Raising carbon tax, improving public sector’s sustainability standards among MPs’ proposals to tackle climate change
SINGAPORE: Increasing carbon tax, improving the public sector’s sustainability standards, as well as improving climate education were among the recommendations proposed by Members of Parliament (MPs) on Monday (Feb 1) to tackle climate change.
The suggestions were part of a wide-ranging debate involving MPs from both sides of the House, following a motion tabled by members of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Sustainability and the Environment to speak on climate change and its impact on Singapore.
The motion, titled accelerate and deepen efforts against climate change, was passed following amendments to its wording to acknowledge that "climate change is a global emergency and a threat to mankind”, as well as to note that the House would call upon the Government to work in partnership with the private sector, the people of Singapore, as well as civil society.
In his speech in Parliament, MP Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon), who chairs the GPC, noted that there were several reasons behind the move to table the motion.
For one, he noted that climate change is a “global crisis that strikes at the very foundation on how Singaporeans live”.
“We cannot hope to escape climate change through superior engineering and high-quality design. Globalisation means climate change will find a way to hit our livelihoods, our breadbaskets, and our peace,” Mr Ng added.
The motion was also brought before the House because it upholds Singapore’s reputation of fulfilling international commitments, explained Mr Ng, and to respond to voices that MPs have heard.
One of the suggestions offered by Mr Ng was to improve sustainability standards in the public service.
“As the largest employer and as one of the biggest business clients in Singapore, the Government can move the standard business practices of entire industries just by enhancing its sustainability standards,” he noted.
He explained that it is good that the public service is “taking the lead” in the environmental sustainability initiative, and that the Government is already looking at a sustainable framework for government procurement.
But Mr Ng said there is a need to ensure “higher standards” are robust.
This includes expanding life cycle costing to more categories of products, having government contracts measuring and setting standards for carbon footprints, as well as mandating each ministry to publish a yearly sustainability report, he said.
THE NEED FOR FORESTS
A number of MPs spoke about the need to preserve forests in Singapore.
MP Christopher de Souza (PAP-Holland-Bukit Timah) said Singapore needs to become a biophilic country that views its forests as “assets” to not only protect but to grow and invest in for its biodiversity value.
He noted that Dover Forest, Clementi Forest and the Rail Corridor - which are all within his constituency - had produced “great biodiversity value” to residents, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I might note that when the news that Dover Forest might be developed to build BTO flats, I received many emails, dozens and dozens of emails and Facebook messages and WhatsApp (messages), and in person-to-person conversation at MPS (Meet-The-People sessions), from residents expressing their concern at the loss of the forest,” he said.
“My hope is to transform Ulu Pandan into a nature-surplus neighbourhood. As we intensify the use of our land to fit our growing population, it is similarly important to continue providing access to nature for our residents so as to counter a nature deficit.”
MP Dennis Tan (WP-Hougang), who introduced the amendments on behalf of the Workers’ Party, noted that forested spaces play a “critical role” in Singapore’s response to climate change as they act as carbon sinks and also help to cool the urban environment.
“Of recent interest has been the zoning of two secondary forests - Clementi Forest and Dover Forest - for residential development. The benefits of developing housing are obvious, and these benefits are ones that we should not write off in principle. But we must also commit to seriously assessing the cost of clearing our natural capital,” he said.
“While it may be tempting to think of planting new trees elsewhere to mitigate these losses, we must remember that we are talking about the loss of benefits derived from centuries if not millennia of carbon accumulation and decades of forest regrowth, which make it possible for forests to carry out the functions I mentioned earlier.
“This natural heritage is one that we relinquish at our peril.”
Mr Tan proposed a number of steps to better plan Singapore’s land use. This includes tracing and publishing changes in land use areas on a biennial basis, re-assessing plans for existing forested areas and providing more secondary forests with greater protection under the law.
In his speech, Mr Tan also called for the declaration of a “climate emergency” and for the term to be introduced to the motion.
Noting that climate change can bring “significant challenges” for Singapore, he said that declaring a climate emergency on top of the original motion would send a “clear signal” to Singaporeans and the world that it is committed to seriously addressing one of the most long-term threats the world faces in the 21st century.
Mr Tan’s suggestion was later amended by MP Cheryl Chan (PAP-Fengshan) to state “that climate change is a global emergency and a threat to mankind”.
“Today Singapore makes up 0.1 per cent of global emissions annually, hence declaring a climate emergency in Singapore alone is insufficient,” she said.
“Singapore has done a fair amount to balance our growth, development and environmental protection. But actions against climate change must take place in Singapore and beyond our shores.”
In response, Mr Tan said: "At first glance, I have a concern that the amendment pertaining to the words that climate change is a global emergency seems to have de-emphasised the importance of climate change in Singapore.
"But I think I do recall that Ms Chan did mention something along the lines of 'not just in Singapore'. So I believe we are in agreement that as many of our members of the House today have expressed concern that climate change - how it affects Singapore, how it affects the world and the efforts that all of us locally and all around the world need to make."
MP Nadia Samdin (PAP-Ang Mo Kio) noted that during focus group discussions run by the Young PAP, participants had expressed hopes that climate change and sustainability could be better weaved into the national curriculum.
“While geography and science subjects do touch on these topics, the teaching can be piecemeal, with little being said about the social justice element and economic impact of climate change in subjects such as social studies or character and citizenship education,” she explained.
“Not all our students are equally equipped to discuss these issues, and they continue to see people around them leading highly unsustainable lifestyles despite what they learn in textbooks.”
As such, Ms Samdin asked if the Government would consider reviewing the current curriculum with sustainability as one of the “core pillars of educational outcomes”, as well as building responsible habits through a “holistic approach” so that it goes beyond a subject to a lifestyle.
‘DISPROPORTIONATE’ EFFECT ON THOSE OF LESSER MEANS
People with lesser means will bear the effects of climate change “disproportionately”, said MP Leon Perera (WP-Aljunied), such as those with fewer resources to move to a new home, to air-condition their homes or to filter their air and afford medical treatment.
In addition, some geographical areas are more vulnerable.
“In responding to the climate crisis, our responses have to take into account this fact of unequal impacts and burdens,” said Mr Perera.
He proposed progressive policies, including entrenching innovations like anti-solar paint, especially for Housing and Development Board (HDB) rental blocks and HDB blocks for lower-income constituents.
The incremental revenues from a higher carbon tax could become progressively-tiered green dividends paid to Singaporeans of lesser means, to cushion the impact of the carbon tax on the cost of living.
Mr Perera also suggested that the Government review the amount of land devoted to golf courses, as he pointed out that golf clubs take up 1,500ha, or roughly 2 per cent of Singapore’s land area.
Singapore’s current carbon tax of S$5 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions is levied only on “key facilities” whose annual emissions are more than 25,000 tCO2e (metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent), said MP Don Wee (PAP-Chua Chu Kang).
These facilities contribute to 80 per cent of Singapore’s emissions, he noted.
Furthermore, there is a “huge gap” between the Government’s goal of raising the tax to between S$10 and S$15 by 2030 and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change’s recommendation of at least USS$135 (S$179.76), he said.
As such, Mr Wee proposed a gradual rise in Singapore’s carbon tax, with the following timeline: Between S$30 and S$35 by 2030, between S$50 and S$90 by 2035 and between S$75 and S$120 by 2040.
These increases should be announced with a long period of advance notice, he added, to give businesses time to adapt and plan.
In addition, the Government should provide reassurance that each review of the carbon tax will account for a “matrix of socio-economic factors”, including gross domestic product (GDP) impact projections, cost of living and employment, he said.
The revenue from the carbon tax can be used to expand funding for energy efficiency and green financing schemes, and efficiency grants can be extended to other industries including transportation and agriculture, Mr Wee added.
Start-ups and joint ventures specialising in emerging green technologies and services could receive tax exemptions and the Government should incentivise green financing initiatives by financial institutions, he said.
In his speech, MP Jamus Lim (WP-Sengkang) noted that Singapore’s current carbon tax was an “important first step”, but that it has been too “tentative”. “This figure falls far below recommended amounts by just about every credible source,” he added.
At the same time, he noted that there are also “attractive alternatives” to the carbon tax in the form of a “cap-and-trade system”.
Such a system would cap the total amount of emissions to a target, before subsequently allowing the trading of each firm’s allocated emissions amount.
“The idea behind this is straightforward - firms that are better at reducing their carbon footprints stand to gain by selling their share to other, less-efficient firms. Meanwhile, those with less carbon-reduction capacity can obtain reprieve by purchasing offsets from these more-efficient firms,” said Dr Lim.
However, Dr Lim noted that cap-and-trade systems tend to "fall prey to uncertainty in terms of compliance costs".
"In a post-recession economic climate, where uncertainty over impending costs is especially pernicious for the functioning of business, it makes more sense to allow uncertainty to fall on the total emissions front," he said, adding that carbon taxes are less likely to be "gamed".
"The experience of countries that have sought to introduce quantity restrictions on pollutants is that they are difficult to ensure compliance," he said.
"In comparison, a carbon tax, based as it is on a price mechanism, is straightforward, easily observed and monitored, and hence more likely to be enforced successfully."
REFINING AND PETROCHEMICALS INDUSTRY ‘AN ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM’
MP Louis Chua (WP-Sengkang) pointed out that the updated emissions target that Singapore submitted to the UN in 2020 does not limit emissions growth beyond what was the country committed to in 2015.
Although he recognised the Government’s target of 33 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emission by 2050, half that of the 65 million tonnes for 2030, Mr Chua said that the target still falls short of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommendations to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
He noted that more than 110 countries, including the European Union, Japan and South Korea pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, and China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.
“Even as a small island-state, Singapore has always been daring in our vision for the future. Climate change should be no different. We can, should, and must do more,” he said.
Among Mr Chua’s suggestions was for Singapore to pivot away from the refining and petrochemical industry.
Describing the sector as an “elephant in the room” in discussions on climate change, Mr Chua noted that in 2017, about 75 per cent of Singapore’s industrial emissions were from the refining and petrochemical industry.
“There is, therefore, an urgent need to consider the role such industries will play in the Singapore economy of 2050 and beyond,” he said.
Key players in the industry have started to move towards cleaner energy sources, with Shell and BP setting “ambitious targets” of becoming a net-zero emissions company by 2050, said Mr Chua, who questioned if Singapore should continue to focus on the “old-economy industries of the past”.
“With oil majors pivoting away from fossil fuels, shouldn’t Singapore proactively engage these companies, to partner them on their journey to a net-zero future? How can we accelerate the restructuring of our economy to be better prepared for a low-carbon future, which is fast approaching?”
Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional quotes from Jamus Lim who advocated a carbon tax over a cap-and-trade system in his speech.