Issue 124 | Jan-Mar 2021

Tomorrow’s Needs vs Today’s Reality

Climate change may be the biggest existential threat facing the planet — but it doesn’t always feel that way. The latest U@live session explored why this is so.

November 2019, more than 11,000 scientists from around the world issued a widely-reported clarion call: climate change was an emergency that would lead to “untold human suffering” if no consequential action was taken. Just a few months later, the world found itself in the throes of another emergency, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. The severity of the pandemic and the economic havoc it wreaked understandably shifted the world’s attention away from climate change. This shift is emblematic of the ‘wicked’ problem facing the world, which must seemingly choose between dealing with tomorrow’s needs and today’s realities — a choice that inspired the latest U@live session, which was held virtually on 30 October.

Some 150 alumni tuned in to the session, which was moderated by Mr Viswa Sadasivan (Arts and Social Sciences ’83) and featured Ms Grace Fu (Business ’85), Minister for Sustainability and the Environment; Mr Abhas Jha, Practice Manager of Urban and Disaster Risk Management at the World Bank; and Associate Professor Leong Ching (Arts and Social Sciences ’92), Dean of Students at NUS. The panel also featured U@live essay competition winner Ms Feng Yuan (see sidebar). 
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Themed “Climate Change – Are Tomorrow’s Needs More Important than Today’s Reality?”, this year’s U@live essay competition received more than 50 entries from secondary and tertiary students across the country. Ms Feng Yuan, a Secondary 4 student from Raffles Girls’ School, emerged as the winner, thanks to her positive and optimistic view of the topic, explained Assoc Prof Leong. Ms Feng presented her essay before the start of October’s U@live session.
The session began with a sobering observation by Mr Sadasivan: “Today, we discuss climate change, which is a topic that’s very critical, on all counts. But somehow, it has failed to become enough of a priority. Is it a question of ignorance, denial, or downright lack of accountability?” Agreeing with his assessment of the situation, Mr Jha noted that many parts of the world — from Bangladesh to the Bahamas — are already feeling the adverse impacts of climate change. “Those catastrophic impacts we are talking about; they are not happening in the future, they are already here,” he said.


Despite this, climate change denial is still well and alive, opined Ms Feng. “This distracts us from the debate on climate change and how to tackle it.” While others may realise the existential threat of climate change, many are still unwilling to make personal sacrifices to turn things around. She added, “If you told someone to sacrifice their annual vacation to reduce their carbon footprint, few would actually do that.” But Assoc Prof Leong offered a different perspective, pointing out that some effects of climate change are less noticeable than others. “Look at Jakarta. It has been sinking for years [due to a combination of rising sea levels from global warming and land subsidence from the over-extraction of groundwater] but its residents didn’t actually feel it … it just crept up on them.” This, she said, makes it difficult for governments to find the political will to act decisively. 

Economics is also a factor when it comes to the ability or inability to tackle climate change, suggested Ms Fu. She noted that varying stages of development, as well as different priorities in the world, prevent a unilateral approach towards climate change. “Some countries have the ability to fund longer-term projects while others are really struggling economically. We have different circumstances as well: a small country like Singapore is quite different from a country as vast as Australia. We do not have as many options in renewable energy, be it geothermal, hydro, or nuclear.”

Somehow, [climate change] has failed to become enough of a priority. Is it a question of ignorance, denial, or downright lack of accountability?
Mr Viswa Sadasivan, U@live Chairman


Despite these challenges, Ms Fu noted that Singapore has steadily committed to more sustainable practices including an energy deal with Malaysia that would likely come from renewable sources, and an ambitious plan to fully transition to electric passenger vehicles by 2040. She explained that the generous timeline is to give stakeholders sufficient time to restructure investments and to develop the necessary infrastructure. The panellists also considered the question of subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. As Mr Jha pointed out, the International Monetary Fund projected that in 2017, the world offered S$7 trillion worth of fossil fuel subsidies. “These subsidies do address valid concerns and have a role to play. India, for instance, subsidises liquefied natural gas to give its people a way to cook with a clean source of energy. But there are better ways of doing this … you can guarantee clean access without using fossil fuels.” 

tomorrow-9DID YOU KNOW?

The Singapore Government is seeking to build a more circular economy, according to Ms Fu. To do this, it is exploring ways to encourage sustainable production and consumption, such as the Extended Producer Responsibility model. To be introduced to tackle e-waste by 2021, this model will see producers bearing responsibility for the collection and treatment of their products when they reach end-of-life.
He added that governments could also consider investing more in research and development in renewable energy. To an audience member’s question about the state of such research in Singapore, Ms Fu shared that the National Environment Agency has partnered petrochemical giant Shell to look into the feasibility of a pyrolysis plant in Singapore, which could recycle old plastics. “Singapore’s nimbleness and the responsiveness of its policymakers will allow it to take advantage of technological trends like these,” she explained, adding that the Government would bring people along on this journey to sustainability. Assoc Prof Leong welcomed this, explaining that by building sustainability into the ethos of its people, Singapore could go a long way towards becoming a greener and sustainable nation. 
Text by Keenan Pereira
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