Climate Change Motion – Speech by Speech by LO Pritam Singh

Delivered in Parliament on 1 February 2021

Mr Speaker sir, the climate change motion before us today raises one of the gravest challenges we face as a nation to the platform of Parliamentary debate. The number of speakers on this motion from all parties in the House attests to the gravity of the issue.

I support the amendments proposed by the honourable member for Hougang, Mr Dennis Tan. The climate crisis is an emergency. Before we act, we must acknowledge the serious consequences of NOT acting. The hour has come for Singapore to call a spade a spade and join the over 30 other countries in the world who have declared climate emergencies. As Mr Dennis Tan eloquently argued, the costs of getting climate change wrong in terms of the impact on sea levels, the weather and other dimensions of the crisis are so severe as to more than warrant the term emergency.

The word emergency signifies several things. One is the seriousness of the crisis. But another is the fact that this is a crisis that will deeply affect the nation as a whole and every person in it – rich and poor, fortunate and unfortunate, well-educated and not. An emergency calls for all hands on deck.

And it is in this spirit that Mr Dennis Tan’s other amendment, defining a role for civil society in our response, is important. As I argued in my maiden speech in this House in 2016, independent Singapore has traditionally had a strong state but a less strong civil society and domestic private sector. In this long 21st century, we need all these sectors to be strong, to contribute to diverse ideas in the public square and to augment our nation’s capacity to execute the best of those ideas…alongside a balanced political system to foster accountability, diversity of views and alternatives.

Mr Speaker sir, one way Singapore could be a beacon to other nations is by showing how economic development and environmental sustainability can go hand in hand. Just as Singapore was lauded in the past for national innovations like the HDB and EDB, we can be admired and emulated in the future for mastering the intersection between economic development and environmental sustainability. To do this we must be ambitious, united and smart.

Sir, in my speech on the motion, I will speak about a few broad principles that will stand us in good stead as we address the challenge of climate change as a nation. And I’ll provide several examples of policies we can adopt under each of these thrusts.

Firstly, we should place people in the centre. We must go into battle with a keen sense that the costs of climate change affect people unequally. A rise in temperatures affects those who cannot afford air-conditioning more, for example. Our climate change policies should be calibrated to reduce those inequalities.

Secondly, in this climate change cause, transparency is a powerful ally. Government plays a crucial role here. More information being made available about how well we are doing will facilitate public scrutiny and well-informed public debate about the inevitable policy trade-offs inherent in any debate on climate change.

Thirdly, in terms of Singapore’s longer-term Green vision, our Green goals should be ambitious but smart – we should aim for more Green substantive targets but also ensure that our approaches add value to our economy in terms of cultivating pools of expertise, know-how, talent and entrepreneurial acumen that will drive a high-quality economy through partly exporting those skills to the region and the world. And as we battle climate change, our fight needs to be guided by a clear idea of what success looks like. Green goals should figure strongly in the key performance indicators we adopt in government and as a nation – not necessarily at the expense of economic indicators like household income, but alongside these.

People: Sustainability and Inequality

Sir, first, let me move to sustainability and inequality. There is an important and troubling nexus between these two issues.

The effects of climate change would be borne disproportionately by those of lesser means – those with less resources to move house, to air-condition their homes, to filter their air and afford medical treatment. This is true globally and within Singapore. Also, some geographic areas are more vulnerable to these impacts than others. In responding to the climate crisis, our responses have to take into account this fact of unequal impacts and burdens.

Extensively built areas like Woodlands, Serangoon, Geylang, Sengkang and Punggol are listed as very high vulnerability in terms of urban heat, according to Cooling Singapore’s 2020 study. The risk is much higher for low-income residents and other people who live and work in these regions because many do not have the options for adaptation: no air-conditioning; shift workers who have to sleep during the hotter day-time; and older people of lesser means who are at higher risk of heat stroke. Moreover, less living space per resident means hotter rooms.

This suggests the need for progressivity in terms of our policies. For example, can we do more to entrench innovations like anti-solar paint, especially for HDB rental blocks and HDB blocks for lower-income constituents.

My Parliamentary colleague, Associate Professor Jamus Lim, has made an eloquent case for an upward trajectory for the existing carbon tax. One avenue towards which the incremental revenues from a higher carbon tax could be directed would be progressively-tiered Green dividends paid to Singaporeans of lesser means, to cushion the impact of the carbon tax on the cost of living.  This is not a new or radical idea. In Switzerland, two-thirds of the collected revenue from their carbon tax is redistributed to households (on a per capita basis) and to firms (in proportion to their payroll). In Canada’s British Columbia province, the government makes payments of a Climate Action Tax Credit or BCCATC to families. The payment is quarterly and combined with the quarterly payment of other credits.

Before I leave the issue of inequality, I would like to touch on the issue of protecting our mature forest land, but in the context of our golf clubs. The land leases of 7 of 8 golf clubs whose leases were due to expire between 2021 and 2023 have been renewed to some extent. Our golf clubs take up 1,500 ha of land or roughly two per cent of our land area.

I am not arguing for all golf clubs in Singapore to be removed and I welcome the information shared by Minister Desmond Lee earlier today on this subject. Given the importance of protecting pristine natural habitats like mature forests, can there not be more scope to review the land devoted to this purpose as a general planning parameter, keeping in mind the fact that not everyone plays golf; the fact that there are available golfing options very close to Singapore; and the likelihood that golf is not a huge driver of inbound tourism?

Governance: Transparency and Consultation

Secondly, sir, let me touch on the broad subject of transparency and consultation. In the climate change cause, transparency is a critical ally. We are unlikely to achieve success in any endeavour if we do not define what success looks like and if we do not track our progress towards that end in a transparent manner. On this theme, I have a few suggestions for government and governance.

I suggest a stronger suite of incentives and disincentives for quality sustainability reporting for SGX companies in line with Global Reporting Initiative/Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures standards, with additional support and a longer transitional runway for small-to-mid cap companies.

The current reporting scheme does not mandate companies to report according to specific guidelines. Hence, reporting standards differ amongst publicly-listed companies and renders the process not very meaningful. SGX has announced that it will improve on this front, but the improvements can and should be done in a single step with additional support given earlier on.

Next, it would appear that environmental impact assessments or EIAs are not mandatory for all major projects. I would suggest that this be corrected.

Moreover, it is not clear to what extent Environmental Monitoring and Management Plans (EMMPs) have regulatory teeth behind them.

There has been much mature forest that has been cleared over the years that could possibly have failed EIAs. For example, 700ha of Tengah forest was cleared. The environmental baseline study for this has not been disclosed by the HDB. The same can be said of Tagore forest, which was home to several endangered and threatened species.

Moreover, under the current regime, EIA consultants are hired and paid for by the developers, which can lead to a perception of

conflict of interest. The EMMP and EIA reports are intended to keep these same developers accountable. Can an independent regulatory body administer the consultant engagement and quality controls inherent in the EIA/EMMP process?

Singapore as a Beacon: Combining Green goals with public and economic benefits

Lastly, Mr Speaker sir, I shall touch on how being Green need not come at the expense of creating good quality jobs and an economy that delivers better quality of life for Singaporeans.

As we promote Sunrise, future-ready Green sectors in our economy and make plans to help sun-set, less-Green sectors pivot towards a Greener future, we should always keep in mind the imperative to nurture domestically-rooted pools of expertise, know-how, managerial and entrepreneurial talent together with the eco-system needed to root them here.

We can show the world how a high-quality economy can be combined with sustainability, just as we can show the world how it can be combined with democratic ownership and participation.

There is more to be done to support local entrepreneurs in fields like solar installation and maintenance, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, wind turbine construction (riding perhaps on our talent, IP and knowhow for oil and gas rig building), vertical urban farming, Green financing and professional services for a Green economy.

Before I continue, I declare my interest as the CEO of an international research consultancy that undertakes work in environmental-related sectors, among others.

In many of these future-ready Green sectors, it may be hard to compete for the manufacturing – for example in solar cell and electric vehicle or EV production – but we can compete for R&D, rapid proto-typing, installation and maintenance activity. Our companies have the opportunity to build capabilities in performing installation and maintenance in, and designing products optimised for, tropical environments, for example.

Sunseap’s Charge+ is one of the first companies to get involved in EV charging here, and the company does business across the Asia-Pacific. Recently, Keppel started building its first offshore wind turbine installation vessel in the US, which previously built sophisticated offshore rigs. We need more of such examples. And the government should play a facilitating role by providing incentive support in proportion to how ambitious and capable these local firms are and how fast they can grow and create good jobs at home. In other words, we need a strongly developmental mindset and not a schemes administration mindset.

More can also be done to nurture local champions in professional services fields such as clean development management advisory, carbon trading, verification, consultancy for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+); and other similar consulting services.  

Next, to make a better case for the conservation of mature forests/mangrove etc, which my colleague Mr Dennis Tan spoke about and which Mr Tan and my Parliamentary colleague Ms He Ting Ru asked about in their Parliamentary Questions, can the government commit to making sure that peripheral woodland and Green areas are accessible to the public via trails, wherever feasible.

It is important to prevent mature core forests and mangroves from turning into parks, but even if they are conserved, we still need to reduce impact to sensitive nature areas (in light of, for example, the trail erosion at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve). Hence it is advisable to work with peripheral and non-core forests, some of which are in URA’s masterplan for development. This could yield public recreational and educational benefits, which helps to cement public buy-in to Green efforts, as well as possibly garnering eco-tourism benefits.

The URA Masterplan 2019 lists 20 forest sites as being slated for development. Public attention is only focused on a few of these. The rest have also been ear-marked for various land uses. Can some be developed into accessible public trails that can also serve as wildlife corridors?

Indicators of National Development and Welfare

Lastly, sir, and on the theme of a national Green agenda, let me talk about indicators of national development and welfare.

There is room for us to review the KPIs applied to Ministries and Statutory Boards to incorporate Green goals and targets such as reducing net carbon emissions, alongside reflecting more transparency in reporting these.

The example of New Zealand has attracted considerable interest globally, and for good reason. For years, the New Zealand government has been collecting indicators of well-being, broadly-defined. An OECD paper in 2019 said, “The Treasury has developed its Living Standards Framework and associated Dashboard to integrate well-being evidence more systematically in its advice to the Government.” And, of course, this approach goes beyond Green goals, but the Green dimension is baked into this approach. One of New Zealand’s commitments for its public sector is to be carbon neutral by 2025.

I would like to suggest that the different arms of government set targets for carbon emission reduction and carbon neutrality at some point in the future – and publish regular indicators of progress. This should be accompanied with a roadmap for the decarbonisation of the public sector. This roadmap should extend to all government bodies, with stronger targets for some rather than others, depending on their ability to cut emissions. This goes beyond what is currently done under PSTLES.

The important suggestion for Green procurement by state agencies mooted by my Parliamentary colleague Mr Gerald Giam cuts along the same grain as this thrust.

I would also suggest that a part of our National Research Foundation (NRF) funds be earmarked, as a matter of policy, for projects that have a high likelihood of strong environmental impact as well as tracked in terms of environmental outcomes. These could include, for example, R&D projects related to electric vehicles, solar power and plant-based proteins.

I would also like to suggest that Green goals be reflected in our ITMs. Our ITMs should have sustainability transformation goals and road-maps baked into them, as it were. This Green dimension should not only be contained in one ITM but should be seen as a horizontal that cuts across all existing ITMs. This is not only important for pursuit of our Green goals but would also help ensure the longer-term competitiveness of our ITM sectors, given that environmental and sustainability standards will inevitably rise all over the world, and Singapore-based companies should be ahead of the curve on this, so as to stay globally competitive.

To that end, I would also like to make two suggestions:-

i. Ensure diversity in the membership of the Future Economic Council to include NGOs, academics, sustainability professionals and civil society representatives.

ii. Pathways into a Green future should reflect transition plans for sectors and their workers that will be sunset sectors in a greener future, for example fossil fuel industries and traditional car workshop activity. My Parliamentary colleague Mr Gerald Giam has made an important suggestion about the use of the SEC to help nudge workers to take up Green jobs.

I would also like to call for our Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) to set targets to wind down their investment in fossil-fuel sectors – which in any case will face an uncertain longer-term future, even in commercial terms. Such a strategy need not be inconsistent with earning good returns, as shown by the example and performance of the Norwegian SWF, which began divesting from fossil fuels in 2019.  Moreover, can our SWFs be given a mandate to proactively invest in local firms that are developing next-generation solutions for the Green future, in sectors like EVs, solar and plant-based proteins for example.

In passing, I would like to observe that ambition plays a key role in this climate change fight.

As argued eloquently by my Parliamentary colleague Mr Louis Chua, Singapore’s action is still “highly insufficient” and consistent with 3-4°C warming, far behind the “well-below 2°C” goal targeted by the Paris Agreement. Singapore aims to peak emissions in 2030, while the IPCC recommends 45% emissions reduction from 2010 levels by 2030 and net zero by 2050.  One device to move us on the right track is to set hard, national goals for renewable energy share of total energy consumption, as Mr Louis Chua argued for.

Conclusion: The Pale Blue Dot

Sir in conclusion, I would like to briefly share some personal perspectives on why this subject is so important.

In 1990, I remember astronomer Carl Sagan persuaded NASA get the space probe Voyager 1 to turn back towards Earth and take a photograph of Earth before it left for the outer reaches of the solar system. The resulting photograph became known as the Pale Blue Dot photograph, which shows us the stark reality of how small this planet ultimately is in the vastness of the cosmos. And how our differences as members of humanity pale beside the shared imperative of protecting the only home we have ever known.

We know the reality of the climate emergency facing Singapore and the world now.

The generation that led the world through the Second World War was known in some quarters as the “greatest generation”. Out of the ashes of war came institutions like the UN, World Bank and IMF that continue to play a useful role, however imperfect, in the current and hopefully soon-to-be-improved world order. Let’s reflect on that for a second. Great crises can bring out the best in us. That is the fate we can choose.

And it is because we need to make that choice that I support the motion with the amendments proposed by Mr Dennis Tan.