Thoughts on the National Day Rally

“We should treat climate change defences like we treat the SAF – with utmost seriousness.”

On the 18th of August, 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered his National Day Rally speech, addressing, among other issues, climate change and Singapore’s plan to meet the coming challenges. The title of my blog is a quote from his speech, which I took the liberty of making a minor edit that reflects my personal view. In this post, I’ll be picking out and summarising what I feel are the most important parts of the rally (that pertain to climate change), and giving some of my comments along the way. I understand that the measures listed out during the NDR are not comprehensive, and I must mention that my opinions are greatly summarised as well. While there are too many aspects of climate change to cover in this article, hopefully I’ll be able to give you an additional perspective!

What is climate change?

PM Lee began with a summary on the concept of climate change. He mentioned the greenhouse effect of rising CO2 levels – due to the effect of these greenhouse gases, we have already seen an increase in global average temperatures of 1°C and he even emphasised the gravity of this seemingly small increase. He later went on to list some of the issues Singapore will face: food shortages, diseases, extreme weather. Amongst the problems listed, he singled out the issue that he felt Singapore is the most vulnerable to: sea level rise. He then goes on to mention Singapore’s three-pronged approach to tackling climate change: Understanding, Mitigation and Adaptation.

Understanding Climate Change

Make no mistake, the effects of climate change are already being felt right now, but the scary part is what comes in the next few decades. These effects are difficult to predict, given the complexity and unpredictability of the world’s atmosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere. PM Lee introduced us to the Centre for Climate Research Singapore which was set up in 2013 for research on climate science, to better understand the effects of climate change in the context of Singapore.

While having scientific basis behind policy-making is paramount, it is just as important for Singaporeans to be educated on climate change. An addition or integration of environmental studies into the formal education system would increase the literacy of Singaporeans towards key ideas like sustainability and stewardship. This would prepare the future generation for tackling problems like climate change and biodiversity loss while working towards a sustainable future.

Mitigating Climate Change

PM Lee mentioned Singapore’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, and mentioned one of the steps the government has taken to limit our CO2 emissions is through a carbon tax. At $5 per tonne of CO2 emitted, however, could this tax be a bit too low? Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli explained that this tax is a nudge to businesses to begin improving efficiency, and that taxes will be increased with certainty, just over a longer time frame. Still, The World Bank estimates that to keep warming to within 2°C above pre-industrial levels, we would need a carbon price of US$40-80/tonne of CO2 by 2020 and US$50-100/tonne of CO2 by 2030. So is Singapore doing enough to persuade businesses to shift to greener technology?

Furthermore, PM Lee mentioned that the aim was to cap Singapore’s emissions by 2030. However, the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C explicitly states that to keep temperatures within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the world would have to peak our carbon emissions in 2020 and become carbon neutral by 2050. Is Singapore setting too lenient a goal?

These are just a couple of signs that Singapore isn’t taking its mitigation measures seriously enough, and this sentiment was echoed by the thousands of Singaporeans that attended the Climate Rally a few weeks ago. PM Lee goes on to say: “Although Singapore may not be able to stop climate change by ourselves, we can contribute to solutions, and we must do our fair share. Then we can be credible asking others to reduce their emissions too, and work towards a global solution to climate change.” Are we doing our fair share?

Adapting to Climate Change

PM Lee focuses solely on sea level rise. The grand plan is to build polders, inspired by the Netherlands. Polders are pockets of land reclaimed from the sea. Seawalls are first built around an area, and the area is pumped dry. PM Lee explained that these measures would likely be necessary for our eastern coastline, which is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

These polders increase our land area while at the same time, keeping the sea out. They could even potentially be used to harness tidal energy. The drawbacks would be the cost of building them, which is estimated to be more than 100 billion dollars. Additionally, there are the costs of maintaining these polders as water has to be constantly pumped out. Constructing these polders may also be destructive to the marine ecosystem around the eastern shoreline. There is also another problem.

Let me introduce you to a graph.

2
Transient sea-level rise versus committed sea-level rise. (Hardy & Nuse, 2016)

Hank Green explained this graph well in his Youtube Video: “This is the scariest graph I’ve ever seen”. In a nutshell, while sea level rise by 2100 may be about 1m as we have planned for in our adaptation measures, the sea level rise that we subscribe to due to the additional heat in our atmosphere is far greater. If we do nothing about our emissions, sea levels could rise as much as 6 meters in the future. So how high are we going to keep building our sea walls?

While sea level rise is an issue that will affect Singapore significantly, other issues posed by a warming climate are just as serious. We import over 90% of our food, and climate change may soon render agriculture more difficult in many places. We may face a huge problem with food security. Singapore is also a hot and humid tropical country, which means we are especially vulnerable to fatal heat waves. All these problems will have to be addressed in the coming decades, perhaps even sooner than our rising sea levels.

Conclusion

While the measures that PM Lee went over in his NDR speech are laudable, there are still some areas where Singapore can do better. Though I’m no expert, it does seem that our mitigation measures are severely lacking. I understand that with every tax/investment/solution that is proposed, there are certainly challenges and costs. But Singapore is a wealthy country and if we do not take responsibility for our emissions, how can we expect other countries to, especially when they might not have the luxury to do so?

PM Lee said this in context to sustained effort to building adaptation measures: “We must make this effort. Otherwise one day, our children and grandchildren will be ashamed of what our generation did not do.” The government has to realise that this applies to our mitigation measures too. More emphasis has to be placed on mitigating climate change, even if the upfront costs may be great. Because the longer we wait, the greater the costs will become. With each tonne of CO2 we continue to release into the atmosphere, we increase human suffering in the future. Climate change is a moral issue, and it’s time treat it with utmost seriousness.

References:

Hardy, R.D. & Nuse, B.L. Climatic Change (2016) 137: 333. https://doi-org.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/10.1007/s10584-016-1703-4

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