Speech by Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, at the Partners for the Environment Forum, 17 July 2019

Her Excellency Kara Owen, British High Commissioner

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. Good afternoon and thank you for joining us at the Partners for the Environment (PFE) Forum.

The End of ‘Life as Usual’

2. In 2007, Mr Lee Kuan Yew wrote in a FORBES column that, “the ultimate threat to human survival is global warming and climate change. […] If sea levels rise to inundate many millions of people, there will be no ‘life as usual’.” In fact, at every occasion when I had the opportunity to sit in on calls between Mr Lee and world leaders, it was clear that he was fully convinced about the threat of climate change, and even more concerned about its potential impact than that of terrorism.

3. For me, it is not just the constant stream of reports about countries experiencing extreme weather. It is indeed alarming that France recorded its highest-ever temperature of 45.9 degrees Celsius during a record-breaking European heatwave and postponed national exams. Germany imposed speed limits on highways because they feared that road surfaces could buckle and rip apart. Historic droughts led to a 20% fall in grain production and forced Australia to import wheat. Floods and mudslides caused by torrential rain led to forced evacuations in Kyushu, Japan, a few weeks ago.

4. Closer to home, a prolonged dry period brought water levels at Linggiu Reservoir to the historic low of 20% in 2016. This was barely two years after Singapore’s last dry spell in 2014! During dry years in 2013 and 2015, the region also suffered choking haze from burning peatlands, which closed airports and schools, and brought daily life to a halt.

5. For me, and I hope for you too, the more alarming fact is these events are very much interlinked. The extreme weather events we are experiencing are not one-off incidents, but symptoms of a much greater problem. In May, scientists at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory reported that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were the highest they had ever been in human history. These levels are likely to continue rising.

6. And as these carbon dioxide levels rise, climate change will intensify. We can already see some effects. When I was growing up in the sixties, the hottest month in Singapore was about 27 degrees Celsius on average. That is now the average temperature of the coolest months in this decade, and our hottest days exceed 34 degrees. Apart from changes to our temperatures, scientists project that climate change will have wide-ranging impacts on our water cycle, sea levels, and air quality. What climate science is piecing together, foretells the calamity that will befall the world if we all do too little too late.

7. Time is running out. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued one of the starkest warnings from the scientific community: an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius in average global temperatures could occur as early as 2030. The warning is loud and unmistakeable: we must act now, or we may well face the ultimate threat to human survival that Mr Lee wrote about – the end of ‘life as usual’.

Tackling Climate Change is a Pressing Priority

8. There are two questions I am often asked:

  1. Given that Singapore only contributes 0.11% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, can we make a difference?
  2. Given alarming projections on climate change and sea level rise, can we do anything to protect ourselves?

9. Over the years, we have put in great efforts to protect our environment and improve our resilience against environmental threats, to help us prepare for as many of the eventualities that can arise from climate change as we can.

10. Our water policy is a prime example. We have developed our Four National Taps over the decades, which reinforce our resilience against any sudden shocks to our water supply. Even our intensive tree-planting programme, which was started in the 1960s, has strengthened our resilience. While the motivations for tree planting in our early days might have been different, we have benefited from the moderating impact that our greenery has on rising ambient temperatures.

11. We can thank our pioneer leaders for putting us in a better position, but the urgency of environmental challenges cannot be overstated. My answer to the two questions is that we must remain clear-eyed about Singapore’s vulnerability as a small, low-lying island with no natural resources and no hinterland to retreat to if sea levels rise. For me and my fellow colleagues, tackling climate change is a pressing priority, and an existential challenge. At stake is nothing less than the physical preservation of our island nation and its inhabitants.

Our Actions Must be Based on Robust Science

12. We must meet this challenge with actions based on robust science. This is why we have started research and made early investments in climate science. In 2013, we established the Centre for Climate Research Singapore (CCRS) under the Meteorological Service Singapore (MSS). CCRS has since grown to be one of our region’s most advanced tropical climate research centres.

13. Climate science, where it is developed specifically for the tropics, is a new and complex area of research. There is a limited amount of expertise and experts in this area. Much more work needs to done. I am glad we are taking the initiative to lead.

14. In Singapore, preliminary findings have allowed us to make specific policy formulations. Based on today’s science, climate scientists in Singapore have projected that our mean sea levels could rise by up to around one metre by 2100. If ice sheets melt more rapidly and, worse, if ice shelves in Antarctica were to collapse, sea levels could reach one metre even earlier, or go even higher. To many climate scientists, this is one of the most worrying ‘black swan’ scenarios for low-lying countries such as Singapore.

15. Furthermore, sea level rise from climate change is just one component of overall sea levels. CCRS has considered what might happen if we see high mean sea levels, high tide, and high surge all at the same time – even though this would be a rare scenario. Sea levels could reach almost four metres above current mean sea levels, and overwhelm our low-lying coastal areas.

16. And if we push our imaginations further, in the extremely rare occurrence that a tropical storm happens at sea – sending us surge waters that we can’t keep out – and a heavy rainstorm happens inland – bringing down rainwater we can’t drain away – both at the same time, we could have the ingredients of a ‘perfect storm’. While this is an extremely rare scenario based on today’s science, it could possibly not be inconceivable in the future.

17. Climate science has given policy makers guidance on the need to protect critical infrastructure against rising sea levels and extreme events. This is why we are already building new projects such as the Tuas Port Terminal and Changi Airport Terminal 5 at higher platform levels.

18. Climate science developed by CCRS, because it is tailored for the tropics, is an impactful contribution that Singapore can make to global understanding of climate change. We will share what we know and hope it can also help our neighbours plan for their adaptation to climate change.

19. We will further contribute to the development of climate science in three ways. First, we will strengthen our understanding of sea levels around Singapore to help us develop more robust sea level rise projections in the future. I am pleased to announce thatCCRS will be launching a $10 million National Sea Level Research Programmeover the next five years. CCRS will be issuing the request for proposals soon.

20. Second, MEWR will set up a new Programme Office in CCRS to lead and drive efforts to formulate our national climate science research masterplan as well as to build up our local capabilities. The Programme Office will work closely with scientists and researchers in our Research Institutes and Universities to harness their expertise for cutting-edge climate science research. The research will focus on key areas with significant impact on Singapore, including: sea level rise; the impact of climate change on our water resources; and the impact of warming trends on human health and the energy sector. More details will be announced today.

21. We will also find opportunities to partner and collaborate with the best scientific minds around the world. I am pleased to announce that we will be hosting a Scoping Meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Singapore in October 2019, together with a meeting of the IPCC Bureau, one of the highest decision-making bodies in the IPCC. This is the first time that Singapore will be hosting IPCC meetings. It signals our strong support for and commitment to climate science and climate action.

Taking Early Actions and Leading the Way in Mitigation

22. Apart from climate science, Singapore has also taken early actions to contribute to efforts to mitigate our GHG emissions. Indeed, we have led the way in many of our policies and measures, and in showing that even a small, highly-urbanised city-state with limited alternative energy options can contribute meaningfully to the global fight against climate change. We will share what we have learnt. Our experience can be a model for others to draw from in their paths to find sustainable growth.

23. One bold measure that we have taken is in putting a price on carbon. We are doing this to incentivise industries to reduce their GHG emissions. Economists call this pricing an externality properly. Industries have been emitting GHGs for the longest time and often excessively, because they do not always adopt the lowest GHG emitting technology and often only look for cost effectiveness. Singapore is the first country in Southeast Asia to implement a carbon tax, making no exemptions to any industry – probably the first in the world to do so. While the price is arguably low today, industries have already been given notice that this will double if not triple by 2030. They are being given time to adjust and we hope the tax signal will incentivise them to adopt low GHG emitting technologies to avoid an even higher future carbon tax.

24. Second, we have led the way in the production of energy. PUB and EDB are supporting innovative floating solar PV projects at Tengeh Reservoir and offshore off Woodlands respectively. These projects will be one of the world’s largest floating inland and offshore solar PV systems when completed. We are on track to achieve our target of 350 MWp of solar adoption by 2020. We aim to raise this to 1 GWp beyond 2020 and will continue to push for more.

25. Third, we are striving to harness resource synergies and reduce the carbon footprint in our public infrastructure. We are building a used water and waste treatment plant called Tuas Nexus by 2025, which can integrate water reclamation and waste-to-energy incineration in a single facility, and reduce the amount of energy required in the used water treatment process. This can help us cut down carbon emissions by more than 200,000 tonnes a year – the equivalent of taking more than 42,500 cars off the road. We are also striving for zero energy buildings across Singapore.  BCA’s building standards, such as the Zero Energy (ZE) and Super Low Energy (SLE) standards, challenge buildings to produce all the energy they consume, or even surplus energy, and push the boundaries for energy efficiency and energy savings.

26. Singapore is also a leader in our transport policies. We have set the target to put in place a comprehensive public transport system by 2040 that allows for a 45-minute commute to the city during peak hours, which will be the envy of many cities. COE and ERP will not only provide for congestion-free roads, but make Singapore the only city state that is able to enforce zero growth of car ownership. I hope that we will have more innovative car sharing services and technology that is so pervasive, convenient, and cost-effective that they will make car ownership a thing of the past.

Need to be Bold, Innovative, and Decisive in Climate Adaptation

27. We have in parallel been building up our climate resilience. Since 2011, we have spent around $1.8 billion on drainage improvement works to boost our flood resilience. This includes the Stamford Diversion Canal and Stamford Detention Tank completed last year, which significantly enhance the flood protection of the Orchard Road areas. We will do more. In the next two years, we will spend another $400 million to upgrade and maintain our drains.

28. We have invested in R&D in NEWater and desalination to strengthen our water security for drought resilience. To strengthen our food resilience, we aim to diversify our food imports, produce 30% of Singapore’s nutritional needs locally by 2030, and grow overseas – because food supply diversity alone does not translate to food security for Singapore, with widespread extreme weather events and water crises in food producing countries. Climate change also poses threats to our biodiversity and health. We have been restoring our mangrove forests in Pulau Tekong and have also invested in new technologies such as Wolbachia to help suppress the mosquito population.

29. I spoke earlier of infrastructure readiness and building new projects such as the Tuas Port Terminal and Changi Airport Terminal 5 at higher platform levels. But this is not enough. Because one third of Singapore is less than 5 metres above mean sea level, we need to take this further. We are studying how to protect the rest of Singapore, and in particular the low-lying areas around our coast, in a comprehensive and holistic manner.

30. Given that climate science is evolving rapidly, we need to start preparing and investing now to ensure that we are prepared if indeed sea levels rise faster or are higher than currently projected. A major focus of infrastructure works and spending for the foreseeable future will be determined by climate change adaptation and mitigation. We cannot afford to wait and do nothing, until we are certain of the effects of climate change.

31. For many of these measures, we will need to start implementing them now and continue over the next 30, 50 years or 100 years. These investments are hefty and for the long term. The Netherlands currently commits around one billion Euros a year to address flood protection and water supply challenges. Recent reports have suggested that the US may need to spend more than 400 billion US dollars between now and 2040 to defend its coastlines against rising sea levels.

32. For Singapore, we need to plan, invest and implement for the long haul. We will need to assess the financial implications carefully, looking at the cost-effectiveness and benefits, and then apply them appropriately across Singapore. Singapore has always prided ourselves on our foresight and long-term planning. By planning early, we can phase in the necessary measures in a timely manner whilst spreading out the costs over many years.

The Sum of Our Actions

33. The Government has initiated the momentum for action. But we cannot do this alone. As Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said last month, we believe in expanding our democracy of deeds, where Singaporeans contribute not just their ideas, but also their efforts to build our future.

34. The work of protecting our environment and improving our resilience is an area where we need this more than ever. We need to partner businesses, individuals and organisations to come up with creative and effective solutions. We need everyone to play their part and as one nation, overcome the existential challenge that climate change poses, which can threaten our way of life. If we put our heads, hearts and minds together, we will come out of this for the better and will leave behind a more resilient and prosperous Singapore for our children, grandchildren and many generations to come.

35. There are many ways that we can work in partnership together.  Let me share some examples.

36. First, in our daily lives, we can all choose to make climate-friendly choices. One practical opportunity is when we purchase appliances for our homes. Currently, about 97% of domestic refrigerator models available in Singapore are climate-friendly and use refrigerants that are of a lower Global Warming Potential (GWP). While there are similar climate-friendly air conditioner options available, the take-up has been low.  We all can make a difference by making the right choices.

37. Second, every effort counts. Though climate change cannot be solved by any single person, do not discount the cumulative impact of small actions. Every one of us must bear individual responsibility and take action. Let me illustrate. If all households in Singapore were to swap one fluorescent lightbulb for an LED bulb, we could potentially achieve 5.8 million kilowatt hour in energy savings in a year, enough to power 1,000 4-room housing units! So it is the sum of all our actions that counts. That goes also for reducing single-use plastics, using our clothes as long as we can, and repairing our electronics.

38. Over the years, the MEWR family has worked closely with partners to build collective action for sustainable development. Moving forward, we want to unlock even more perspectives, listen to diverse views, and bring together different segments of society to co-create solutions.

39. In particular, we want to harness the passion and energy of youths.  A recent report by DBS suggested that millennials are almost twice as likely to invest in companies that target specific social or environmental outcomes. For example, shares of Beyond Meat, a company that produces plant-based meat substitutes, soared more than 570% since the firm’s initial public offering last month.

40. I am heartened that our youths are particularly passionate about wanting to make a positive change for the environment. In fact, our millennials are the most environmentally conscious group, setting trends in reducing single-use plastics and electronic waste. Their drive has caused many businesses to come on board and change their practices.

41. We have been engaging youth leaders on environmental policies, and we will do more. In the next few months, we will use different platforms, such as YOUTHx, to engage youths to unlock their potential to think out of the box, and design interesting programmes (such as dialogues, learning journeys, or camps) that are ‘by youth for youth’, to build a more environmentally conscious society.

42. Moving beyond, we will step-up our efforts to partner businesses, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and Singaporeans to work together to co-create solutions. By September, MEWR will convene a Citizens’ Workgroup to get 50 Singaporeans to work with us to come up with solutions to improve the way we recycle, and inspire more people to recycle at home. The Citizens’ Workgroup will include Singaporeans with diverse backgrounds, and be given access to policy-relevant information like household recycling surveys as well as resource persons who can share their expertise and help with the piloting and implementation of solutions.

43. As climate change ultimately requires a global solution, we will also continue to work actively to galvanise regional and global climate action. We are 7,000km away from the Arctic, but Singapore has been an observer in the Arctic Council since 2013, because we are interested in how climate change impacts on the Arctic can affect the rest of the world. Closer to home, following up on our successful convening of the inaugural Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Climate Action last July, Singapore will host the second ASEAN Climate Change Partnership Conference this year to maintain the momentum of regional climate action. We will continue to work with all Parties in the implementation of the Paris Agreement.


44. Let me return to science. In 1953, a storm surge in the North Sea overwhelmed dykes in the Netherlands and claimed 1,800 lives – the country’s greatest natural disaster in the 20th century. This was a most unfortunate incident, particularly because scientific studies done in 1928 and 1934 had repeatedly warned that existing dykes were inadequate.

45. We must learn from the experience of the Dutch and act now. Climate science tells us it is not a matter of ‘if’ the sea level will rise but a matter of ‘when’ and ‘how much’. We must be prepared to make the necessary investments to protect Singapore against sea level rise and, for critical infrastructure, against the ‘perfect storm’.

46. At our independence, the Pioneer Generation turned Singapore into a metropolitan city out of mudflats. Climate change sets us a monumental, inter-generational task – how to ensure that our Little Red Dot does not disappear below the waves. All of us in this room – the government, the industry, and the public – must make the right choices and play our part. Only then can Singapore remain a shining jewel in the tropical sea.

47. Thank you.

Leave a Reply