Singapore steps up efforts to weather future climate change

The Singapore Government has embarked on a new study to examine the island state’s vulnerability to climate change while IPCC scientists say the climate challenge is presenting the biggest business opportunity of the century.

Singapore is taking steps to better adapt to the vagaries of uncertain climate patterns in Southeast Asia by embarking on a national study to understand the impacts of climate change on the country’s roads, drainage systems, power stations, and other infrastructure.  

Officials from the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and the Ministry of National Development shared on Monday that all ministries and statutory boards will participate in this study, which will examine how rising sea levels, higher temperatures and more intense rainfall and flooding could affect the city state’s physical infrastructure.

The initial findings are expected to be released by 2016, and will feed into Singapore’s ‘Resilience Framework’, a blueprint developed by the Singapore Government in 2012 to safeguard against climate change over the next 50 to 100 years.

The study was announced on Monday at the sidelines of an event organised by Singapore’s National Climate Change Secretariat and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to share findings from the IPCC’s recently released Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) and its implications for Southeast Asia. About 260 guests from the public sector, as well as businesses, NGOs and academia attended the event held at the Furama Riverfront Hotel.

The findings of AR5 conclusively state that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that it is “extremely likely” that human influence has been the main cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century.

The report stated that in most projected scenarios, global surface temperature is also likely to exceed the 2°C limit. Most scientists at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 agreed that exceeding this limit of global surface temperature rise would result in dangerous climate change.

Scientists from the report’s working groups on adaptation, mitigation, and physical science also added that key risks for Asia included urban and coastal flooding, and water and food security. 

No-regret policies for emission reduction

Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan highlighted Singapore’s vulnerability to these extreme weather events and the importance of adapting to them as early as possible.

“We cannot take a positive outcome for granted. Even though we will do our part as a responsible member of the global community, we also have to adapt to climate change and make sure we are resilient in order to look after our own citizens in a warmer and more uncertain world”, he said.

However, there were uncertainties inherent in climate science, in the economics of climate change and in the political framework surrounding a global climate agreement that hampered global adaptation and mitigation efforts, added Balakrishnan.  

For example, he said that it was “misaligned economics” that blocked the adoption of low-carbon technologies in a global economy that is overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuels.

“This is what keeps us trapped in a high carbon trajectory”, he said.

To address this, Balakrishnan proposed three “no-regret policies” to achieve substantial emissions reductions; namely investing into research and development of low carbon and clean energy systems, mandating energy efficiency standards, and removing subsidies for fossil fuels.

The business opportunity of the century

Building the energy system of the second half of the 21st century is the business opportunity of the century. Recently, the countries that have most successfully capitalised on this have been the rapidly developing economies, particularly in Asia.

Christopher Field, co-chair, IPCC Working Group II

Scientists from the IPCC speaking at the Monday event seconded the minister’s view that scaling up the low-carbon energy sector was necessary to limit global temperature rise. They added that the pursuit of clean energy also represented significant business opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors.

Christopher Field, the American co-chair of the IPCC working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, said: “Building the energy system of the second half of the 21st century is the business opportunity of the century. Recently, the countries that have most successfully capitalised on this have been the rapidly developing economies, particularly in Asia”.

English professor Jim Skea, vice-chair of the IPCC working group on climate change mitigation, shared that “there will be major changes in investment patterns in the energy sector if we are going to pursue climate change mitigation, and this provides enormous market opportunities”.

The panel of scientists identified three strands of scientific innovations in the energy sector as particularly promising. In the field of chemistry, developing better fuel cells, photovoltaic technologies and more efficient materials were raised as key areas that could drive clean energy forward.

Innovations in information technology such as smart grids and emerging biological research in increasing crop yields of biofuel crops were also identified as areas with high opportunity for investment.

While the potential for profit by developing new energy technologies prevailed in conversations about climate change mitigation, Katharine Mach, American co-director of science of the IPCC Technical Support Unit, noted that there were business opportunities in adapting to climate change too.

“Adapting to climate change is largely about risk management, and risk is also one of the metrics that businesses are the most comfortable with. This focus on risk management is widely used in government and also in insurance and business”, she said.

“There are huge opportunities for businesses that adapt to changes in water resources and the weather extremes that will be playing out across the region”, she noted.

The scientists also expressed unanimous optimism that the world would collectively be able to meet the global challenge of climate change.

To illustrate that climate issues tended to pass through a cycle of initial denial and concerns about the high cost, followed by the gradual acceptance of evidence and political action, Skea cited the United Kingdom’s 1956 Clean Air Act, which was passed as a response to years of debilitating air pollution in London that took more than 12,000 lives. While the government was initially keen to downplay the severity of the smog due to economic pressures, it eventually introduced measures such as shifting to cleaner energy sources than coal and relocating power stations away from cities.

“Climate change is the biggest challenge of all because it is global. But I feel optimistic that the same pattern will be followed and that we will eventually deal with it”, he said.

Singaporean professor Wong Poh Poh, the coordinating lead author on AR5’s chapter on coastal systems and low-lying areas noted, however, that while new developments in science and technology were encouraging, the slow rate of political change did temper the his optimism somewhat.

The IPCC representatives shared that the process of putting together the next assessment report (AR6) would focus on addressing gaps in knowledge about Asia’s changing weather patterns and putting a number on the value of preventing catastrophic climate change.

This would be done by involving more environmental economists in the scientific process and ensuring that developing countries in Asia were more equally represented on the panel, said the scientists.

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