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Beyond the 3 Rs: How can Singapore move forward on sustainability?
GETTING people to care about the environment is an uphill battle that advocates around the world have been fighting for a long time. The fight is especially pertinent in Singapore, a country under direct threat from rising sea levels, and where the tropical heat is a constant reminder of how unbearable a rise in temperature of a few degrees would be. It has taken a pandemic to highlight the impact our lifestyles and business activities have on the environment. Carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution are plummeting globally as economic activity is slashed and people hunker down at home.
On the other hand, Channel NewsAsia reported in late April that town councils in Singapore are handling as much as 40 per cent more waste than usual. Takeaway food packaging is one contributing factor, but the amount of waste we generate is also more obvious when concentrated around our homes instead of spread out across the country.
Even the positive outcomes have a darker side of worrying implications. According to an analysis by Carbon Brief, carbon dioxide emissions could fall by more than 4 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019 levels, because of the pandemic. Yet even if this reduction could be kept up every year this decade, it would still fall short of the 7.6 per cent yearly decrease needed to achieve the 1.5 degree Centigrade target limit for global temperature rise.
In other words, if even multiple nation-wide shutdowns can't slow climate change, how much can be accomplished by individual actions like "reducing, reusing and recycling"?
As Singapore eventually overcomes the pandemic and readjusts to a new normal, environmental advocates know these hard truths will slowly fade from memory too. What will remain are the bigger crisis of climate change and the challenges that the sustainability movement continues to face here.
Individual vs systemic change
The idea that climate change cannot be halted by the actions of individuals alone is not a new one for the sustainability movement in Singapore. It is the driving force behind efforts to guide individual actions along a more impactful route, encouraging engagement with the government to call for needed systemic change and placing pressure on corporations to reduce environmental harm.
For instance, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Singapore and ground-up initiative Speak for Climate created independent resources to raise participation levels for a public consultation that the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS) conducted last year, focused on Singapore's Long-Term Low-Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS).
WWF-Singapore ran a social media campaign to encourage users to support its recommendations to the NCCS, and created a digital platform to simplify the submission process. Speak for Climate put together layman explanations of the policy under review, an email form and example submissions that the public could model theirs on.
Their efforts significantly affected the success of the public consultation - 1,600 of the 2,000 responses received were gathered through these two channels.
Says Sammie Ng, one of the environmental advocates behind Speak for Climate: "It's not that individual actions are not important, but that it's not just about changing your lifestyle. Through your lifestyle, do you advocate for change? There's a lot of individualised guilt over our role in the climate crisis, but it's not very productive if we don't channel it to changing structural issues."
This is key especially because many structural issues are an obstacle to individual actions having maximum impact. For example, the way our "blue bin" recycling system functions means that while most people may correctly deposit only clean and recyclable items, it takes just one person to discard liquids or food into the bin and ruin everyone else's efforts.
Excessive packaging is another problem that cannot be easily managed by the end user; the change needs to come from the corporations involved in the packing and production process. "Sometimes we walk out of the supermarket with our own (reusable) bag, but contained within it are all packaged produce - pre-packed vegetables, plastic-wrapped bananas, containers of fruits," notes Janet Chia, founder of sustainability initiative Sayang Hijau.
"Even if these can be recycled or are biodegradable, was it even necessary in the first place? Recycling should never be viewed as the justification to unnecessary consumption."
The list goes on. Such issues are as numerous as the campaigns and groups that have sprung up in this space - Cheryl Lee, an environmental advocate and community manager of non-profit organisation Up2Degrees, has counted more than 55 large organisations in Singapore focused on climate change issues alone. Yet underlying these efforts is an awareness that while many of these issues will require government intervention to effect change, they are also linked to industries crucial to the nation's economy.
This tension sometimes results in official messages that some environmentalists feel seem to conflict with actions taken - like when Singaporeans are asked to switch to energy efficient light bulbs at home, while oil and gas giant ExxonMobil is allowed to expand its refinery on Jurong Island. But environmentalists hesitate to openly question these contradictions, aware that their position could be interpreted as simplistic or hostile to the industries concerned.
Says Melissa Low, a research fellow at the NUS Energy Studies Institute: "It is hard not to empathise with the government's position, and that's where a lot of environmentalists come from - their approach is cautious. We know there are constraints, but how does Singapore overcome those constraints? How do I project a message that is not ignorant of them?"
The Singapore government is known for its practicality, and it will not rush into actions that affect industries and the economy, she said. "I think these issues are being evaluated, but until we can find real cost-effective alternatives to Jurong Island and plastic for hawkers to package food, some things are red lines. The market forces just will not allow for it."
Ho Xiang Tian, co-founder of environmental group LepakInSG, realises that Singapore is constrained by how much it can accomplish on its own as a small country. "It's not like we can set an agenda and everyone else will follow us. We can try to do something about climate change, but if countries in the region or globally don't, we can't make much of a difference. If our economy suffers in the process, climate change will still affect us, but by that time we won't have the resources to adapt to it."
However, he thinks there is still room to dial back the idea that constant economic growth should be Singapore's number one priority.
"There's this thought that if we take action on climate change, we will harm the economy. But I think inaction will harm the economy even more. We've seen Covid-19 hit the economy quite hard, and it's just a taste of what will happen in the future, as global temperatures rise and these outbreaks become more common."
The Singapore government has shown that it takes climate issues seriously, setting up an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Climate Change in 2007 that leads a whole-of-government approach to national plans for reducing carbon emissions and tackling the effects of climate change. Government ministries also have their own initiatives to address climate change and sustainability issues relevant to their scopes. For example, the Ministry of Trade and Industry offers companies targeted incentives to encourage adoption of energy efficient technologies, and is working with public and private sector stakeholders to maximise the use of available surfaces to deploy solar panels.
The Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) leads sustainability initiatives like its thematic year campaigns (the Year of Climate Action in 2018, the Year Towards Zero Waste in 2019 and the Singapore Food Story in 2020). Initiatives under these themes do not end after the year is over; instead, they form the basis of long-term strategies that continue to be executed over the next several years.
MEWR and other ministries have also engaged non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the public in dialogues on sustainability issues, through means like focus group discussions and the NCCS' public consultations.
While it is hard to know whether or how the feedback will be incorporated into policies, there have been indications that it does not disappear into the void after the sessions.
For instance, following the LEDS consultation, NCCS requested permission from participants to publish their submissions online, and also compiled the feedback into a document with corresponding responses from 23 government agencies.
Ms Low says such an initiative was surprising, since nowhere in the Paris Agreement is there a requirement to engage citizens in this way to formulate a country's long-term emissions plan. "It shows they are concerned about citizens' views about climate change."
Still, she feels citizens' involvement remains restricted by parameters set by the ministry or agency hosting the discussion. As more trust is built between the government and sustainability groups, she and other advocates hope the two sides will be able to work more collaboratively, lessen the power asymmetry and create greater transparency around how stakeholders are engaged and their feedback incorporated into policies.
There will always be room for improvement, and Singapore has barely scratched the surface of what can be done to combat climate change. Coco Oan, founder of zero-waste group Project bECOme, notes that many of our efforts are targeted at reducing our impact on the environment, and are a long way from progressing to a discussion about reversing damage.
To truly take ownership of Singapore's carbon emissions, the country will have to look into reducing its Scope 3 emissions as well, says Mr Ho of LepakInSG. These are the emissions that are not generated by directly owned or controlled sources or electricity generation - Scope 3 emissions are associated with goods purchased from overseas, for example.
"We can look at where our food and products come from, and if we are able to re-source them from places or companies that produce them in a more responsible way, we will be able to cut our Scope 3 emissions," he says.
Pek Hai Lin, executive director at green group Zero Waste SG, suggests that private companies work together to find ways around the obstacles to replacing environmentally harmful business practices. "Private-sector wise, there has to be better collaboration efforts between companies to streamline supply chain and waste management issues, as cost can only be reduced through shared infrastructure."
Within the sustainability movement itself, the way forward seems to lie in remaining in constant dialogue and supporting one another's efforts. Most advocates are of the opinion that attempting to unite the groups or campaigns under one umbrella will be impractical or even detrimental to sustainability efforts.
"As resources are limited and there are diverse environmental concerns, there might not be bandwidth (for NGOs) to come together on a single issue... However, organisations with similar scopes can collaborate on a project basis to increase impact of the message, and there have been many forms of collaborations happening over the years," says Ms Pek.
The breadth of the movement will not pose a problem as long as the groups maintain mutual respect and support for one another, says Ms Lee of Up2Degrees. "In Singapore, the people and organisations are quite open-minded; there's no such thing as 'my issue is bigger than yours', which is an attitude I've seen when I travel."
Most importantly, the movement must not lose sight of the impact individual actions and advocacy can still make on progress.
Ms Low says: "Corporations are made up of people too. Those sitting at director level are parents, brothers and sisters. Someone in their network is concerned.
"The plurality of actions needs to be considered. Everybody needs to act, individuals, businesses, governments - everybody needs to chip in, otherwise our efforts will not work."
The circle of life
AMONG the many methods of reducing environmental impact, the circular economy is one that has been taking off more successfully in some applications here.
Over the last eight years, Singaporeans have embraced buying and selling second-hand goods on online marketplace Carousell. Also popular are fashion rental subscription services like Style Theory and MADThread which offer regular closet refreshes at a fraction of the usual cost.
These businesses have managed to capture a substantial following that includes many users who may not consider sustainability one of their key concerns.
MADThread CEO Nicole Hu says that while its core mission is to "spread confidence" through a quality, accessible wardrobe, being able to help reduce environmental impact makes MADThread's work more meaningful.
The rental model not only allows for designer pieces to get more use through rotation among multiple customers, but also gives a new lease of life to garments that might otherwise be neglected or mishandled.
"We've seen clothes that have become discoloured and washed out because of frequent use get restored to their previous glory through conscientious, careful cleaning and repair," says Ms Hu.
Lucas Ngoo, co-founder of Carousell, says the company started with a purpose to address the global problem of overconsumption and excess, by encouraging a lifestyle where "second-hand is the first choice".
"It's the better option; you find meaningful and unique items, save the earth, save money and make money," Mr Ngoo says.
Listing, discovering and exchanging second-hand goods can be a laborious process, and Carousell has worked to simplify it and remove common pain points. All users really need to do to start selling is to snap a photo and include some basic information about their item. The app now leverages artificial intelligence and machine learning to help Carousellers list and find items more easily. For example, a new object identification feature allows Carousell to recommend a name, product categories and optimal selling price when a user snaps a photo for a listing.
Payment (or non-payment) issues are another wrinkle it has worked hard to iron out. Using a Stripe payments product that allows it to accept and make payments on behalf of third parties, Carousell offers the Carousell Protection option for buyers and sellers to have payments held securely by the marketplace until both parties verify that they are satisfied with the transaction.
Getting more businesses to embrace the circular economy model will be challenging if they feel the changes do not make business sense. Ms Hu notes that collective effort between the government and private sector is needed to pursue solutions that can significantly reduce carbon emissions. "Businesses often lack (resources for) massive investments and the network to leapfrog into implementing innovations that are commercially acceptable and financially sustainable."
Besides providing subsidies and investments, the government could also allow companies to collaborate and share resources across sectors, such as allowing deliveries to be integrated into existing Grab trips, Ms Hu says.
Cheryl Lee, a community manager at non-profit organisation Up2Degrees, says companies also need to be held responsible to create reverse supply chains for their products, and penalties should be imposed on those who dispose of items irresponsibly when proper methods are available.
"There needs to be a 'carrot and stick' element," says Ms Lee. "It's a motivator for people, just like food and comfort are."