Edited Transcript of Keynote Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at the Singapore Green Building Council (SGBC) Leadership Conversations, 5 November 2019
Dr Ho Nyok Yong, President, Singapore Green Building Council
Ms Jessica Cheam, Managing Editor, Eco-Business
Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen
It’s a pleasure to be here. Now, you know as Minister, I have to attend lots of functions, travel to lots of places, not all of them are necessarily great fun. But my attendance here today is one which I will make voluntarily, and let me explain why. First, when I look at people like Mr Chia Ngiang Hong, Dr Ho, Mr Ler Seng Ann, reminds me that I was involved in national development a long time ago,at the beginning of my political career, back in 2001. When I think about the Green Building Council, when I think about Eco-Business, even when I see Jessica again, I remember our previous incarnations � she as a young reporter, doing a different beat at that time. And now, I’m here as the Foreign Minister, but more important, recalling also the fact that I was here five years ago as the Environment Minister. So my attendance here today, I would say, just like all of you, is purely voluntary, purely a sign of commitment for this cause. So, thank you all for being here.
I was telling Dr Ho and Jessica just now, that if we cast our minds back 10 years ago, you were considered pioneers. In fact, to be honest, I think many people considered people like us slightly crazy for being greenies ahead of our time. Today, you can organise a rally in Hong Lim Park and you can get thousands of people. Today, young people will come up to Ministers, will come up to any one of you businessmen, developers, and demand you to be green. But I want to make this point to thank you all for starting this journey, long ago before it became fashionable, before the grassroot pressure built up. Sometimes it’s a reminder that even the older ones down here, we have also done our part to get this movement. So, again, congratulations and thank you to the Green Building Council for your tremendous efforts in championing this cause of sustainable buildings.
Today, what I wanted to tell you is that your efforts, in fact, are even more salient, even more relevant, and do not let up. In fact, we need you to double down on your efforts. And you have heard Jessica’s challenge to you � 100% green buildings. It’s not crazy anymore � you know, Jessica, it would not even be considered radical today. In fact, it should be considered merely necessary, essential.
I want to highlight two global mega-trends that make our work today so relevant. The first, we all know about � climate change. The level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere today, in a way, in excess of 400 parts per million. If I asked you when was the last time planet Earth had carbon dioxide at this level � the answer, you would have to go back at least 800,000 years, maybe even a million or several million years ago. The point here is that we are in uncharted territory. Because if you go back that far in time, human beings probably didn’t exist the way we are now, human civilization, and the way we organise our societies and build our world, did not exist. So the point is, just looking at the level of carbon dioxide, should remind all of us that we are in uncharted territory, facing unprecedented challenges, and the scientific studies just keep piling up. In fact, studies indicate that we are heading for a three degree centigrade hotter world, even if all the countries deliver on what we promised in 2015, in Paris. When we negotiated that agreement, and I can tell you, I spent four years on that Paris Agreement, and it’s something I feel strongly about. But we were aiming for two degrees, and hoping for 1.5 degrees. But increasingly, the evidence is that we are headed for at least three degrees.
This will result amongst many other things, it will also result in rising sea levels, and that’s why, the Prime Minister focused on climate change and rising sea levels and highlighted the existential challenge for a place like Singapore � a small island-state, one quarter of our land reclaimed from the sea. And even if you assume that it’s only a one metre rise, it will have profound impact, not just on flooding, but also on storm intensity and on the length of droughts. And actually if I ask all of you, just think about the last ten years, without even getting to science, just think of your own empirical experience. Have you experienced more intense storms? Have we experienced prolonged periods of drought? Have we experienced dry seasons which in turn have led to forest fires – man-made, most of them – and to increasingly threatening transboundary haze? And the answer is yes to all of this. So the point is that this is a clear and present danger, and we are facing an existential threat.
But the next point to make is that if all of us in Singapore, today, were to stop breathing � no more carbon dioxide from every single one of us, even if we were to stop all our activities in Singapore, we account for only 0.11% of global carbon dioxide. Which means if we all stopped breathing, actually it wouldn’t save the world, it wouldn’t make a material difference; it is not even a rounding error. But I do not think that should be an excuse for inaction, because I think, I believe, all of us as responsible global citizens need to do our part. And the point here is this, is that in fact, climate change is an example of the global commons. You know the usual adage that if something is the responsibility of everybody, it’s not really the responsibility of anybody. This is the classic example of that, because it requires in fact, everyone in the world, every single country, every single person, to do his or her part. But without that collective commitment, without the rules-based multilateral system, without sufficient transparency, and without sufficient grassroots pressure, we will never get to that solution. So the point is, we actually are facing an urgent situation, and we need a massive transformation of the way the world is organised and built, and the way we deliver services, but we need to do this collectively, on a whole world basis.
But let me also tell you as the Foreign Minister, unfortunately, the world is not, in fact, converging on multilateralism, rules-based systems, everyone doing his or her part, every country acting in the long-term interest of the world. There are populist pressures, all over the world. I don’t want to name names, but you all understand that we are in fact, in danger of a fractured world, of a world where we say it’s me first, or my country’s interest narrowly defined for the short-term first. And not necessarily putting enough attention on our own enlightened, long-term interest. It is a very difficult moment for the world, politically, and this is a political challenge that exists all over the world, it’s not only in one country. All of us, even we, face similar pressures.
When I was in New York two months ago at the United Nations Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outlined several key mitigation policies, including reaffirming our Paris Agreement pledge to reduce our emissions intensity by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030, and to stabilise our emissions, with the aim of peaking around 2030. 2030 is actually not that long more if you’re talking about 10 years, 11 years. We will build on that 2030 climate plan, and we are now developing our long-term low emissions development strategy, as called for under that pledge. It is a whole-of-government effort and I can tell you there is a lot of planning, a lot of very careful, deliberative evaluation, formulation and implementation going on behind the scenes. There will be more announcements in the future. Singapore is also a signatory to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development � Jessica mentioned that earlier in her speech. And this sets out 17 goals to eradicate poverty, enhance standards of living, and to protect the natural environment. There are also specific goals to build resilient cities, infrastructure and communities.
Which brings me, really, to the second mega-trend, and in fact Jessica identified it just now also, which is urbanisation. For the first time in human history, about a decade ago, the majority of human beings now live in cities. It used to be the majority of people live in the countryside in agricultural settings, but that’s no longer the case. Cities are now the key drivers of every country’s economic growth. Coming from Singapore, a tiny city-state, sometimes we take this for granted. But now that the world itself has transformed into an urbanised world, we in fact anticipate that two-thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2050. My own expectation is that it will be more than two-thirds who will live in cities. The World Bank projects that the world’s top 600 cities will account for 60% of the global economy by 2025 � just six years from now.
Now, it used to be that if you’re a greenie, you identified by I want the countryside, I want agriculture, I want to see green. You don’t really think of a compact, intensively developed city, as green. But let me just make this argument, which I have made before. Let me ask you to think about this. First, why do people move to cities? Is it because the government says so, or because they’re voting with their feet, for opportunities � job opportunities, cultural exchange, education, and all the other services that modern men want? Point is, people move to cities, they vote with their feet voluntarily. The second point is an ecological point. Let me ask you to think about it. The unit cost of supplying electricity, water, food, utilities and all the other services, even telephone � the unit cost of these services is actually lower in a dense, compact, well-planned city, than it is in the countryside. Just think about water for example, to deliver water from a tap in a rural dispersed community actually is far more expensive than it is to deliver water in a condominium.
So my point here is that, in fact, urbanisation is part of the solution for our sustainable future. And it’s relevant to the green building council is that we need to plan, and we need to implement, and we need to design our cities in such a way that we maximise the utility, we decrease the unit costs, and we increase the efficiency and sustainability of life for the future. So, the urbanisation is part of the solution. It is not the problem. The Global Alliance for buildings and construction 2018 Global Status Report has given us some interesting statistics. Building construction and operations accounted for 36% of global energy use. Before coming in here I was having a chat with the committee leaders just now. And, you know, most people do not view buildings, and architecture, urban planning as glamorous and sexy.
But if you understand that building construction and operations account for 36% of global energy use. And even in Singapore, the amount of electricity we use on air conditioning. It is this unglamorous aspect, which actually really shifts the needle – designing your building so that it can cater for natural ventilation. Getting efficient chillers, setting appropriate temperatures for our air conditioning. You know many of my foreign friends come to Singapore, they say, you know, it is very strange. We come here and it’s like polar weather indoors. And then you go outdoors and then it’s hot and wet. They can’t understand what we’re trying to do. And actually they have a point. We are a tropical country we are one degree north of the equator. And actually the way we design our buildings, the way we dress even, should reflect our tropical situation. So my point here again is to make a plug for why the Green Building Council is so important.
Anyway, what’s the way forward for us? To meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement, we have taken several major steps. First, on mitigation. We have implemented an economy-wide carbon tax. And we have also announced the intention of increasing it within the next 10 years. I just asked you to stop to think about that. All over the world I just told you, politics is becoming more difficult. I can tell you as a Singapore politician, politics is more difficult. And I’m not just referring to the upcoming election. But can you imagine, before an election, we have announced carbon tax. You know how unpopular taxes are. But we have announced it. And unlike many other countries, ours is an economy-wide tax with no exemptions. Frankly, if you go and ask politicians in many other countries, I think we’re in a very small exclusive club to do it. Fortunately, I am happy to note, I think the majority of Singaporeans understand why we have to do this, and support this. And we need your support also to explain why short-term, sometimes difficult decisions need to be made for the long term good. So we are the first country in Southeast Asia, in fact I think we’re one of the first countries anywhere in the world to have an economy-wide carbon tax, with no exemptions.
Second, in the transport sector by 2040, we aim to have 90% of all peak commuting trips, to be made on public transport. That’s a significant increase. But you also understand now why Mr Khaw Boon Wan is focusing so much energy, and why the Ministry of Finance is giving so much money to transport, to enhance our public transport system. Because public transport is also a crucial element of the solution to a sustainable future.
You would also have heard in the last few weeks, our plans, in terms of solar energy, that we aim to deploy at least two gigawatt peak of solar energy by 2030, which will be about 10% of our peak daily electricity demand today. You would notice many rooftops, especially HDB rooftops now being covered with solar panels. We were so desperate that when I was in the Environment and Water Resource Ministry I said look there are the reservoirs, can we even put floating panels. Thus there’s the debate about what impact that may have on ecosystems. But nevertheless, we are so short, I hope you will understand that we do need to try to maximise solar deployment as much as possible. But we will continue to monitor the impact on the ecology and do so in a responsible scientific way.
Another point you have heard about from Prime Minister, we’re protecting our coast. In 2011, we raised the minimum reclamation levels for newly reclaimed lands. What this means is that all our newly reclaimed land will be at least four metres above mean sea level. This is to give us some buffer if we anticipate a rise in sea level. We are also protecting our coastal areas as a whole, through building of sea walls or pumping stations and you know we have been experimenting with polders in Pulau Tekong.
And another topic close to my heart, flood resilience. I must confess that we have invested about $1.8. billion on drainage improvement works since 2011. And since I was the Minister for Environment in 2011, I have to take responsibility for that. In fact today if you go to Holland Plain that connects a bypass canal, that channels water from the Bukit Timah canal into the Ulu Pandan canal – it is huge. I took a romantic walk with my wife and she said why did you build it? So I said well – Mr Ler would vaguely remember when he came to me, they said how big should we build it, they said our usual consideration is to build it for one-in-50 years storm. So I said no, now a one-in-50 years storm seems to happen more than one in 50 years. How about building it for one�in-100 years storm? They came back to me and said well this is the additional amount it will cost. And I said well let’s go for resilience, paid a little bit extra as an insurance premium. So, we are investing in flood resilience.
So, all these efforts must naturally extend to the built environment. And we have set a target of 80% of all buildings by floor area in Singapore to be green. But I much like Jessica Cheam’s target which is 100%. So Jessica keep plugging away. So officially, the government has said 80% but you keep campaigning and maybe in five or 10 years’ time, everyone will agree with you. It is a very ambitious goal, even at 80%, it is an ambitious goal. Why did I say it’s ambitious? Because today we are only 40%. So let’s double it. And then after that, let’s do Jessica Cheam’s target. We will also promote super low energy, zero energy, or positive energy buildings. You know what that means ? It means that each building has to be able to offset, or preferably even generate more energy than it uses. And this will help push the boundaries of energy efficiency for buildings in Singapore.
We need to have an ecosystem where there are both business and financial opportunities for firms that want to embrace green buildings. I was talking to Mr Chia just now. I mean, we’re not supposed to advertise for private companies. But, I think, to be fair, CDL has been a pioneer (applause). And sometimes one has to pay the price for being too early. But we should congratulate, and we should hope that more companies emulate this and are prepared to pay the price. I believe you even raised the green bond? In 2017? And you managed to raise $100 million. I believe you use these funds which helped you save $1.2 million annually, by reducing water and energy consumption. The figures I’m citing are from your retro commissioning of the Republic Plaza, which is one of your flagship buildings, so congratulations again to CDL for that. Now of course, in addition to cost savings, green buildings must also lead to stronger branding. And actually what we need to do is to set it up so that those of you who are greener are more profitable. Until we get the incentives right, it is very hard to create a sustainable movement in favour of green. So, I look forward to more businesses following your footsteps and more businesses taking a long-term approach.
Developing a sustainable built environment also means leveraging science and innovation. Cooling systems account for about 40% to 50% of our buildings energy consumption. There are hybrid cooling systems that combined Fresh Air and Air Conditioning and all this � just one example of how you can reduce energy consumption. I also know of a Singapore based company which has interesting innovations on getting greater efficiency in air conditioning. These designs, these innovations, will allow our future buildings to require less energy or even ideally be a net zero energy building. In fact, I believe the new building of the NUS School of Design and Environment � anyone from NUS here? I believe you are aiming to also build a net-zero energy building. And that is the way it should be. NUS as an academic institution, as a teaching and research institution, should lead by example, so please go and do that. The government will continue to test-bed new technology and solutions across the island. We want to be a living laboratory for green in the future, and we hope that these successful projects will be scaled up and applied nationwide.
So let me conclude. The building industry is crucial. It is crucial in a world confronting climate change, it is crucial in a world undergoing rapid and progressive urbanisation. And it is crucial that we are actually going to make a significant difference to the needle. It may not be glamorous, it may not be simple to explain, but I am here to tell you that you make a difference. The government recognises that, and we support you. And we thank you for being ahead of your time. But if we do this right, Singapore will be in a unique position to offer solutions to test-bed new ideas, and to enable us to speak with credibility when we go onto the international stage, and we tell everybody, look, there is a climate emergency. But in fact, all the technology that we need has already been invented. It’s now a matter of working together, working smarter and generating long-term sustainable ways to deploy these technologies, so that we can save our own world. So I want to thank you again for all your efforts in the last decade, and tell you that the next decade will be even more crucial.
So thank you, I wish you all the very best.
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Singapore