We were honoured to be joined by Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, and Health, for a keynote address to kick off the Virtual Conscious Festival. In case you missed it, the inspiring address touched on the relationship between COVID-19 and climate change, Singapore’s sustainability journey, and how collective action is needed to avert crises. Here it is in full.
“I am pleased to join you at this first Virtual Conscious Festival organised by Green is the New Black. Ironically, COVID-19 has within months achieved what we have failed to do for years, and that is to transform and digitalise the way we work, do business and conduct meetings.
Countries around the world continue to grapple with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and its staggering impact. Lives have been lost, and economies devastated.
My Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, has described this pandemic as the most dangerous crisis that humanity has faced in a very long time. But even as we battle this crisis of a generation, we must not forget that climate change, if not tackled decisively, could well become the crisis of many generations. As we rebuild our economies and adjust to a new normal, we should not waste this crisis. We must also take this opportunity to redouble our efforts to fight climate change and move towards a low-carbon and sustainable future.
Today, I would like to share my thoughts about some similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, and two key lessons learnt as we continue to battle this pandemic — the importance of planning ahead, and the need for not just individual but collective action to overcome both challenges.
First, what are the similarities between COVID-19 and climate change, besides the somewhat frivolous fact that both begin with the letter “C”? We have seen how COVID-19 has devastated the lives of people around the world. We have also experienced some of the destructive impact of climate change on lives and livelihoods, such as more intense rainfall leading to severe floods, and prolonged dry spells leading to droughts. Both the virus and climate change are invisible, transcend boundaries and are no respecter of persons or governments. Both challenges are complex, and their consequences are disruptive and catastrophic. Both demand countries and their citizens to respond on multiple fronts, simultaneously, and most important of all, collaboratively.
Are there lessons from COVID-19 that we can apply to climate change? I believe so. Singapore is better prepared for COVID-19 today than we were for SARS in 2003. That is because we learnt from our SARS experience and planned ahead for potential virus outbreaks. Besides developing a crisis management plan which we continued to refine over the years, we also expanded and upgraded our medical facilities, and trained more doctors and nurses to deal with outbreaks. We also invested in developing research and diagnostic capabilities to study viruses.
After Singapore confirmed our first COVID-19 case in January this year, our scientists worked closely with our public health community to develop different diagnostic test kits to detect the virus. These include one that is now in routine use in hospitals and labs, another for testing travellers and returning Singaporeans, and a third that detects virus-specific antibodies that could help in contact tracing and establishing links between infection clusters. Today we have achieved a high number of tests – 71,000 tests per million population – and thankfully, one of the lowest death rates in the world for COVID-19, at below 0.1 per cent. Nonetheless, we are not out of the woods yet. We must continue to learn and adapt as we fight this wily virus in order to win this war and be even better prepared for future pandemics that may, or should I say will, come our way.
The COVID-19 outbreak has underscored the importance of planning ahead to avert catastrophes. We must do no less for climate change, which can be equally, if not even more, disastrous.
Singapore embarked on our journey to understand, mitigate and adapt to climate change early on. In 2007, we established an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Climate Change to coordinate a whole-of-nation response. We set out to ensure that our plans are based on robust science. In 2013, we established the Centre for Climate Research Singapore. It is one of the few dedicated centres in the region that focuses on research on tropical weather and climate. The Centre is cooperating with their counterparts in our neighbouring countries to study how climate change is affecting Southeast Asia. It has launched a S$10 million National Sea Level Research Programme to strengthen our understanding of sea levels around Singapore, and develop more robust projections of sea-level rise. A new Climate Science Research Programme Office will also be set up this year to lead, formulate and implement our National Climate Science Research Masterplan, and to systematically build up our climate science capabilities.
We are committed to playing our part to mitigate climate change as responsible global citizens. Let me give you some examples. Singapore is an alternative-energy disadvantaged country with limited access to alternative energy sources such as geothermal, wind and hydropower. Due to our small size and dense urban landscape, even the deployment of solar energy, our most viable renewable energy source, is challenging. To overcome our constraints, we are investing in innovative solar technologies, such as floating solar photovoltaic systems on our reservoirs and offshore. The floating solar PV system we are building on the Tengeh Reservoir will be among the world’s largest when completed in 2021. It will make Singapore’s waterworks one of the few in the world to be 100 per cent green.
We have ambitious plans to green our buildings and our transport sector. As of March 2020, we have greened more than 40 per cent of our buildings, by gross floor area. By 2030, we aim for 80 per cent of our buildings to be green. As part of Singapore’s Land Transport Master Plan 2040, we aim for nine in 10 peak-period journeys to be made via public transport, active mobility or shared transport, up from 7 in 10 today. By 2040, we also aim to have 100 per cent of our public bus and taxi fleets running on greener and cleaner energy.
We are also pursuing circular economy approaches. Last year, Singapore launched our inaugural Zero Waste Masterplan, which outlines our strategies to reuse and recycle resources, turn trash into treasure and produce and consume sustainably. By 2030, we aim to reduce, by 30 per cent, the amount of waste we send each day to our only offshore landfill, which primarily consists of incinerated bottom ash or IBA. Among the many ways we plan to do this is to turn IBA into construction material which we call NEWSand, just like our recycled water, which we call NEWater. In fact, we are also looking to harness pyrolysis oil from our plastic waste, and we are going to call it NEWOil! We are pursuing the circular economy even at our incineration and waste water treatment plants. We are co-locating a water reclamation plant with an integrated waste management facility to harness synergies between water, energy and waste. To maximise resource efficiency, food waste will be co-digested with used water sludge to triple biogas yield, generating energy to power the entire facility. This is how we are living by the mantra that green is the new black!
Let me now talk about the second lesson from COVID-19 — the importance of collective action. COVID-19 has presented an unintended silver lining. The pandemic has brought many activities literally to a standstill, resulting in a reduction in carbon emissions and air pollutants, and the return of clear blue skies and waterways to many cities. Even if the actions were imposed upon us, it shows that individuals and countries can make a positive difference to the environment if we take concerted and collective action. Pollution, like COVID-19, does not respect boundaries.
Singapore will continue to do our part. In March this year, we submitted our enhanced Nationally Determined Contribution and Long-Term Low-Emissions Development Strategy document to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. We have pledged to peak emissions at 65MtCO2e around 2030. We aspire to halve our emissions from its peak to 33MtCO2e by 2050, with a view to achieving net-zero emissions as soon as viable in the second half of the century. Achieving these ambitious targets will require massive and concerted effort across all sectors of our economy and society at large.
We are also partnering our citizens to co-create and co-deliver solutions for our environment. Last year, we convened a Citizens’ Workgroup to jointly develop solutions with Singaporeans at large to improve household recycling. This year, we will convene similar Workgroups to look at how we can strengthen Singapore’s food security, and reduce the excessive consumption of disposables. We have also set up a new SG Eco Office to promote sustainable practices in our communities. The Office will administer a S$50 million SG Eco Fund to support the co-creation of sustainability initiatives with Singaporeans.
Many of the participants in this Virtual Conscious Festival are leading the way in advocating a green lifestyle, through our daily habits and decisions. Your efforts to make sustainability a new way of life is indeed commendable. Every action to reduce our carbon footprint matters. I am glad that Green is the New Black is encouraging the public to make #LittleGreenSteps with the hope to create real change. Do pledge your support for this movement at their website. I hope that the little green steps you take will multiply, and spark a green revolution across all the nations of the world.
Let me conclude. Like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change will bring about unprecedented changes to the world as we know it. But the challenge is not insurmountable. With bold and decisive long-term plans, the political will to sustain them, and the collective efforts of businesses, civil society and individuals, like many of you here, we can avert a crisis of many generations and make this world a better place for ourselves and our children.