Commentary: As time runs out on the climate crisis, Singapore prepares to address the cost of adapting

Commentary: As time runs out on the climate crisis, Singapore prepares to address the cost of adapting

The threat of climate change is long term, the size of the investments concerned could be unprecedented and fundamental shifts in how the Government is structured may be needed.

A flooded street seen at the Supreme Court Lane after a heavy downpour
A flooded street seen at the Supreme Court Lane on Jan 23, 2017 after a heavy downpour. (File photo: TODAY/Ernest Chua)

SINGAPORE: The tone in Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli’s speech on Wednesday (Jul 17) was unmistakable.

In outlining ongoing extreme weather events worldwide, both closer to home and across Europe and Asia, Mr Masagos said that “time is running out” in the world’s collective ability to avert the calamity that will come if current trends persist.

Last year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the pinnacle of global scientific research on climate, projected with “high confidence” that global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052.

2030 is 11 years away.

The time has therefore come for clear-eyed assessments of what more must be done.

In the language of climate change, reducing carbon emissions, via policies aimed at renewables, energy efficiency, managing waste and the like, all have one aim in mind – mitigating projected increases in temperature, the concomitant sea level rises and frequency of extreme weather events.

These initiatives must continue with greater urgency, even for a country as small as Singapore, with minute contributions to global emissions.

In parallel, however, Mr Masagos’ emphasis on adaptation must also be taken as an opportunity to refocus on how we as a society must address the likelihood that the worst climate projections will slowly become reality. And in adapting to it, at what cost?

WHAT IS TO BE DONE IN ADAPTATION?

The Government has already put in place infrastructure initiatives such as ensuring that major projects such as the Tuas Port Terminal and Changi Airport Terminal 5 are built at higher levels above the sea. The Government will also further climate-proof its drainage system to the tune of S$400 million

With fully one third of the country now sitting at less than 5m above mean sea levels, Mr Masagos announced that more will be done to study how to protect the rest of Singapore.

As Singapore looks even further ahead, three key issues stand out as the Government seeks to undertake these, and more substantial adaptation measures.

Tuas Terminal Phase II
Artist impression of Tuas Port. (Courtesy: MPA)

First, the sheer long-term nature of the threat. Unlike other more unfortunate island states with far more immediate existential threats, Singapore does have the comfort of a slightly longer threat horizon. This, however, can be as much an incentive as a hindrance to immediate action.

As explained by Mr Masagos, for many measures, Singapore will need “to start implementing them now and continue over the next 30, 50 years or 100 years".

For this, the Government must obtain buy-in today for contemporary and long-running investments, funded by current and past generations, which only future generations will likely benefit from.

READ: Climate research centre to study how sea level rise could impact Singapore

Second, there is the size of the investments concerned. Here, Mr Masagos referenced the Netherlands, which already commits around 1 billion euros a year on flood protection and water supply. 

And there is also the United States, where Mr Masagos said as much as US$400 billion may need to be spent between now and 2040 to defend its substantial coastlines.

READ: Cutting carbon emissions is costly but refusing is costlier, a commentary

For small island nations, the high cost of adaptation is an even more acute problem. In the face of rising sea levels, unlike larger countries, we have no option of retreat. It is only in building and adapting. 

More specifically, as highlighted by the IPCC, the challenges are simply that with large up-front overhead costs, the cost of shoreline protection per capita can be substantially higher for a small island, as compared to a larger territory with a larger population.

singapore climate change
A worker uses a lawn mover to cut bushes next to the financial district in Singapore on June 2, 2014. (Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman)

The costs are therefore likely to be of an unprecedented scale for Singapore and Singaporeans.

Third, addressing the wide-ranging challenges of adaptation to climate change will require fundamental shifts in how governments structure themselves to better mainstream climate adaptation into overall urban planning.

In the case of Singapore, while the focus on water as a resource has rightfully been front and centre of past and ongoing Government efforts, an expanded whole-of-government approach to water may have to address not just its scarcity, but ironically, the impact that its over-abundance and unpredictability may have on our built environment.

READ: Beyond scarcity and security, does Singapore need a new water narrative? A commentary

In the famously low-lying and flood-prone Netherlands, one ministry – the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management – now oversees issues ranging from transport infrastructure, to the environment water management and climate adaptation.

WHAT ROLE FOR SINGAPOREANS?

Mr Masagos highlighted the role that Singaporeans can and must play in overcoming the challenges of climate change.

For example, he pointed to Singaporeans making climate-friendly choices when it comes to consumption patterns. Going forward, the Government will also convene Singaporeans to work together on the issue of recycling.

While laudable, these initiatives again centre on mitigation. Far more needs to be done to garner common understanding of the need to prepare for adaptation, and in particular the cost of doing so. 

For now, Singapore has been fortunate that discussions on climate change have not suffered from the suspicion, denial, politicisation and polarisation that characterises debate in many western countries.

Masagos at MEWR's 2019 Partners for the Environment forum
Environment Minister Masagos Zulkifli speaking at MEWR's 2019 Partners for the Environment forum. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

The reason is simply that in many of these countries, the cost of climate change mitigation (e.g. in shifting from more pollutive fossil fuels to cleaner renewable alternatives) has been inextricably linked to political questions of cost, economic restructuring, decline and job losses.

In Singapore, discussions on mitigation have been far simpler, focused as they are on the lower-hanging fruit of energy efficiency, recycling and waste reduction. As it stands, with first payments of Singapore's new carbon tax expected in 2020, it remains to be seen what impact it will have on Singaporean consumers.

Discussions on the cost and financing of climate adaptation, however, are inevitable and will sharpen.

So what can be done now?

As a start, there has to be acceptance that there are no easy nor painless answers to climate adaptation.

READ: Singapore, KL among major cities to face 'unprecedented' climate shifts by 2050

READ: Recycling makes you feel less guilty but doesn’t change how huge our plastic problem is, a commentary

For example, there are difficult discussions to be had on whether and how far past and current generations will have to bear the greater burden of financing the cost of adaptation for future generations of Singaporeans.

Relatedly, therefore, Singapore will do well to avoid the generational divide that often splits debate on climate change. Mobilising action for climate change must not be the sole domain of a younger, more activist generation.

Buy-in must involve all Singaporeans, particularly as the substantial cost and trade-offs to adaptation will ultimately have to be spread equitably between and within generations.

The climate challenge that confronts us is a crisis. Time indeed is running out, and all crises demand collective understanding first, before any meaningful action is possible.

Jaime Ho is Chief Editor at CNA Digital.

Source: CNA/sl

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