Issue 123 | Oct-Dec 2020

A Change In The Air

The new NUS Centre for Nature-Based Climate Solutions is looking at novel responses to the tough problems of climate change.


Nature’s Steward

Prominent scientist Professor Koh Lian Pin (Science ’01) returned to Singapore this year to assume the appointment of Professor of Conservation Science, Technology and Policy at the NUS School of Biological Sciences. As the head of the newly-established Centre for Nature-Based Climate Solutions, he will lead efforts in growing competencies and evidence-based science to fight climate change.
It is difficult to imagine Singapore in pre-industrial times. Mangrove swamps, fishing villages, and tropical jungles might be all we can conjure up in our minds, given how modernity has almost completely swallowed up this past. Greenery is certainly a distinctive feature of Singapore, though one may attribute it to the careful work of landscaping. But more creative solutions than landscaping — ones that harness the power of nature itself — are on the way, with the establishment of the NUS Centre for Nature-Based Climate Solutions. Professor Koh Lian Pin (Science ’01), 43, recently returned to Singapore from the United States to lead this new Centre. 

The Centre, which aims to find ways of harnessing nature to handle the challenges of climate change, will be up and running by the end of the year. Prof Koh is only the sixth Singaporean to return home under the National Research Foundation’s Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme since its introduction in 2013. “What ultimately drew me to return was my desire to make a long-lasting difference and impact on the conservation of our natural environment in Singapore and the region,” says Prof Koh. His return comes at a pivotal time. “Fortunately, climate denialism and scepticism are much less of a problem now than 10 or 15 years ago, possibly because the impacts of climate change on both natural and human systems are so ubiquitous and visceral today,” he adds. “Also, I find that the government and corporate leadership in Singapore and the region are generally more enlightened and less influenced by anti-climate lobby groups than elsewhere.

“There is now a groundswell in Singapore to invest in more sustainable models of development, especially in the context of addressing climate change. This is perhaps one of the most critical challenges we will face as a nation.”
Prof Koh leading the charge against climate change on the frontlines.
The Centre’s mission is to produce policy-relevant science on nature-based climate solutions — in other words, better protecting and managing natural ecosystems to effectively deal with climate change. The five broad research areas the Centre focuses on are understanding impacts, identifying solutions, overcoming barriers, prioritising actions, and leveraging technology (see box below). 

One common theme across the different areas is carbon capture or sequestration. In May this year, the Global Carbon Project (GCP – a global organisation that supports policy debate and action to curb greenhouse gas emissions) reported an astonishing finding. It found that daily carbon dioxide emissions reached their peak decline on 7 April 2020 – something that could be attributed to the global lockdown due to COVID-19. However, although the amount of carbon dioxide emissions was 17 per cent less than the mean levels in 2019, it would not make a significant impact. Prof Koh notes that this is because the extended influence of carbon emissions lasts decades, not mere years. “Rather than be distracted by the COVID-19 crisis or bank our hopes and future on any green economic stimulus, my colleagues and I at the Centre will focus on our mission to produce the much-needed science to inform the development and implementation of long-term solutions to protect, restore, and better manage natural ecosystems for climate mitigation.” 

Every society will need to prioritise competing land uses by internalising and taking full account of the costs and benefits of decisions with regard to climate mitigation and adaptation.

Partnering Nature

A recently-published report highlights the importance of the work the Centre hopes to accomplish. Prof Koh and his team found that focusing on the reforestation of 121 million hectares of land to mitigate climate change in Southeast Asia is a theoretically viable option. This area would absorb carbon dioxide at a rate of 3.4 gigatonnes annually — one gigatonne is roughly equivalent to the weight of 10,000 US Navy aircraft carriers. However, the downside of this is that food security and the livelihood of local farmers would be threatened. “Every society will need to prioritise competing land uses by internalising and taking full account of the costs and benefits of decisions with regard to climate mitigation and adaptation,” says Prof Koh. The Centre’s work also considers practical matters such as protecting livelihoods, maintaining food security, and keeping the air and water supply clean.

Prof Koh stresses that nature can be a great contributor in achieving ambitious long-term goals. He adds that nature has already done the “research and development, proof of concept, and even implementation at scale of carbon capture.” Over hundreds of millions of years of evolution, trees and other similar organisms have developed the ability to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to biomass through photosynthesis. Rainforests, mangroves, and other natural vegetation are the products of that process.

Steering Sustainability

Researchers at the Centre will draw upon recent significant advances in climate science, which include working models that provide a glimpse into possible futures. Under Prof Koh’s leadership, the Centre will build on past work to better advise government and business leaders on the potential benefits and limitations of nature-based climate change solutions. 

In addition, the Centre is developing evidence-based approaches to prioritise the greatest return on investments. This involves getting the private sector involved in exploring potential new economic opportunities. Of course, these might involve human-engineered carbon capture and storage technologies, such as that used by the Bill Gates-funded company Carbon Engineering that made the news last year. The work of just one of these facilities can remove the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as 40 million trees. 

As exciting as things are, it is a challenge to produce visible results while aiming to meet given timelines. Prof Koh tackles this issue with pure realism. “Although the outcomes of our current actions to address climate change may not be observable until many years down the road, the outcomes of anthropogenic (the result of human activities) carbon emissions from the use of fossil fuels and the destruction of natural ecosystems since the Industrial Revolution are unfortunately painfully observable.”

The Centre for Nature-Based Climate Solutions’ Five Research Areas

Understanding Impacts 
Understanding the impact of climate change on natural and human systems in the Asia-Pacific region is of critical importance for clarifying risks, and developing strategies to safeguard and future-proof Singapore against any resulting perturbations.

Identifying solutions
The Centre will quantify the potential and limits of nature-based climate solutions (NCS) for increasing carbon capture and reducing CO2 emissions in the Asia-Pacific region. Quantifying the cost-effectiveness and viability of NCS to inform land-use and climate policies in Singapore and across the region will help achieve climate mitigation and adaptation goals.

Overcoming barriers
Working in close collaboration with public- and private-sector partners, the Centre will identify the trade-offs and opportunity costs of NCS, as well as other economic, social, and political considerations. This is to ensure the effective, collaborative, and equitable implementation of climate solutions across the region.

Prioritising actions
Emphasis will be put on the best return on investment measures. Criteria include comparative cost-effectiveness of solutions, scientific (un)certainties of their outcomes, and the vulnerability of communities to climate change impacts.

Leveraging technology
The Centre is well-positioned to develop, integrate, and adopt new technologies for the implementation of NCS. These include existing real-time monitoring and warning systems for forest fires and other catastrophes. Additionally, the Centre will explore the use of technologies such as blockchain and distributed ledgers to improve the transparency and accountability of climate mitigation efforts in both the public and private sectors.
Text by Ashok Soman. Image: Getty Images
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