In his National Day Rally speech this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that climate change is “one of the gravest challenges facing humankind”. During the section of his speech on preparing for climate change, Mr Lee said that Singapore has to understand, mitigate, and adapt to this problem.
However, he noted that a global solution for climate change “is still very far off”, adding that Singapore must “work for the best, but be prepared for the worst.”
As such, his 22-minute section on climate change focused mostly on measures that would help the country “adapt to climate change”, announcing a S$100 billion budget to be spent over 100 years for specifically that purpose.
He explained that Singapore has to be prepared for the impact of climate change which brings with it many risks and consequences such as new diseases, more frequent pandemics, food shortages, forced migration of displaced populations, and even wars.
However, the threat that Singapore is especially vulnerable to is rising sea levels, given that it is a low-lying island.
On that note, Mr Lee spoke about various measures that the government is considering such as adding another pump house at the Marina Barage in the East Coast, building polders along Singapore’s eastern coastlines, and even reclaiming islands offshore.
He also pointed out several measures that have already been implemented such as building MRT stations with elevated entrances and raising platforms at critical infrastructures including Changi Airport Terminal 5 and Tuas Port.
The PM went on to say about the 100-year timeline: “If we only have 10 years to solve the problem, we will not have enough time or resources to do it. But because this is a 50 to 100-year problem, we can implement a 50 to 100-year solution to this problem. In Singapore, for long-term problems, we can make long-term solutions.”
“Work steadily at it, maintain a stable budget year after year, keep your eye on the target and do it over many years and several generations.”
Adaptation alone is not enough
What Mr Lee failed to mention is that the earth’s remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone in less than 8.5 years if we, the global community, continue under current emission levels according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Cutting emissions by half only gives us a 50% chance of keeping the global temperature increase below 1.5° Celsius, which is widely agreed to be the tipping point for an irreversible chain reaction.
An IPCC report noted that emissions growth is expected to persist, driven by growth in global population and economic activities if we do not do significantly more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beyond the measures that are already in place today.
So, merely adapting to climate change is not enough, and cutting emissions by half is not enough.
In 2015, Singapore pledged to reduce emissions intensity by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030. But this, argues SG Climate Change Rally in their manifesto, is insufficient when looking at the reductions called for by the IPCC.
For one, there is concern about Singapore’s metric of ‘emissions intensity’ which refers to the amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP instead of absolute emissions. Based on that metric, Singapore is already on track to meet its existing emissions targets without any further policy changes. But SG Climate Rally argues that Singapore is far from meeting IPCC’s standard, adding that the country should aim to take bolder action.
Organiser of the inaugural SG Climate Rally held on 21 September, Ms Komal Lad, asked in her speech, “Why are we still focused on small individual actions despite the fact that climate change has worsened so rapidly over the past decade?”
She added, “I don’t want the generation younger than me believing that we can protect the earth by merely increasing our aircon temperatures from 19 to 25.”
The resounding sentiment at the rally was for the government and businesses to spend more time and money and effort on mitigation measures, not just adaptation.
Another speaker, lifelong environmentalist and professional in the sustainability industry, Ms Karen Sim, voiced her “dismay” at hearing PM’s Lee’s NDR speech about how Singapore will be “adapting” to climate change when almost nothing was said about what the country could do to prevent a climate disaster.
Ms Sim noted that while adaptation measures are welcomed, it is not enough for Singapore to build polders and cocoon itself in a fortress as global temperatures continue to rise unchecked and unaddressed.
“When the world continues to heat up, people in other parts of the world continue to suffer and die from the effects of a collapsed ecological and climate system. No country exists in a vacuum. It is naïve to think our island can survive if the ecological system around us collapses.”
17-year-old Ellen Wu highlighted what many of the speakers said, that what we need now is a significant systemic change in the way we talk about and address the issue of climate change at the governmental and industrial level.
Echoing that sentiment, 23-year-old environmental activist Ho Xiang Tian emphasised, “There have been countless speeches on the need for climate action. The government doesn’t need reminders of what should be done. They just have to do it.”