags we need to take for our refuse by concurrently using good quality re-usable shopping bags. We may end up using fewer plastic bags and may still have enough bags for our refuse.
To encourage Singaporeans, we should ramp up our public education to reach out to Singaporeans of all ages and educational level and in different languages.
We should even encourage easy accessibility to the latest research on climate change by the average citizen. Translating this research into readable, digestible commentaries for Singaporeans gives further buy-in and builds awareness.
As the lead government agency on climate change, the National Climate Change Secretariat should consider working with public and private research agencies and researchers on this so that easy-to-access facts and evidence on climate change can be in the public domain to build further buy-in for green policies.
Mr Speaker, Sir, in conclusion, Singapore’s environmental resiliency is being tested in ways unprecedented. We should spare no effort to lead the region and the world in this effort, not only as an honest broker but also as an innovator in the space. As such, a bold Green Agenda should be considered as Singapore moves to the next chapter of nation-building. We owe it to our future generations to do so.