First water, now energy as Singapore's key challenge for the next 50 years: Chan Chun Sing
SINGAPORE: After addressing the issue of meeting Singapore’s water needs for the past 50 years, meeting the country's energy needs sustainably will be the country's primary challenge for the next five decades, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing.
Mr Chan was speaking on CNA's The Climate Conversations podcast.
“When we first became independent, our number one priority was to get enough water for ourselves. And over time, I think our water needs have also increased. Now, today we have pretty much gotten the technology to purify water, to recycle water and so forth. But that has just converted the dependence on external water supply to one of external energy supply,” said Mr Chan.
“So I've always said that if water has been the challenge for the last 50 years, energy will be our challenge for the next 50 years.”
Mr Chan was responding to a question from CNA Digital chief editor Jaime Ho, who had asked what Singapore's "energy reset" as defined by the Government would entail, and what the nation's energy transition would look like.
Mr Chan reiterated Singapore's challenges as an alternative energy disadvantaged nation, with limited access to renewable sources of energy.
“The only renewable that we have is, perhaps, solar, and we have done the calculation, even if we cover every inch of our land area and sea area with solar panels, we will still not be able to generate sufficient renewable energy for our survival, based on the current technology,” he said.
As such, Singapore needs to continue finding more efficient ways to reduce its demand for energy, said Mr Chan.
A CONSTANT CHURN
As part of efforts to tackle climate change, Singapore’s target is to halve its 2030 peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and to achieve net zero emissions "as soon as viable" in the second half of the century.
READ: Singapore targets to halve peak emissions by 2050, achieve net zero emissions 'as soon as viable' in second half of century
Responding to a question on what Singapore's energy mix could could look like by 2050, Mr Chan said there will be a need to increase the proportion of renewable energy that is part of Singapore’s energy mix.
“We hope that we will be able to up our proportion of renewable energy, and that depends on a few factors,” he explained.
While Singapore has deployed solar panels across the island, it is still insufficient and there needs to be a “breakthrough” in current solar panel technology to allow more energy to be generated, said Mr Chan.
Other solutions include bringing in clean energy from alternative sources, including from potentially as far away as Australia, Mr Chan noted.
PETROCHEMICAL INDUSTRY TRANSFORMATION
In light of global trends towards decarbonisation and moves away from fossil-fuel intensive industries such as petrochemicals, Mr Chan was asked if there would be longer-term moves in Singapore to lower the country's dependence on the sector.
Mr Chan said that the oil majors located in Singapore had started to make the transition towards sustainability some time ago.
“Even before this current word ‘sustainability’ became fashionable in Singapore, that transition ... has already started many years ago. If we are looking at the oil majors that are present in Singapore, they have already started some of the transition - even before the Paris treaty came about,” said Mr Chan, referring to the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Mr Chan also spoke about jobs in the sector.
Shell Singapore said in November last year that it plans to repurpose its core business and halve its crude processing capacity at its Pulau Bukom oil refinery, as part of an overhaul in its journey towards a low-carbon future.
As part of the transition, Shell would cut 500 jobs by the end of 2023 at the Pulau Bukom site, which now employs 1,300 staff, a Shell spokesperson told CNA at the time.
In response to a question on his concerns regarding such developments in the sector, Mr Chan said that the process of the Government creating jobs for Singaporeans needs to be an ongoing one.
“If we look at the economy - including the petrochemical industry - there will be a constant churn. And because Singapore is not the cheapest place to put all your production here, they will always concentrate the highest value-add production in Singapore, because our wages are higher than the rest. So there will always be a churn whereby some of the people with lower wages might be displaced,” added Mr Chan.
“But we constantly seek to create better jobs for our people at the higher ranges of the wage ladder, and that must be an ongoing process for us.”
When asked about the jobs available in the green economy, Mr Chan noted that it was not about defining what jobs would constitute clean jobs, but more of making each job a cleaner one over time.
"We want every job to be a cleaner job over time. That means the same production - whether is it pet chems (petrochemicals), whether is it semi-con (semi-conductors, whether is it biomedical - we want every (one) of our products and processes to be greener, as we go along," he said.
"And we want our companies and workers to be able to embrace the new technologies to produce products that are cleaner and greener.
In addition, new growth opportunities can lead to new jobs in the green industry, noted Mr Chan.
"We won't put a target to say that we want 'X' number of green jobs because actually our target is every job can become a greener job. And there are many more green jobs that today don't yet exist but can come about. And if we have the right skills and the right capabilities in our companies, we will be able to seize those opportunities against the global competition," he added.
A QUESTION OF MAGNITUDE
Mr Chan also responded to questions on Singapore’s carbon tax.
He agreed that while the carbon tax could be the most “efficient and fair way” to transit to a greener economy, there needs to be a “clear, transparent and fair” carbon pricing across the board, including internationally.
“We all know that Singapore is just a tiny fraction of the global economy. And so while we want to price the carbon externalities right, we actually need to move in tandem with the rest of the world,” he explained.
“In the rest of the world, there are many countries with different practices in terms of their carbon pricing. Some of them have higher carbon prices, but they have all kinds of offsets which means that the effective carbon price is not as high as they claim it to be, then that causes all kinds of distortion to people's investment decisions and production decisions.”
The hope would be for the world to come together and embrace a common carbon price, so that the “externalities” are shared, said Mr Chan.
“Having said that, we all know how difficult it is for the whole world to come and agree on a common carbon price, or even agree on a common mechanism to price carbon,” he said.
Announced at Budget 2018, Singapore's carbon tax rate has been set at S$5 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions from 2019 to 2023. The Government said then that this would be increased to between S$10 and S$15 per tonne by 2030.
There have been a number of calls from Members of Parliament for Singapore to raise the carbon tax, most recently during a wide-ranging parliamentary debate in February.
This debate followed a motion tabled by members of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Sustainability and the Environment to speak on climate change and its impact on Singapore.
Speaking at the unveiling of Budget 2021 in Parliament last month, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said Singapore would review the tax's "trajectory and level" , and reveal the outcome at next year's Budget.
Mr Chan also noted that all sectors would be impacted by an adjustment in the carbon tax, and the main question would be the magnitude of the impact.
“I don't think when we adjust the carbon price that only some sectors will be involved because I think all sectors will be involved (and) will be impacted in some way. The question is one of the magnitude, rather than whether they are or they are not impacted,” said Mr Chan.
As such, the Government will bear in mind various considerations and make sure that when it reviews the carbon price, it will fulfil its responsibility to future generations, but also take into account the impact on jobs and the cost of living for the current generations, he added.
READ: Budget 2021: Govt to review 'trajectory and level' of carbon tax; outcome at next year's Budget
Ultimately, the push for sustainability will come with trade-offs noted Mr Chan, but that does not mean that Singapore has not planned ahead.
“I think there will be some trade offs, but … in the usual spirit of Singapore and Singaporeans, we always try to have our cake and eat it, and try to have the best of both worlds,” explained Mr Chan, who was asked about the overall costs that societies will have to bear in the name of climate action.
“If we think back on our journey for the last 50 over years of nation building, in some sense, actually we have been ahead of the curve in having to pay this price.”
This has been demonstrated in how Singapore has accounted for nature in urban planning, and made sure buildings are energy efficient, among other measures, he added.
“I don't think it is entirely mutually exclusive to say that we want a higher quality of life, we want a greener life and yet at the same time we want to mitigate the cost of living,” Mr Chan said.
“All in all, I wouldn't be too pessimistic, to say that it is a binary option between one versus the other. The solutions are definitely not mutually exclusive, and we can, in the best of Singapore spirit, find ways that can combine the best of both worlds.”
Listen to the Mr Chan Chun Sing's full conversation with CNA's Jaime Ho in The Climate Conversations podcast: