Govt alone cannot solve environmental challenges, says Minister for Environment

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, outlines the government’s plan for a more sustainable Singapore, while also adding that the government requires the help of businesses, civil society, and individuals to achieve a greener future.

Singapore’s good environmental practices stem from pragmatism

Speaking at the Global Green Economic Forum 5th Annual Conference this morning, he praised Singapore’s progress in implementing environmentally-friendly policies since its independence. “Our founding leaders have embraced sustainable development long before it became fashionable”, he says, referring to the first generation leaders of his party.

NEWater, he says, is a good example of how pragmatism helped Singapore become more sustainable in the process. Due to the lack of land, NEWater was introduced in 2003, that purifies used water into portable water, and that eventually became one of four sources of water that Singapore relies on today. Indeed, Singapore has been a leader on the recycling of water and whose implementation is carefully studied by many other nations.

Masagos also highlighted the partnerships the government forged through the 3P program, or the People, Private, and Public sectors. This is seen in initiatives such as the ‘Energy Efficiency National Partnership’ (EENP) which saw 260 companies come together last month to promote energy efficiency, as well as the inaugural ‘Partners for the Environment Forum’ which got 350 of government partners to “co-create ideas on environmental sustainability.”

Obstacles, natural and man-made

Still, Masagos says, Singapore faces many challenges in the future in sustainable development. He brings up the issue of limited natural resources, and more specifically, limited land area. Singapore has “competing needs, such as industry, housing, transport, infrastructure and recreational spaces”, and this is made more difficult with a high population density, which, ironically, is a government decision.

More self-imposed problem than natural, Singapore is the third most densely populated place on earth, with 64% of the population made up of foreigners. The government has in recent years scaled back what many have criticised as too liberal a foreign worker policy, which has caused a myriad of problems in transportation, housing, and infrastructure. Still, Singapore’s economy remains heavily reliant on cheap foreign labour and trade, as it has in the past 50 years, and the government doesn’t seem to be changing course anytime soon.

Masagos, however, neglected to mention Singapore’s extensive land reclamation efforts, a direct result of Singapore’s hunger for more land. Sand used for these efforts are now primarily bought from Myanmar, after controversy erupted last year over Singapore importing sand from Cambodia. Such land reclamation efforts have resulted in widespread environmental damage in the localities from which they came, devastating the local mangrove eco-system and small fishing villages. Singapore itself has also suffered similar environmental problems from expanding its land, such as a very substantial loss in mangroves and coral reefs, much to the chagrin of local environmentalists.

Singapore, unlike much of the developed world, has yet to implement Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) legislation that makes it a legal requirement to assess the environmental consequences of a government policy. The government does voluntarily recommend an EIA on its projects, but it is done internally and not open to public input or inquiry.

Carbon Tax

Masagos stressed the government’s line that increased emissions and the rising sea levels that accompany them are especially dangerous to a small island like Singapore, and shared that a Carbon Tax on “larger emitters” will be imposed from 2019. A Carbon Tax is a tax applied onto companies’ carbon emissions, with the biggest polluters required to pay more for their environmental impact.

Focus on Solar

He also shared that the government plans to raise the adoption of solar power to 1GWp beyond 2020, and how the National Water Agency is considering ideas like floating solar panels on reservoirs. This commitment to solar energy can also seen in initiatives like the installation of solar panels on the rooftops of HDBs, which even an opposition party has praised. It could also simply mean that solar energy is naturally the preferred form of renewable energy in Singapore, given its limited land size and lack of natural resources to accommodate other forms of renewables. Apple Inc, a multi-national company, certainly agrees, with all of its Singapore operations running on solar power sourced from the top of buildings since 2015.

Waste not, want not

“The amount of solid waste generated has grown by 50% over the last decade” Masagos points out, and states that the government is working towards becoming a “Zero Waste Nation”. Regulations on the provision of two separate chutes for waste and recyclables in new housing is a measure the government has taken to work towards this goal. But, Masagos also emphasised on the need for every individual to minimise waste, and cites the National Environemental Agency (NEA) partnering up with schools on recycling and education programmes to underscore this approach.

Under his direction, the Ministry for Environment and Water Resources is also researching overseas policies like the Extended Producer Responsiblity (EPR), which gives the responsibility of disposal or recycling of post-consumer products to the producers themselves.

Finally, he concluded with his initiative of a Sustainable Singapore Movement, that launched July of last year, for all parties, not just the government, to take ownership of the environment. “Governments cannot achieve this alone. Strong collaboration across stakeholders is vital”, the minister reiterated.