'Difficult' days ahead for Paris climate talks

With days left for the global community to hash out a universal agreement on climate change, Singapore is throwing its support behind the process, adding that it will play its part in reducing its environmental impact.

Singapore on Monday threw its weight behind the United Nations climate talks, pledging “full support” for an ambitious universal agreement while highlighting the role that forests play in this global effort. 

In his first ministerial address at the UN talks in Paris known as COP21, Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, said that reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is not only about mitigating emissions from industrial sectors; it is also be about protecting the world’s forests and preventing peatland fires.

Peatlands are major carbon sinks, storing up to 20 times more carbon than tropical rainforests on normal soils, he said. However, due to illegal forest burning by companies, they have instead become a source of carbon dioxide emissions, he added.  

Such fires also produce smoke, resulting in haze pollution. Every year, illegal burning of peatlands and forests in large areas across Indonesia engulf Southeast Asia in haze and smoke.

This year’s haze, which lasted from July to October, has released more than one gigatonne of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to estimates by a University of Amsterdam study. Hundreds of thousands of people have been treated for acute respiratory infections. Tourism and travel across several Southeast Asian countries were also disrupted.

The carbon dioxide released during this bout of haze was equivalent to 20 per cent of the reductions that the global community is trying to achieve by 2030, Masagos noted. This counters any efforts by Southeast Asia, or the global community, to slash harmful emissions, he added.  

We can’t achieve it too fast; we have to achieve it carefully and in a very calculated way so that while we contribute meaningfully to the target, we are also being thoughtful to Singapore and our economy.

Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources

“Our region is not the only one to witness such deleterious transboundary effects on our global effort to cut emissions,” Masagos said, adding that Singapore supports the need in the UN agreement to have a framework to quantify, report and verify climate impact and mitigation measures.

“Amongst others, capacity to combat illegal burning and other forms of abuse in the land sectors will address this recurring problem,” he said.

The burning of forests and peat lands has also destroyed the natural habitats of diverse wildlife, according to conservation groups.

To address “one of the foremost challenges facing our planet”, Singapore supports a universal agreement which will spur “rules-based” collective climate action, Masagos said. 

“An ambitious agreement is only meaningful if all Parties are on board and act coherently, recognising the full spectrum of climate actions,” he added.

“Very difficult” negotiations

Government officials have been in Paris since November 30 to find a way to limit greenhouse gases so that global temperatures will not rise more than two degrees from pre-industrial levels.

They have till Friday to hash out details, including how rich nations should contribute to alleviating the effects of climate change in developing countries, and to set a target for when the global community needs to be carbon-neutral.

More than 190 countries have submitted their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), which outline individual national plans to reduce carbon emissions so that the world can collectively meet the two-degree target by 2030.

During an interview after his ministerial statement, Masagos noted that coming to a universal agreement is a “very difficult” process.

Developed countries have been accused of not doing enough after burning fossil fuels for 250 years to expand their economies. Developing economies, on the other hand, are seeking more leeway to grow by continuing the use of cheap but polluting sources of energy such as coal.

To complicate matters, some groups say that capping temperature gains at under two degree Celsius is not enough to curb climate change, especially for Pacific islands and poor countries that are particularly vulnerable to sea level rises. They are pushing for an agreement that will see steeper emission cuts to limit temperature increase to under 1.5 degree Celsius.

Another crucial sticking point is the commitment to finance projects in developing and vulnerable countries that will help themmitigate as well as adapt to the impacts of climate change. But governments disagree on which of them should contribute to this fund and the amounts they will have to fork out.

Masagos said that the talks over the rest of the week will therefore be difficult.

“I foresee tough negotiations over the next two, three days but I am hopeful that members understand how important this agreement is for everyone and the future of the planet,” he said. “So I hope that in three days’ time, some form of agreement and commitment will be done by everyone.”

Singapore’s contribution

Singapore, for its part, committed in July to reduce the carbon dioxide it emits per GDP dollar by 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, with the aim of peaking its emissions by that time.

When asked by Eco-Business about recent media reports that criticised this as not ambitious enough, Masagos stood by those pledges.

“We can’t achieve it too fast; we have to achieve it carefully and in a very calculated way so that while we contribute meaningfully to the target, we are also being thoughtful to Singapore and our economy,” he said.

In response to a question on whether Singapore, as one of the richest nations in the world, will be contributing financially to other countries to help them mitigate the effects of climate change, Masagos said the country is very careful about committing funds that are the result of hard work by Singaporeans over half a century.

“We may be well off but we are not as well off as some countries or reliably producing such wealth every year,” he said, “Therefore, we will contribute in meaningful and pragmatic ways.”

He said that Singapore has already trained about 11,000 civil servants around the world on ways to run an economy that is environmentally sustainable,” he said. 

“The amount of capacity building that we have been putting into this effort goes a longer way than just putting in the money and sometimes not being able to account where the money has gone to.”   

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