By Adrian Pang
Sustainability or ESG is progressing in Singapore. The recent transformation to the Ministry for Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) from the previous Ministry for the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) signalled a stronger intent and focus on progressing sustainability in the country. Minister Grace Fu recently expressed her excitement at Singapore’s potential in this realm.  She also spelled out some of the main focuses of MSE such as waste and resource management (circular economy and resource efficiency), renewable energies, digitalisation of processes and urban food security. Overall, she expects ample new job opportunities with more scientists, engineers, experts, and professionals needed to “fill in the gaps” created by growth of the sustainability sector . She also urged businesses to capitalise on the current economic situation to revisit and revise their business models and plans to induce resilience and sustainability. She encouraged private entities to look past benefits and costs of externalities for the common good. Essentially, it should be “sustainability in the business and not just a part of business”. While such development is encouraging, the fight against climate change is a responsibility that must be borne by everyone. This is because Singapore, a tiny island nation is already at the forefront of climate change. On this note, let us provide ourselves with a reality check on the severity of climate change with a look at what is already happening on Singapore’s shores. Climate change is more personal than we think.
Running out of Land and Shelter
The biggest threat to the survival and even existence of this low-lying tiny island nation is obviously the rising sea level. During PM Lee’s National Day Parade address in 2019, he issued grave warnings on the adverse effects of sea level rises to Singapore. He emphasised that the country needs to “treat climate change defences like it treats the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)”. This was visualised through a map of Singapore that highlighted the low-lying areas. Areas such as Changi, Jurong Island, Geylang, and Katong will submerge under water at this rate of rise. Even Bishan and Toa Payoh, situated at the heart of the country will be affected. While this is a projection, current climate data are showing it is fast becoming a reality. Scientists confirmed that the current sea level rise is the fastest in 6000 to 7000 years, with a 3.2mm annual increase in recent years. This rate translates to a 20cm to 30cm rise in 20 to 30 years . As a tropical country on the equator, the sea level rise can be a “double whammy” to Singapore. Ocean water is warmer on the equator where water molecules would expand further, leading to higher level rises. Secondly, water from melted ice caps tend to flow to the equator due to gravity, contributing to an even faster rise relative to many other parts of the world . We have already seen the vulnerabilities of low-lying Singapore. Recurring floods from 2010 to 2012 in the country’s central regions have incurred severe economic and business losses. Aggravating sea level rise, of which experts are predicting from 1m (conservatively) to 2.5m (a 1-in-20 risk scenario) would make Singapore more flood prone, unsafe, and even unliveable when reality sets in . This proves that climate change is a problem that needs to be addressed now and aggressively. Singapore has sound adaptation measures, such as building the new Changi airport terminal at 5m above sea level with dikes, flood gates and underground water and drainage systems, etc. However, it remains to be seen how these solutions will perform.
Drying Water Taps
As the planet continues to warm, multiple places around the world are already suffering from increasing and worsening events of drought. Singapore’s multiple avenues of water resources have ensured the country remains water secure for now. But as drought seasons become more severe, prolonged and frequent, Singapore’s water security is under threat too. This situation is compounded by the fact that Singapore has always been classified as a highly water stressed area according to many scientific and geographical sources such as the World Resources Institute (WRI) . Four of Singapore’s water sources are imported water, reservoirs, NEWater and desalinated sea water. The former two are at the mercy of the climate change and droughts, making them less reliable as climate condition degrades. That leaves Singapore to rely more on NEWater and desalinated sea water. However, both processes require on average 5 to 7 times more energy and incur higher costs compared to treating rainwater . In the case of NEWater, there needs to be existing water sources to be treated and recycled which is not exactly a viable solution in the long term if droughts happen more frequently. On the other hand, there is the problem of water quality with desalinated sea water. Warming climates have seen algae bloom occurring more frequently and aggressively in recent years. However, the declining water quality is not matched by the filter technologies and infrastructures in place to treat the water. This would result in lower efficiency of the water filtration and treating system, thus less and of lower quality of water treated for consumption.
Broken Food Chains
Climate change is also critical to our food chain. Once again, Singapore’s status as a land- and resource- scarce island nation means that we have to import more than 90% of our food. Aggravating droughts and rising sea levels will affect global food production. Closer to home, Singapore’s food producing neighbours like Indonesia and Thailand are already feeling the effects of these two critical climate risks . At the current trajectory, Singapore’s food chain would be severely affected from prices to quantity and quality, threatening the country’s food security. We have experienced such disruptions. In 2015, 55 fish farms in the Johor Straits lost about 600 tons of fish due to the problem of harmful algae blooms . The then Minister of Environment and Water Resource (now MSE) Vivian Balakrishnan warned that this occurrence is “likely to be a recurrent problem with global warming”.
In a gradual but even more catastrophic development, rising temperature and increase of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in the atmosphere are causing ocean water to become warmer and more acidic. As the ocean absorbs 90% of the heat in the atmosphere, the ocean too has warmed by 0.13 degree Celsius over the last 100 years . Such a small increment is already detrimental to the marine ecosystem, especially coral reefs where warmer water means they will take longer to grow and recover. The expected increase in temperature and cases of heatwaves across the world will only exacerbate the situation. Ocean acidity is the evil twin of ocean warming. Like its heat absorbing abilities, oceans also absorb a significant one third of the approximately 22 tons of daily GHG emissions. The increase in emissions would increase water acidity where it degrades and kills coral reefs. Together, these two phenomena would devastate the marine ecosystem as it breaks down the food chain from the very first level. Smaller species that rely on coral reefs for food and habitat will slowly dwindle, causing a chain reaction that leads to fewer food sources on our tables.
Climate Change Affects Everyone
The information above is not intended to be alarmist but as a reality check on how far behind we are in the fight against climate change. This is meant to be a reminder to ourselves of the sheer weight of responsibilities each of us has, not just governments and big corporates. There are already signs that our livelihoods will be adversely affected. Basic necessities for survival – shelter, food and water in the already resource-scarce Singapore will be threatened even more by climate change. Singapore, a climate leader on many fronts, has many adaptation solutions in place. However, to truly fix the climate, the country has to lead on mitigation solutions as well.
Therefore, as the world battles the “once in a generation crisis” that is the COVID-19 pandemic, we must not relax on our fight against climate change whose effects that can last for generations.