SINGAPORE: Pursuing economic growth and protecting the environment need not be mutually exclusive activities, according to Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing.
For Singapore, even though the issue of climate change poses challenges, there are opportunities too.
Speaking to CNA in an interview on Monday (Nov 11), Mr Chan was asked by presenter Dawn Tan if he thinks economic growth and environmental protection can co-exist.
“I don't think the two are mutually exclusive,” he replied, while adding that the gross domestic product (GDP) is just “one of the many yardsticks” Singapore uses to track development.
Apart from the recent announcement by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that S$100 billion could be needed to tackle the “50 to 100-year problem” of rising sea levels, Singapore has also been looking at the issue from a more current perspective.
READ: NDR 2019: It could cost S$100 billion or more to protect Singapore against rising sea levels, PM Lee says
READ: Critical for Singapore to send 'positive signal' to the world in next general election: Chan Chun Sing
Said Mr Chan: “For Singapore and MTI (Ministry of Trade and Industry) in particular, the issue is not about 50 years later. It is about now.”
Apart from the likes of manpower and land constraints, the carbon budget is one factor that is increasingly being considered when the Government chooses industries to develop.
“Being a small country with a finite carbon budget, we cannot just attract any industries that we want, regardless of how many jobs they might create or GDP that it will produce,” the minister explained.
Mr Chan cited the petrochemical sector as an example. Despite being “top of the class” globally, the sector still imposes a “certain demand” on the country’s carbon budget.
Another example is data centres that are high on energy consumption. Singapore’s strong infrastructure network and other advantages, such as being free of natural disasters, have attracted many companies to set up their data centres here, said Mr Chan.
“How many data centres can we attract here is not the issue. How many data centres can we afford to locate here is the issue,” he said.
“How can we build a new generation of data centres that are much more energy efficient? How can we build new generations of petrochemical plants that are much more environmentally friendly?”
Given its obligations under the Paris Treaty, Singapore has to continuously evolve its economy into one that is less carbon intensive.
This will have implications on industries and jobs, although challenges can also mean opportunities for Singapore.
“We see both challenges and opportunities even in this climate change story,” said Mr Chan. “In the next 50 years, if we can overturn our energy and carbon constraints then we can create many more new industries.”
NDR 2019: Climate change one of the 'gravest challenges facing mankind', impact on Singapore to worsen, says PM Lee
One area with “tremendous opportunities” is the redesigning of buildings to be much more energy efficient, especially given how Singapore and other parts of the region are big users of the air conditioning.
“If we can redesign our buildings – not just considering the upfront capital expenditure cost but the life-cycle cost of operating and maintaining that building – then that will create a brand (new) industry of how we can offer much more sustainable solutions not just for ourselves, but the whole world,” Mr Chan said.
“We are quietly optimistic that many of these things can and will come from Singapore and we can create new industries to help the rest of the world, or to offer solutions to the rest of the world,” he added.
“That will create new jobs for fellow Singaporeans in the next lap of our economic development.”
ON TRADE WAR, ASEAN AND RCEP
During the wide-ranging interview, Mr Chan was also asked for his take on other issues, including the ongoing US-China trade war and whether that has tested the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) ability to maintain its centrality.
He said one should not expect the trade spat between the two superpowers – which is a “multi-faceted challenge” – to be resolved in the short term. Adding to the complexity is how the tensions have gone beyond trade to rivalries in technology and other associated issues.
But Mr Chan added that he is “cheered” by recent talks for an interim trade deal.
“The important thing is that they are using that as a mechanism to build strategic trust … and if they can progressively build the strategic trust, they can widen the set of issues they can deal on. But without the strategic trust, it's very difficult to settle many of these issues.”
As ASEAN lies at the crossroad of the US and China’s geo-strategic and geo-economic interests, the challenge lies in how the bloc manages its relationship with both superpowers.
Mr Chan said: “Now it is not an exclusive relationship. It need not be because I think there's enough space for both to participate in the region's development, and for the region to welcome both of them and other countries like Japan and Europe.
“But the challenge is if the US-China relationship gets really turbulent and messy, then there is every chance that the countries in Southeast Asia will be caught.”
It is hence important for ASEAN to understand that it needs to come together as a “united and cohesive” regional grouping,” he added.
“Otherwise, we might be torn apart by the different forces pulling us in different directions and that is the ultimate test of ASEAN centrality – to be able to hold on our own.”
The recent negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a “good example” of the kind of value add that ASEAN can provide for the region and beyond, Mr Chan said.
READ: Negotiation outcome a major step forward for RCEP, India's position respected and understood: PM Lee
This is because ASEAN already has bilateral free trade agreements with each of the respective countries that are involved in the RCEP talks.
“Without ASEAN, it would be very difficult for some of the bilateral pairs to have their own free trade agreement. But by coming together with ASEAN, it provided a platform for these countries who otherwise would not have gotten together to have a free trade agreement.
“That is the kind of value-add that we can provide for the region when ASEAN is cohesive and united,” he said.
On India’s pull-out of the trade pact, Mr Chan said there will “obviously be some impact” given that without India, RCEP-15 now makes up about 29 per cent of global GDP.
If India had come on board, the original 16-nation trade pact would have accounted for about 32 per cent of global GDP.
He added that the remaining 15 RCEP member countries stand ready to work with India to overcome outstanding issues when the latter is ready to come on board.
Still, RCEP remains a “significant” trade pact. Apart from its market size, it is made up of a diverse range of economies, such as the 10-member ASEAN, China, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
“It is really about how different countries at different stages of development leveraging on their different comparative advantages, and yet be able to come together to form an integrated market,” Mr Chan told CNA.
“It tells people that you don't need or you don't always need to be exactly the same or almost the same in order to work together. Even countries at different levels of development can come together and leverage on each other's different strengths and weaknesses.”