Co-Creating A Stronger Response to the Climate Emergency – Speech by Dennis Tan Lip Fong

Delivered in Parliament on 1st February 2021

Mr Speaker Sir, for a low-lying island nation like ours, climate change is an existential threat. At the global scale, when the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, nations around the world came together with the aim of limiting global warming to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels with an understanding that a 2oC rise would lead to major environmental risks. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[1] warned that (i) we have already reached warming of 1oC, (ii) that we are likely to reach 1.5oC between 2030 and 2052, and (iii) that a slate of worrying impacts involving changes to sea level, temperature and rainfall will still be experienced by 2100 even if warming is limited to 1.5oC.

At the local scale, these changes will cause significant problems for Singapore. Sea level rise, threats to our water and food security, and an increased risk of vector-borne diseases are but a few of these impacts. The magnitude of these impacts will depend on how global emissions evolve, the influence of regional factors, and, ultimately, whether we can rise to the challenge of doing our part to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Addressing this challenge will require us to acknowledge the urgency of the threats before us and to empower multiple stakeholders – from businesses and the public, to civil society including academia and NGOs – to come together to respond to the threat of climate change.

On this note, with your permission Mr Speaker, sir, I beg leave to introduce an amendment to the motion before the House.

Mr Speaker, sir, I beg to move the following amendments:

  • acknowledges a climate emergency and”;
  • civil society”.

With your permission, Sir, I wish to explain the rationale for these amendments which the Workers’ Party is proposing today.

Declaring a Climate Emergency

Mr Speaker, sir, the Workers’ Party calls on this House to declare a climate emergency and bring to bear the necessary tools to respond to it. As we have heard from the Members who have brought the motion to the House today, I am hopeful that there is common understanding of the seriousness of the threats posed by climate change on both sides of this chamber. Declaring a climate emergency on top of the original motion will send a clear signal to Singaporeans and the world that our nation is committed to seriously addressing one of the most long-term threats we face in the twenty-first century.

For Singapore, two consequences of climate change stand out. The first is an increase in how variable and unpredictable our weather may become.[2] Singaporeans will remember very well the period of intense rainfall we experienced in the first half of January, the second wettest January since records began in 1869.[3] While it would be incorrect to assume that these downpours were direct evidence of climate change, the increased frequency of intense rainfall may emerge as a very real consequence of a changing climate in Singapore over longer scales of time.[4] Thus, what happened in January may have been a foreshadowing of future costs we will have to bear – the cost of floods, of mudslides and landslides, and of potholes.[5] These costs, in both monetary terms and in terms of the cost to human safety, will add up over the decades. Simultaneously, we are also warned that droughts may become more frequent. What could this mean for our water security as the supplies of water from our local catchments as well as from catchments which supply our imported water decrease?[6]        

Another consequence of climate change for Singapore is of course sea level rise. With 30% of our land lying within 15 metres above mean sea level, sea level rise in the longer term could inundate low-lying areas including neighbourhoods, vital industrial areas and parts of the Central Business District. [7] Last year, I mentioned in the House that even under an optimistic emissions scenario, sea level in Singapore could rise by half a metre by 2100.[8] However, there is still uncertainty regarding this figure.[9] Studies also suggest that IPCC projections for global mean sea level rise by 2100 tend to be conservative, where high emissions scenarios are concerned.[10] This is why we need to continue investing in research to better project sea level rise in Singapore. We should also think about the kind of planning principles we should aim for in adapting to sea level rise. As we consider different options such as the building of extensive polders as well as other coastal management measures such as nature-based solutions, we must seriously consider all options on the table together with all stakeholders.

In my supplementary Budget Debate speech in October 2020, I said that, even as the Government tackle the effects of Covid on our economy, we must concurrently work on our efforts to address the climate emergency. I took the opportunity to ask the Government for an update on our efforts since the Unity Budget, and for an assurance that Singapore is on track to meet our goals and timelines for the Paris Agreement. No answer was given. Today, I would like to repeat my call to the Government to provide the House with an update on our efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. I would also like to ask how we are working with other countries, especially our ASEAN neighbours, to curb global emissions.

With major investments in adaptation strategies forthcoming and because the full force of climate change has not been felt by Singaporeans yet and may thus seem intangible today, it will be important to foster public buy-in and support for these efforts. Hence, before it is too late for the world to limit warming to 1.5oC and for us in Singapore to plan our adaptation strategies robustly, a crucial first step is to recognise climate change as the emergency that it is. I hope Members will agree with me this is an important step by which the motion today can be strengthened.

Co-Creating our Response to Climate Change with Civil Society

While declaring a climate emergency will send a clear collective signal, it is not enough. Because we must act. The impacts of climate change are complicated and will be felt across our country, by our biodiversity and by our people too. People of all socioeconomic backgrounds, including those who may find some policy adjustments more difficult to cope with than others.

It is for this reason that we need to work together with multiple stakeholders to chart the future of our sustainable development. This brings me to the second part of the amendment we are proposing. The motion introduced by the respective PAP MPs today calls on the Government to work with the private sector and the people of Singapore to respond to climate change. The purpose of our amendment is to include civil society in this call. The pivotal role that civil society stakeholders such as academics and NGOs have played and will continue to play in guiding our response to climate change cannot be understated.

To illustrate this point and to argue for how we need to truly embrace sustainability in Singapore, I wish to draw the House’s attention to the example of the conservation of our forested areas.

Forested spaces play a critical role in our response to climate change. Their vegetation and sediments act as carbon sinks, thus helping to mitigate a rise in greenhouse gas emissions. They also help to cool our urban environment – meaning a decrease in forest cover will worsen the urban heat island effect in various parts of our city-state, thereby adding to the threat of rising temperatures due to climate change on our future urban liveability. We know that forests play these important roles thanks to research by academics in Singapore.

Of recent interest has been the zoning of two secondary forests – Clementi Forest and Dover Forest – for residential development.[11] The benefits of developing housing are obvious, and these benefits are ones that we should not write off in principle. But we must also commit to seriously assessing the cost of clearing our natural capital. While it may be tempting to think of planting new trees elsewhere to mitigate these losses, we must remember that we are talking about the loss of benefits derived from centuries if not millennia of carbon accumulation and decades of forest regrowth which make it possible for forests to carry out the functions I mentioned earlier. This natural heritage is one that we relinquish at our peril.

Today, we live in an urban landscape where primary forests cover only approximately 0.28%[12] of our area and where less than 20.2% is covered by vegetation that is not dominated by human management, although with varying degrees of protection under the law.[13] That we even have some of these green spaces left is due to our vibrant civil society consisting of academics, NGOs and passionate individuals. They are surveyors of our ecosystems and stewards of our environment, many of whom engage in public education. It is due to their decades of commitment – not without significant pushback from the state in the past – that we have such areas as Sungei Buloh and Chek Jawa intact. Today, our diverse community of academics and activists, both seasoned and young, have given us a better understanding of the value of many other areas including Clementi and Dover Forests. Thus, I hope the House will support our amendment to recognise the role of these civil society stakeholders who must remain key partners in the Government’s efforts to address climate change.

Even as the Government continues to engage various stakeholders, not least because of the large degree of influence the state has on land use planning, the onus is on the Government to better protect green spaces in the fight against climate change. In response to my Parliamentary Question on the status of Clementi Forest in January this year, the Government claimed that the zoning of the site for residential use will be retained, while giving our future generations the option of deciding whether to use it for housing, if the need arises.[14]

But if we continue to operate with the assumption that we can always free up more forests or indeed coastal ecosystems for infrastructural development, we will run the risk of relying on a land use planning paradigm that is far more inefficient and short-sighted than the Government may wish to recognise. I wish to propose the following steps we can take to better plan our land use with the aim of sustainably developing Singapore:

  • Firstly, track and publish changes in land use areas in Singapore on a biennial basis. This can be done relatively cheaply with the use of high-resolution satellite imagery and geographical information systems (GIS).
  • Secondly, re-assess plans for existing forested areas by taking into account the full costs of development. To do this, environmental impact assessments should be conducted in a more transparent manner, engaging multiple stakeholders, including the public, during the process.
  • Thirdly, provide more secondary forests with greater protection under law. A portion of these areas could be afforded greater protection similar to those in nature reserves, while others could be regulated under a different regime, to enable Singaporeans to benefit from simpler recreational activities which are less destructive in nature.

If we fail to take bolder steps to safeguard our forested areas and if we fail to improve our land use planning in non-forested areas today, we will leave our future generations with a landscape deprived of enough areas to even consider conserving, and perhaps more worryingly, we will leave them with the mindset that tomorrow’s problems are for tomorrow’s generation to solve.

Mr Speaker, sir, as we seek to address one of the most major threats Singapore faces today, we in the Workers’ Party believe that we need to rethink our notions of what sustainable development should truly mean as we move into the future. A future where we do not see development and sustainability as two opposing outcomes, a future where sustainability is embraced by all sectors of the economy, and a future where all Singaporeans know and feel that all of us have a stake in co-creating a stronger response to the emergency that is climate change.

Mr Speaker, sir, my fellow Workers’ Party MPs will further elaborate on why the Workers’ Party is proposing the amendments to the motion for which I beg to move.

[1]  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5oC (Summary for Policymakers), Section A.

[2] National Climate Change Secretariat

[3] Today Online (article, 15 January 2021)

[4] This is because weather reflects short-term changes in rainfall and temperature whereas climate refers to such changes over periods of at least two decades. Increased frequency in extreme weather has been linked to climate change, but it is difficult to pin individual weather events to climate change with high probability. More information:,time%20at%20a%20certain%20location.&text=Weather%20can%20change%20from%20minute,weather%20over%20time%20and%20space.

[5] Channel NewsAsia, A wet start to 2021 as flood risk warnings issued (news report, 2 January 2021); Today Online, Torrential rainfall over weekend erodes slope in Pasir Ris, causes tree to collapse in Fort Canning (article, 4 January 2021); Straits Times, Sharp rise in number of potholes (article, 16 January 2021)

[6] National Climate Change Secretariat

[7] National Climate Change Secretariat

[8] Horton, B. P., Kopp, R. E., Garner, A. J., Hay, C. C., Khan, N. S., Roy, K., & Shaw, T. A. (2018). Mapping sea-level change in time, space, and probability. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, pg. 509.

[9] Horton, B. P., Kopp, R. E., Garner, A. J., Hay, C. C., Khan, N. S., Roy, K., & Shaw, T. A. (2018). Mapping sea-level change in time, space, and probability. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, pg. 508.

[10] Horton, B. P., Khan, N. S., Cahill, N., Lee, J. S., Shaw, T. A., Garner, A. J., … & Rahmstorf, S. (2020). Estimating global mean sea-level rise and its uncertainties by 2100 and 2300 from an expert survey. NPJ Climate and Atmospheric Science3(1), 1-8.; Siegert, M., Alley, R. B., Rignot, E., Englander, J., & Corell, R. (2020). Twenty-first century sea-level rise could exceed IPCC projections for strong-warming futures. One Earth3(6), 691-703.

[11] Straits Times, Parliament: Clementi Forest still zoned for residential use, but no immediate need to develop site (article, 5 January 2021); Channel NewsAsia, The Dover forest debate: Can nature and development co-exist in urbanised Singapore? (article, 22 January 2021)

[12] Yee, A. T. K., Corlett, R. T., Liew, S. C., & Tan, H. T. (2011). The vegetation of Singapore—an updated map. Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore63(1&2), 205-212.

[13] Gaw, L. Y. F., Yee, A. T. K., & Richards, D. R. (2019). A high-resolution map of Singapore’s terrestrial ecosystems. Data4(3), 116.

[14] Hansard (PQ, Dennis Tan)