Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament (MP) and Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh took to his Facebook on Tuesday (24 September) to address the issue of climate change by stating that Singapore can “play a significant role” in it.
He started his post by highlighting some of the events that took place last weekend, which include the successful Formula One race despite the sky being enveloped by haze as well as protest at Hong Lim Park “in solidarity with a worldwide movement on climate action, which some countries have labelled as a youth-led climate strike”.
Mr Singh stressed that although Singapore has a small population and its climate footprint would probably not make a huge impact globally, but it’s important to note that the city-state is not an irrelevant player in this issue and it “can play a significant role to alter corporate behaviour worldwide”.
Importance of transparency and accountability
Opining that transparency and accountability are crucial elements needed to tackle climate crisis, Mr Singh cited the website of Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund (NSWF) which manages fund in excess of $1 trillion.
He said that the website openly states what the Norwegian government does with its fund and adjust it based on climate issues. As oppose to Singapore, this “level of public accountability and transparency of the fund is incredible”, said the MP.
“Not only does the Norwegian taxpayer know which country and foreign companies their reserves are invested in – including the size of shareholding, with just a few clicks of the mouse – they also know how the Norwegian SWF, as a shareholder in over 9000 companies across the globe, votes in the board meetings of the companies it invests in,” Mr Singh wrote.
He continued, “To this end, the Norwegian fund makes environmental sustainability a central feature of its investment mandate – publicly adjusting its portfolio through divestments and actively considering climate issues in investments”.
Besides that, in 2016, the Norwegian SWF announced that it had dropped 11 companies in 2015 due to the companies’ high rates of deforestation and harm to the environment. Specifically, the companies dropped include 6 firms in the palm oil industry, 4 pulp and paper companies, and 1 coal company.
The NSWF’s divesting of these 11 companies makes it clear that causing deforestation gives rise to severe consequences for companies as they risk such exclusions from international investment, said the head of the NGO Rainforest Foundation Norway, Lars Løvold.
This move is also an indication that Norway’s SWF is willing to make do with the potential losses associated with the divestments, with the view that the prevention of the loss of forests holds greater importance than profits.
On the other hand, Mr Singh noted in his Facebook post that Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds are huge, but the extent in which the country invest in sustainability is unknown as it’s not transparent.
“Our SWFs, in particular Temasek, have made sustainability an investment consideration, but the extent to which it, and the other Singaporean sovereign wealth behemoth, GIC does so is not known, partly because the fund, its size, amongst other things, is not totally transparent,” he explained.
GIC and Temasek’s investments in haze-linked companies
Additionally, Mr Singh along with WP’s NCMP Leon Perera, asked in Parliament last month for the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) “life-cycle assessment study on plastic carrier bags and food packaging to be made publicly”.
However, he pointed out that the Straits Times “erroneously reported that this study was in the public domain”. As such, Mr Singh said that his Party will file a parliamentary question at the next parliamentary sitting asking for this document to be made public.
This is not the first time WP has raised questions regarding climate crisis in the Parliament. Over three years ago, Mr Perera asked Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat if the Government was involved in monitoring GIC and Temasek’s investments so as to ensure that neither were investing in haze-linked companies – and if they were, how much did GIC and Temasek invest in said companies. He also asked Heng as to how GIC and Temasek will ensure that the funds invested will not contribute to activities that cause haze.
In a written reply to Mr Perera on 28 Jan 2016, Mr Heng said that while the Government oversees the performance of GIC and Temasek’s overall portfolio, their respective management teams are responsible for observing the two companies’ individual investments in particular.
Mr Heng added that the investments of GIC and Temasek are geared for “long-term returns on a sustainable basis”, and that investing in companies with “environmentally unsustainable practices” such as those involved in open burning for land clearance “could negatively impact the commercial value of the investments over the long term”.
Is Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act really working?
Separately, The Straits Times reported Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar as saying at a climate change event in Jakarta three years ago that Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA) is a hotly debated and “controversial” law among officials from Asean states, particularly those affected by the haze such as Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and even Indonesia itself.
Singapore, added Siti, should not step into Indonesia’s legal domain on the issue of forest fires as “there was never a bilateral agreement between Indonesia and Singapore”, adding that the Asean agreement on transboundary haze pollution is a “multilateral” one.
Then-Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament in Aug 2014 – two months after Siti’s comments – that while “States have a sovereign right to exploit their own natural resources pursuant to their own policies” under the principles of international law, they “also have a responsibility to ensure that the activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”.
He added: “We, in Singapore, cannot simply wait and wishfully hope that the problem will be resolved on its own. The Singapore Government would want to send a strong signal that we will not tolerate the actions of errant companies that harm our environment and put at risk the health of our citizens”.
Under THPA, companies involved in activities – such as open burning – outside Singapore that result in haze spreading to the Republic can be fined up to S$100,000 per day of haze pollution linked to said activities, or to a total maximum aggregate of S$2 million. In addition, the Act also creates statutory duties and civil liabilities that companies must abide by, failing which the companies may face lawsuits.
However, it can be theorised that the problems in applying THPA are largely due to the principle of extra-territoriality and the Asean agreement taking precedence, given that THPA is still, in essence, a domestic law that was drafted and passed by the Singapore Parliament alone, and not a bilateral agreement as the Indonesian Environment Minister had argued.
Facts needed to tackle climate change
In the end of Mr Singh’s post, he said that with the existence of fake news and opinions deemed as facts, especially when it comes to climate science, the politician said that “facts must drive the conversation on climate change and sustainability”.
“And that conversation must start with accountability, not just from government that turn a blind eye to climate change, but from large corporates and the financial ecosystem that invests in them,” he elaborated.