Lest we forget – Singapore’s long-term preparation for impact of climate change

I am dripping with sweat as I feverishly write this piece in a local café and not because of writer’s block or a looming deadline. I am literally dripping with sweat because while I have a window seat, the air-conditioning is set at an economical 25-26°C and the sun is still blazing through the glass even as we near the usually cooler last quarter of the calendar year. But, that’s the sad result of climate change. Unusual weather patterns such as longer and hotter summers, or sustained downpours that lead to floods will be the norm in the years ahead. With temperatures rising all around the world, Iceland recently bid farewell to Okjökull, the first Icelandic glacier lost to climate change. Also, there was a photo of husky dogs “walking on water” in Greenland. The average daily temperature in Greenland exceeds freezing only in July and August, while in June it is around 0°C and essentially, the ice melted so much into the sea that the dogs were running through icy melt water.

It is in this larger context that PM Lee Hsien Loong spoke extensively about the impact of climate change at the 2019 National Day Rally. Climate change is a huge beast that requires a multi-faceted approach to combat it. However, some felt PM Lee’s speech had too much emphasis on building shoreline defences in Singapore like how the Netherlands built polders (essentially building a raised strip of land to manage the encroachment of water inland). Some were disappointed there weren’t more hard hitting measures to reduce waste and emissions. While it is heartening to know that many were attentive to the content of the speech, such criticism, in my opinion, neglected to take in the context of the climate change warning to the nation. The Rally was a platform to alert the nation of the implications of climate change, lay out the forward plan the Government has for a projected 100 years and encourage the nation to take action collectively.

The call to fight climate change didn’t just start at the 2019 Rally but measures to reduce waste and emissions began even pre-independence! The greening of Singapore began in 1963 with Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s launching of the Tree Planting campaign to provide shade, greenery and green lungs for Singapore. In 1990, the early incarnation of the Certificate of Entitlement for vehicles reduced the number of vehicles on the road and Singapore’s carbon footprint. Leaded petrol was phased out in 1998 to further significantly reduce carbon emissions. In 2003, NEWater was launched in Singapore that underlined our desire to be self-sufficient while dovetailing with environmental considerations by reducing, reusing and recycling waste water for our daily needs. In 2018, the Land Transport Authority capped the vehicle population to further reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions. From the urban planning perspective, studies have shown that contact with nature can make people calmer and happier and improve their attention and memory. As such, over the years, building requirements and incentives have been introduced to ensure that residents are surrounded by greenery. For example, developers who uproot greenery for construction must replace part or all of it within their sites, and those who install rooftop gardens, urban farms and landscaping can apply for gross floor area bonuses

Mitigation and adaptation strategies to combat climate change go hand-in-hand. PM Lee’s National Day Rally is really a call to long-term action with the Government implementing policies such as the ones above while also encouraging ground-up initiatives. For example, some local corporations have taken the initiative to primarily save costs but also minimised their carbon footprint by phasing out disposable plastics, installing LED lighting, recycling rainwater collection system and installing solar panels. Some tangible win-win outcomes is exemplified by DBS Bank’s cost savings of S$3.8 million in 2017, compared to 2016 just from energy-saving initiatives to reduce electricity consumption. Separately, another ground-up initiative is The Food Bank Singapore, which saw solved two problems by connecting two problems – tremendous food wastage in Singapore and food insecurity among the population. Food wastage is a massive squandering of resources including water, land, energy, labour, and capital, as well as needlessly producing greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to climate change.

Climate change is a huge problem that requires a long-term plan and collective effort by everyone. Let’s get together to work on the problem instead of nit-picking what elements would have made a better speech.