Paris Agreement in Jeopardy? A Summary of CNA’s Carbon Conundrum

By Adrian Pang, Paia Consulting Pte Ltd

Channel News Asia’s documentary series earlier this month zoomed in on an impending disaster that is already set in motion – climate change or more accurately, anthropogenic climate change. The documentary explored the world’s profound reliance on carbon-intensive energy resources but highlighted some progress made in moving away from the self-destructing carbon addiction to provide a glimmer of hope of what could and should be done in the limited time to restore nature’s equilibrium. In the process, the documentary took mainly a Singapore-centric view complemented by international events and perspectives on the dire consequences of climate change and on finding solutions.

This piece provides a summary of the key messages conveyed by the documentary. The content follows the narrative of the documentary. First, it highlights the root cause of climate change: our addiction to fossil fuels that resulted in the dire situation and consequences regarding carbon emissions the world finds itself in. The next part of the summary presents provides a more optimistic outlook to the future with the developments of potential solutions in renewable energies as well as the simple yet complicated gesture to give agency back to nature to recover. First, the documentary reiterated the existence of potential solutions in the form of solar energy and green hydrogen. In Singapore, these potential solutions are undergoing consistent and significant development and testing. Thus, the most pressing issues is not about finding solutions but rather our willingness – government and corporations’ willingness to invest in these long-term solutions. Then, the documentary highlighted the abilities and importance of nature to regenerate itself and for us humans to coexist harmoniously with, if not live by laws of nature. The piece concludes on a note of caution that now is the time the world should drastically cut carbon emissions before climate change escalates to a point of no return very soon.

Carbon Junkies and the Consequences

Sequestered carbon from millennia of natural lifecycles of living beings that were formed into fossil fuels (coals, oil, natural gas, etc.) was always a natural process and fossil fuels were meant to be stored deep underground. However, this process was disrupted ever since the industrial revolution ushered in a new age of human progress that sees the stripping of Mother Nature’s resources as key to societal development. Human’s unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels for energy is the quintessence of this problem. As humans continue to pride ourselves on the technological advancements made in the past couple of centuries, we are ironically and rather stubborn sticking with carbon-packed resources to power our technological innovations and ingenuities. We have never moved on from fossil fuels as our primary energy sources. In fact, we fell deeper into the addiction problem to keep economies of oil-producing countries and financial markets well-oiled (pun-intended). Earth’s atmosphere was meant to be the protection but humans decided it is in their best interests to burn fossil fuels in the name of progress, thereby causing untold stress to this planet’s immune system that reduces harmful greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. And burn we did for close to 300 years. In the process, we re-released inconceivable amount of carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere.

In November 2016, the global community seemingly put aside their differences and set the world on an era defining path that was unimaginable just decades ago. 189 countries, even the reclusive hermit kingdom of North Korea, ratified or acceded to the Paris Agreement to begin intense carbon reduction to keep global temperatures in the 21st century to well below 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels as well as to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degree Celsius. The world committed to embark on several grand steps towards this common mission. First, carbon emissions and temperature rise should peak by 2020. Then, emissions should be halved by 2030 and the world needs to be completely decarbonised by 2050. Alas, the world now finds itself slowly creeping back to square one as the euphoria waned. The 1.5-degree Celsius targets based on current data are unreachable. Carbon emissions worldwide continue to rise. Countries’ support for this once hopeful – an understatement, milestone that showcased the best of humanity are being challenged at its core as individual economic interests supersede what needs to be done. The dwindling commitment is further exacerbated by the withdrawal of the United States, the biggest economy and biggest emitter in the world. Worst, the Trump administration ramped up fossil fuel production for their national economic interests. Ultimately, the world continues to find itself losing time faltering on significant efforts to protect and save itself from the dire consequences of climate change.

While climate change does indeed spare no-one, smaller nations, especially island nations are already bearing the full brunt of human’s inactions. The documentary went to Tuvalu, one of the smallest nations in the world located in the South Pacific between Hawaii and Australia. It showcased the plights of the country sinking fast beneath the sea to highlight the devastating effects of rising sea levels – the rate of which is faster in the past few decades than the last few thousands of years. When compared to more industrialised nations, all 57 small islands developing states (SIDS) including  (The Economist, 2019). [1] Yet, these countries are on the forefront of the consequences caused largely by their much larger and mightier industrialised counterparts. In the case of Tuvalu, their commendable efforts to slow their home from sinking through various adaptation mechanisms are increasingly futile. The country’s prime minister even gave grave warnings that climate change adaptation and resilience are no longer viable for his county and other SIDS. The documentary then revealed coastal and archipelago nations are the next in line to suffer the consequences of climate change. For example, 2,000 Indonesian islands and 20% of Bangladesh would be submerged under water by 2030. It will not be long before New York City and Amsterdam – great industrialised cities would sink beneath the waves by 2100 if sea level rises 1.5m, as per the current pace of climate change.

Singapore will not be spared either. Singapore is on course to lose of land to rising sea levels at the current trajectory according to the documentary. This problem is further compounded by the emergence of the fast emerging arctic sea route from melting ice caps, in which the new trade route is 33% shorter than the current one that has for so long made Singapore one of the trade centres of the world. This imminent new trade route would threaten the displacement of Singapore as a global commercial and trading hub, reducing the country’s competitiveness and even relevance in the global economy in the not too distant future. Singapore’s government has pledged SGD 100 billion to increase the country’s resilience to rising sea levels. Raising tidal gates, dykes and reservoirs, building the new Changi airport terminal more than 5m above sea levels and polders to reclaim land below sea levels are some of the measures taken. Even so, the pace that sea level is rising, and climate change worsening is gradually prompting the conversation in Singapore to shift ns much like the aforementioned sentiments by Tuvalu’s prime minister.

Stemming the Tide through Long-Term Solutions

The best solutions are none other than those that address the issue at its core, reducing carbon emissions within its own shores while hoping the rest of the world continue to play their parts. While existing steps to reduce carbon emissions would incur significant costs in the near future, the potential long-term impacts and values far outweigh the initial costs. short, the climate driven sphere has the highest job and business opportunities while the current linear economic business models destroy value and will slowly but surely be phased out. However, the pace of it happening is still a key factor in preserving the sanctity of Mother Nature and the climate. In view of these potentials while being mindful of the limited time before climate change is worsened beyond reparation, Singapore is taking bold but necessary steps to address the climate risks dawning upon our home. The main solutions covered by the documentary focus predominantly on technological innovations and Mother Nature herself.

i. Transition to Renewable Energies: Solar Power and Green Hydrogen in Focus

The most direct and logical steps to reduce carbon emissions is to generate electricity and energy through low carbon renewables. In short, reduce or even eliminate fossil fuels from the energy equation. This is the most obvious way forward because technologies are already in place and have proven capacities to replace fossil fuels as the biggest energy generator. . This technology will only get better with more investments and refinements in the future. Several innovations in Singapore can attest to the immense potential of the PV systems and the even higher ceiling of what this technology can achieve.

a. Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) Systems

Source: (SERIS, n.d.)

In a building design and architectural sphere, the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS) and the School of Design and Environment at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have jointly designed, built, and are managing, refining and improving on the concept of BIPV where solar panels are fitted to the façade of a building to achieve the higher generation of solar generated electricity to become an energy self-sufficient and zero carbon emitting infrastructure. So unlike solar panels that are placed on rooftops, the solar panels are integral to the infrastructure, for example as and facades. Moreover, additional electricity generated can be fed back to the major electricity grid or be stored in battery for future use. SERIS stated that there are some 160,000 buildings that have the capacity to install sizeable BIPV systems far larger than the current testbed. In short, there is huge potential and benefits if Singapore decides to venture down this path.

b. Floating PV Systems

Elsewhere, the government’s Economic Development Board (EDB) and the Public Utilities Board (PUB) have also collaborated on taking PV systems to the next level. The collaboration aims to evaluate the performance of different solar systems and their impacts on the environment. As a result, the joint venture has produced largest floating solar panels testbed with 10PV systems across 1 hectare on water currently in the world according to the documentary. In fact, this trial has generated better results than expected as it was found that the cooling nature of water enables the PV to be more efficient. The floating PV systems generated 5% to 15% higher electricity than typical rooftop systems as well as possessing capacities to power 200-odd 4-rooms HDB flats per year, all the while having minimal environmental impacts. With such positive outcomes from the testbed, both EDB and PUB have targeted to introduce floating solar projects in the Bedok reservoir and Lower Seletar reservoir by mid-2020. Furthermore, the joint venture wants to introduce even larger scale floating PV systems 50 times the size and capacity of the existing testbed that can generate 6,000 MWh of electricity by 2021. This target is set with the goal of ramping up 2-Gigawatt Peak solar capacity that can power 350,000 households or 4% of total electricity demand in Singapore daily by 2030.

c. Commercial Leadership & Intergovernmental Cooperation

Sunseap Group, one of the largest renewables and solar energy companies in Singapore has also aggressively attempt to push and drive Singapore and Southeast Asia to adopt renewable solar energy to generate electricity. The documentary highlighted Sunseap’s success story in the Ninh Thuan province in Vietnam on the positive environmental as well as social and economic impacts of solar PV systems. Sunseap Group has installed 449,880 PV modules in the province that can generate 20 million kWh of electricity to power 100,000 households every month. This is a significant development for one of the least developed regions in the country. The establishment of the PV farm has created positive social impacts such as providing better infrastructure and paved new roads for the local communities to connect with the urban and peri-urban areas. Economically, this project has created new jobs for the community. 2,000 employees were hired for the construction of the farms and 35 permanent positions were created after construction completion. This is one of many indications of Sunseap’s ability to be a leading figure in the development of the renewable energy sector in Southeast Asia or ASEAN region. As per Frank Phuan, CEO of Sunseap Group, he used the examples of the infrastructures in place in Malaysia and Singapore to upscale PV systems between the Johor Straits to accentuate on the fact that it is political will – whether ASEAN countries are willing to cooperate in this sphere to create a shared “ASEAN power grid” that balances countries with in the region with rich renewable energy resources against parts of the region that have high energy demands, that would determines the growth of renewables in this region. He added that the technicalities are no longer a barrier to prevent ASEAN countries from taking a huge leap towards transitioning to renewable energy.

d. Green Hydrogen

Amongst the more popular renewable energy sources like wind and solar, one source, one element has been under the radar and perhaps in the shadow of the former two counterparts – hydrogen. As the most abundant element in the whole of the universe, hydrogen also possesses the potential to become a clean and efficient alternative to fossil fuels. The only complication from venturing headfirst into using hydrogen as fuel source is its highly combustible nature. Moreover, the storage of hydrogen in conventional high-pressure tanks is not the most logistically and environmentally efficient manner to attain hydrogen if we consider the transportation of these heavy tanks. Fortunately, the Tohoku University in Japan is developing a new technology in the form of metal hydrides. Metal hydrides are metals which have been bonded to hydrogen to form a new compound. This compound, at the current stage of research and development are pointing towards the elimination of the conventional method of storing hydrogen in high-pressure tanks as it exists in metallic powder forms. But more research is required as the process of retrieving energy from the powdered metal hydrides requires high energy itself to heat and activate the compound.

Back in Singapore, a more basic form of metal hydrides system is undergoing testing. The testbed is also showing positive results. Instead of storing metal hydrides in powdered form, hydrogen is stored in a metal hydride tank using the same concept of binding hydrogen with metals. When electricity is needed, hydrogen is released from the tank and passed through fuel cells. Prior to storage, hydrogen is attained by breaking down water in a separate compartment in the testbed. Overall, the energy required for the entire generation process, from breaking down water to releasing hydrogen from the metal hydride tank only used electricity generated by solar panels. As a result, the Singapore Power Training Institute is the first zero emission building that is powered fully off the grid by green hydrogen in ASEAN region.

ii. Restoring Nature

It is undeniable that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is grim and disruptive on all fronts. However, environmental lessons while secondary to public health, can be taken from this challenging time. The pandemic shows Mother Nature’s ability to regenerate herself over the short period of time when human activities almost came to a virtual standstill. Air pollution levels decreased quite significantly, rivers became clean and clear again and the air fresher. This is an indication that humans do not actually need to take draconian measures to make changes possible. Rather we can take modest but nonetheless significant steps to eventually phase out things that are environmental detrimental like excessive carbon while allowing the Earth to heal. Nature has a strong will and has shown time and again its ability to restore itself – think Chernobyl and the nature that reclaimed the abandoned city in just a few decades. Therefore, the message from the documentary is to give agency back to nature to do what it does best, to recover and regenerate itself. In particular, restoring plants and their habitats should be a priority in major efforts to help nature to recover because plants are nature’s front liners against rising carbon dioxide level. The documentary focuses on mangrove trees as exceptional carbon scrubbers. This plant species can sequester 3 to 5 times as much carbon as land-based jungles. Thus, experts are studying closely on ways to preserve, conserve and cultivate new habitats in historically alien environments in other parts of the world. Even so, the bottom line remains – preserve and plant more trees.

In so doing, nature’s recovery and flourishment will only further benefit human’s health. It is scientifically proven that the human biology is wired to sync harmoniously with nature. The practice of shinrin-yoku or forest bath in Japan shows how human’s immersion in nature can have healing effects on the mind and body. Therefore, it is a ‘kill two birds with one stone” scenario whereby a thriving nature benefit both humans and Earth. Shifting the focus back to Singapore, it is unsurprising that this belief in nature’s healing abilities has led to the restoration of freshwater wetland in Singapore’s Botanical garden. As a result, it not only restores habitats but also act as a potential water reservoir that redirects flood water from urban areas to the area to make this city state more flood resilient. In summary, we should strive to let nature reclaim its equilibrium and us humans should coexist peacefully with, if not live harmoniously in nature.

No Time for Caution and Complacency

Climate scientist assistant professor Angel Hsu of the Yale-NUS College summarised best the reason climate change is described as the “super-wicked problem”. One, time is running out and relatively little has been achieved. Next, many people currently entrusted to solve climate change are ironically people who are causing it due to their other interests and their questionable practices in the process, best demonstrated by how these people fly extensively to attend meetings to combat climate change. Third, there is no central authority in the fight against climate change. As a result, every country prioritises their own interests before the common necessity to fix the climate and environment. Finally, and most damning of all, the persisting paradigm that climate change is a problem for the future. In reality, there is no time for caution and complacency. Carbon dioxide must begin declining this year or the world risks an irreversible disaster. Systemic changes are needed where business leaders and governments pool together resources and expertise to deal with this common enemy. We are one species after all.

While Singapore has taken good strides to address climate change issues at home, we need to be conscious that there are still other areas that could be done better. For example, the country could accelerate the transformation of public transportation system. Electrifying public buses and increasing bicycle lanes should be fairly easy to be implemented in an enclosed and well organised country like Singapore. Shenzhen, which is roughly the same economic size as Singapore has electrified all their public buses in 5 years, Singapore can surely do better than setting this target to be achieved by 2040 (He, 2018). Therefore, we are only at the prelude of the fight against climate change and the climax will arrive quicker than ever. If we do not take significant actions, the crescendo [2] of the disaster will likely drown out any hopeful progress. And climate disaster will happen more as a caesura [3] to the end of human existence than a diminuendo [4] like most lifecycles.

[1] Singapore’s percentage of world GDP was 0.42% in 2017; total contribution to global emissions was 0.11% in 2017; Singapore’s population is equivalent to 0.08% of the total world population ( (theGlobalEconomy.com, n.d.; Tan, 2019; worldometer, n.d.)

[2] In classical music tradition – gradually getting louder.

[3] In classical music tradition – a grand pause or dramatic break.

[4] In classical music tradition – gradually getting softer.

References
Carbon Conundrum. 2020. [Film] Singapore: Channel News Asia,.

He, H., 2018. Shenzhen surpasses US$338 billion GDP mark in 2017, beats Hong Kong and Singapore’s growth. [Online] 
Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/economy/article/2128310/shenzhen-88-cent-hi-tech-growth-roll-hit-y2tr-2017
[Accessed 29 April 2020].

SERIS, S. E. R. I. o. S., n.d. [Online] 
Available at: https://bipv.sg/
[Accessed 29 April 2020].

The Economist, 2019. Island states have had an outsized influenced on climate policy. [Online] 
Available at: https://www.economist.com/international/2019/09/19/island-states-have-had-an-outsized-influence-on-climate-policy
[Accessed 29 April 2020].

theGlobalEconomy.com, n.d. Singapore: Percent of world GDP. [Online] 
Available at: https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/Singapore/gdp_share/
[Accessed 11 May 2020].

worldometer, n.d. Singapore Population. [Online] 
Available at: https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/singapore-population/
[Accessed 11 May 2020].