Keynote Address by Mr Tan Yong Soon, Permanent Secretary (National Climate Change), at NUS High School Sustainable Development Youth Conference 2011
Dr Hang Kim Hoo,
Principal, NUS High School
Teachers and Students
It has often been said that the youths of today will be the leaders of tomorrow. This statement is a cliché, but true. Within this room, I see many leaders of tomorrow.
2. But what will tomorrow be like? Will it be prosperous and secure? Will it be liveable and harmonious? Will your environment be conducive for you to pursue your dreams? Much will depend on whether our global development will be sustainable.
3. Sustainable development is an important subject as it determines the future that you will have. But it is also an extremely difficult and complex subject. I am glad our high school students are discussing such weighty issues. I wish to commend NUS High for organizing this youth convention. And I am honoured to be invited to speak on this important subject.
4. The concept of sustainable development is best explained in the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, released in 1987. The report was named Our Common Future, or more often referred to as The Brundtland Report, after the former Norway Prime Minister and Environment Minister, who chaired the commission at the time. Sustainable development -- as defined in the Brundtland Report -- is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
5. The report centres on two key concepts: the first is the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, which should be given overriding priority. The second is the concept that the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs is limited by the state of technology, and social organisation.
6. Development refers to both economic and social development. Development is important because it provides for the needs and aspirations of people. But development must also be physically sustainable. There must be equity between generations, which means that each generation must develop without degrading the environment, so that subsequent generations can continue to enjoy it. There must also be equity within each generation, which means each person needs to play his part to safeguard the environment, so that others can similarly enjoy it. Environment and development are inexorably linked.
Singapore Government practises Sustainable Development even before phrase is coined
7. The Singapore Government recognised the importance of a good environment, and the need to balance economic development with a good environment, very early in Singapore’s development. For us, it was never a case of pursuing growth at all costs and cleaning up afterwards. We have always believed that a clean and green environment is necessary to provide a good quality of life, not just for the present generation, but for future generations to come. A clean and green environment helps to attract investments and retain talent, supporting further growth. If the environment is managed well, quality of life and even economic competitiveness will be greatly enhanced.
8. Indeed, Singapore established its Environment Ministry in 1972, well before many other countries formed similar Ministries, dedicated solely to the protection of the environment. This significant milestone took place a few months after the United Nation’s first major conference on international environmental issues in Stockholm, known as the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment. It highlighted the rights of the human family to a healthy environment. So, one might say that Singapore practised sustainable development even before anyone had heard the turn of phrase. This is very different from many other developing countries in those days and even some countries today, where the conventional wisdom is to achieve economic growth at all costs.
9. Today, residents in Singapore breathe clean air, drink clean water direct from the tap, live on clean land, and enjoy good public hygiene. But sustainable development is a continual process. It demands long term attention and effort. And there are never-ending challenges.
10. One of the most important challenges facing our future sustainable development is climate change. I am sure all of you are familiar with climate change. The former Vice President of the USA, Al Gore, brought the message of “An Inconvenient Truth” about the threat of climate change to the masses in 2007. The well-known American journalist and writer, Thomas Friedman, also wrote about global warming in his 2008 bestseller, “Hot, Flat and Crowded”.
11. The global authority on the subject of climate science is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC. The IPCC is a scientific body that extensively reviews published scientific literature and conducts a comprehensive assessment of the science of the causes and impacts of climate change, as well as the possible response strategies. Its fourth assessment report or AR4 was published in 2007.
12. What are the key findings of the 4th Assessment Report? AR4 concluded that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. In other words, human activities contributed to global climate change, that the phenomenon will have devastating effects if left unchecked. If we don’t do anything to correct the trends, by the year 2100, global temperatures will likely go up another 1.8 to 4 degrees Celsius. And sea level will rise by 0.65 m. And there will also be all kinds of extreme weather events, or what Friedman called “global weirding”.
13. The AR4 lists the known-knowns and the known-unknowns. What is scary is that there are many unknown-unknowns which unfold as we progress. For example, how much and how fast will the Arctic and Antarctic Ice sheets melt? Indeed, how will different highly disruptive and non-linear changes in climate interact with, and amplify one another? The answers to some of these unknowns will be covered by the IPCC in its 5th Assessment Report, which is underway. It expects to conclude its assessment of the physical scientific aspects of the climate system in 2013. The AR5 findings on climate change will likely be more serious than what was revealed in previous assessments. It will be a never-ending horror story unless human beings act to reduce global carbon emissions.
How Singaporeans will be affected
14. For a low-lying island-state like Singapore, we would be vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather events. Fortunately, Singapore’s leaders had the foresight to raise our platform levels long ago. Since 1991, all projects on reclaimed land have been built 1.25m above sea level. The many stone embankments along our coastline protect our shores from erosion. Thus, right now, we are quite safe from rising sea levels, even though we can’t escape from extreme weather events.
15. We can also be affected by the effects of climate change on other countries. Our food supply comes from many countries. In some of these countries, extreme weather events could occur more frequently, like intense storms and prolonged droughts, with negative impact on their crop yields. While we are diversifying our food sources to reduce dependency on any single country, we will still be vulnerable to rising global food prices.
16 With globalization, the world’s citizens are now all on the same boat. This is especially so in climate change, where the effects will be felt globally, albeit with differing effects on different regions. It is therefore important for us to understand the effects of climate change beyond the confines of our national boundary. And together with global challenges, there will also be global opportunities. I am very glad that the organizers of this Convention have planned for a number of these global challenges and opportunities to be discussed during this Convention; topics such as Deforestation and Carbon Futures.
Fighting Climate Change
17. Singapore may be small, but as a responsible global citizen, Singapore must play its part in addressing climate change by reducing emissions. We have very limited access to renewable energy sources. To reduce our own emissions, we focus on using energy more efficiently and leverage on technology to minimise the use of fossil fuel. Already, we have switched our source of power generation, from fuel oil to natural gas. Burning fuel oil puts a lot more carbon in the air than natural gas does. Energy efficiency will be achieved in various sectors – households, buildings, transport and industry. We will need to do so in a manner that addresses our international competitiveness and cost of living considerations. In other words, we must reduce carbon emissions in a cost-effective way. But it will also require all of us to change our behaviour and practices.
18. At the same time, we are adapting to unavoidable climate change. We are studying just how vulnerable Singapore will be in the decades to come, so that we will be prepared for a warmer world. We need to study potential vulnerabilities and will take appropriate adaptation measures to cope with the long term physical impacts of climate change.
19. We also realise that Singapore emits only less than 0.2 per cent of the global carbon emissions. So we need a global solution to make a difference. We are working with counterparts from all over the world to secure a legally binding agreement to reduce or hopefully even halt dangerous climate change.
What you can do
20. The next generations will be faced with the impacts much more acutely if we don’t take action now. To cut carbon emissions, we need to conserve energy, be energy efficient and wherever possible, use renewable energy.
21. Kouzes and Posner, in their seminal work The Leadership Challenge, list 5 practices of exemplary leadership:
- Model the Way
- Inspire a Shared Vision
- Challenge the Process
- Enable others to act
- Encourage the Heart
22. Likewise, you can lead your peers and change their behaviour. You must earn the right and respect to lead through your direct individual involvement and action. You know your fellow students, speak their language and can enlist them in the same vision of sustainable development. You can try new innovative ways to achieve sustainable development. Organise activities which allow others to act. Continually encourage them to continue to act, and inspire others to act in their own ways to contribute to reduce carbon emissions.
23. Every action counts. Even when it feels like you are the only one acting on climate change, don’t give up. Over time, a trickle will become a flood. This is especially true for a long term issue like climate change. Take the example of plastic bags. Not many companies in Singapore require customers to pay for plastic bags. Ikea Singapore does. And all proceeds from its sale of plastic bags go to a Little Green Dot student research grant, administered with the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the Nature Society of Singapore, which allow students to conduct research on conservation which help to make Singapore green. . I am told by Teri Yeoh, the co-chair of this convention that NUS High, for example, has obtained a sum of $20,000 from this pool of money collected by Ikea to embark on four marine and freshwater conservation projects.
24. Climate change is a threat, but we can view it as a challenge to be met. To gear up to meet it, we are also presented with many opportunities. Thomas Friedman, in his book, mentioned an occasion in 2006 when he was invited by a student energy and environment group at Stanford to give a talk on campus about green innovation. The university’s president, John Hennessy gave the introduction, saying that confronting today’s energy climate challenge is the epitome of what John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, once described as “a series of opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.”
25. That is also the way you should view climate change – as a wellspring of opportunities. Indeed, Singapore is already tapping into these opportunities and though the National Research Foundation, has invested heavily in clean energy research. The latest initiative is the Energy National Innovation Challenge which will allocate up to $300 million to fund research on energy solutions. We also have established research facilities like the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore, Tropical Marine Science Institute and Energy Studies Institute at NUS, as well as the Earth Observatory of Singapore, Energy Research Institute and Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences elsewhere in Singapore.
26. Opportunities for industry also abound in fields you could be a part of one day. Singapore is a living laboratory to test new technologies, and also to test new business models to accelerate the deployment of exportable low-emission technologies. Two government agencies, the Energy Market Authority and the Land Transport Authority, head a taskforce to test-bed electric vehicles. The Energy Market Authority also chairs an Intelligent Energy Systems Taskforce which is looking into possible urban solutions, to deploy electric vehicles and smart grids.
27. Our companies such as Keppel are tapping into the China market through the development of the Tianjin Eco-city and the Knowledge City in Guangzhou. Our single largest investment to date, the solar manufacturing plant by the Renewable Energy Corporation from Norway, taps on our technology and engineering expertise. Companies that tap on the opportunities will create new value for themselves, and more jobs in new growth areas.
28. Addressing climate change can bring about economic opportunities, in existing industries, energy efficiency efforts reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and cut energy costs for companies. They also bring opportunities in the form of new industries – such as solar and wind energy research in Singapore, even though we have little wind resource here. And the opportunities are not in technology areas alone; they are also to be found in financing, trading, insurance and other areas as well.
29. You’ve heard me speak about the many new challenges and opportunities associated with climate change, which various Singapore government agencies have been addressing for years. The scale of work led the National Climate Change Secretariat or NCCS to be set up, to coordinate policies on climate change across government agencies in a holistic manner.
30 Our Prime Minister signaled its importance when he placed the NCCS under his office, and appointed Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean to advise on climate change policies. It doesn’t stop there; the NCCS reaches out to businesses, academia and youth too.
31. I am privileged to be part of this Secretariat, and at the same time, humbled; Climate change is one of the most difficult challenges facing Singapore and indeed, the global community. Despite the size of this challenge, it brings with it many opportunities.
32. You can play a significant role to meet the challenge. In doing so, some of you may even find an exciting and fulfilling career in climate change, whether you are science and technology oriented or economics and business inclined.
33. We will need ideas for innovation while considering how our economy might be affected, by modifying the way we live, work and play to reduce our energy emissions. I believe we can and must succeed, in balancing our fight against climate change, with ensuring a high standard of living with good jobs for all. Singapore has always taken on a balanced approach to growth and sustainability and we have been reaping the fruits of our on-going efforts as a reference site for other countries and cities. Only by us working together, can we have a chance of success.
34. The NCCS and agencies will engage the general public, companies and academia to drive actions in Singapore. I hope you will keep up to date with the news on climate change, the science that underlies the trends and consider the ways in which you can play a part --- to protect our planet and our common future.
35. Thank you.