Speech by Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment, at the TEDXESSEC Asia Pacific Event on 28 April 2021
2 Today’s talk centres around the questions of how we can reconcile progress and sustainability and how we can systematically introduce sustainable thinking at all levels of governance without shackling growth. It is in this context that I would like to share the story of a small island city-state. In the late 1960s, this place was covered in mudflats, but her leaders had the audacity to think big – to transform the little island nation with no natural resources into a sustainable, first-world metropolis. This island city-state that has transformed from mudflats to a metropolis in one generation, as you may have guessed, is Singapore.
Singapore’s Sustainable Development Journey
3 Transforming tiny Singapore was no easy task. When we became independent, we were almost entirely dependent on external sources for basic needs like energy and water. Our pioneer leaders needed to urgently create jobs and housing for our people. Even so, they had at the outset sought to balance economic development with environmental protection and social inclusion. It was recognised early on that this is the only way to ensure long term sustainable development so that Singapore can continue to thrive, well into the future.
4 There were many trade-offs to consider. For example, back in the 70s, when Singapore was going through rapid industrialisation, the Government made difficult decisions to turn away pollutive industries to ensure that Singapore continues to have a liveable environment. The 1971 Clean Air Act, with its stringent pollution controls, is a good example of our early action to ensure that progress was compatible with sustainability.
5 It took bold vision, commitment and concrete action to turn Singapore into what we are today.
Perhaps the older folks in the audience would remember – back in the 60s and 70s, you could smell the Singapore River from a mile away, as it was heavily polluted with sewage and rubbish.
6 In 1977, we began a decade-long monumental task to clean up the Singapore River. With the removal of various sources of water pollution, provision of proper sewerage infrastructure and new facilities for resettled residents and businesses, we saw vast improvements in our water quality, public health and sanitation. Speaking at the Clean Rivers Commemoration ten years later in 1987, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew outlined three factors which made the feat possible – the vision of what was possible with modern engineering, the courage and tenacity to implement tough but necessary measures, and, finally, changing life-long habits.
7 These factors are still necessary to overcome today’s challenges — one of the greatest being climate change. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected that carbon emissions would have to be cut by 45 per cent by 2030, to avoid some of the most devastating outcomes on our eco-system. As we have experienced with recent floods in Indonesia, East Timor and Australia, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and will be exacerbated as our climate changes. Just two weeks ago, right here in Singapore, we experienced one of the most intense rainfall episodes in the last 40 years. Flash floods occurred in several parts of Singapore. The impact of climate change has become undeniably and painfully evident.
8 The year 2020 was a key turning point for the world. COVID-19 has triggered the sharpest contraction in the global economy since the Great Depression. It is a vivid reminder that we live in a deeply interconnected world. It has reminded us how vulnerable we are to the forces of nature and brought the issue of environmental sustainability into sharp focus.
9 Indeed, environmental sustainability is no longer the purview of fringe activists or the pet subject of arcane climate scientists, but a global existential issue. “Building back better” has become the mantra of almost every country, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing number of climate catastrophes.
10 Sustainable development is a key imperative for all countries, as we transit towards a low-carbon future. As I have shared, this ethos of sustainability is not new to Singapore. But in the face of climate change and other challenges, we must build on our past and current efforts, and put sustainability at the core of everything we do. And this is not just a slogan, but a core tenet of our public policy.
Singapore Green Plan 2030
11 In February this year, the Government launched the Singapore Green Plan 2030, a whole of government and whole of nation plan that builds on sustainability efforts of preceding decades.
The Green Plan will ensure that Singapore remains a green and liveable home with sustainability as a new engine of growth. It sets out ambitious and concrete targets for the next 10 years to advance Singapore’s national agenda on sustainable development. The plan strengthens our commitments under the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda and Paris Agreement, and positions us to achieve our long-term goal of net zero emissions as soon as viable. Let me share a few examples.
12 Under the Green Plan, we will intensify our push to make our commutes greener. Public transport is still the greenest way to travel. We will expand our rail network so that by 2030, 80 per cent of our households will be within a 10-minute walk of a train station. We aim for 75% of peak period trips to be made on mass public transport by 2030. To encourage walking and cycling, we are tripling our cycling path network by 2030 and repurposing road spaces for active mobility. By 2040, we will phase out internal combustion engine vehicles so that all vehicles will run on cleaner energy.
13 We are also taking swift steps to green our energy. We will ramp up our solar energy deployment to five times that of today by 2030, and cover the rooftops of our public housing blocks with solar panels. Where possible, we will also make use of our water bodies such as reservoirs to install floating solar farms. We also plan to tap clean energy sources from the ASEAN region and beyond, through electricity imports. This will be done in parallel with efforts to make better use of our precious resources. Over the next decade, we will green 80 per cent of buildings in Singapore, to reduce their energy and water usage.
14 In the area of food, Singapore aims to meet 30 per cent of our nutritional needs with local produce by 2030 — for comparison, we are producing less than 10 per cent today. We call this our “30 by 30” goal. To do so, we are leveraging on technology – for example, our farms are adopting productive techniques like vertical farming and climate-control. Due to limited land, only about 1 per cent of Singapore land is available for agriculture.
As it was in 1987 when then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew implied in his Clean River Commemoration speech, technology will enable us to overcome our constraints.
15 Under the Green Plan, the government has committed to take the lead in pursuing sustainable development through the “GreenGov.Sg” initiative. The public sector will set new and ambitious sustainability targets, and lead green demand to serve as a role model for corporates and individuals.
3P and Green Economy
16 However, a sustainable Singapore cannot be achieved by just the Government’s efforts. The support of the public, private and people (or 3P) sectors is crucial to Singapore’s fight against climate change. Singaporeans must be willing to change our habits, no matter how ingrained, and adopt climate-friendly actions like recycling right and bringing our own reusable bags when shopping. Corporates and communities can also co-create solutions to tackle climate change, and the Government will provide support, for example through our $50 million SG Eco Fund.
17 On the economic front, the green transition can be a boon for business too. According to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate , bold climate action could generate more than 65 million new low-carbon jobs globally in 2030. Singapore is positioning itself to seize opportunities in the green economy. We will grow new sectors such as novel foods, carbon services, and green finance. We are promoting homegrown innovation under our Research, Innovation and Enterprise Plan 2025. We are also attracting companies to anchor their R&D activities in Singapore, to develop new sustainability solutions in areas such as carbon capture and solutions for the circular economy. Just as we have closed the water loop by turning waste water into NEWater for reuse, we are also looking into closing the waste loop by turning incineration bottom ash into NEWSand for reuse.
18 Our efforts to create a greener and more sustainable future will not only improve our living environment, but will help to grow our economy, generate more business opportunities and create good green jobs.
19 Let me conclude. Since independence, Singapore has inherently understood that as a small nation with limited natural resources, we must develop sustainably in order to maximise the well-being of our people. Our sustainability story demonstrates that, while not easy, it is possible to balance progress with sustainability. From mudflats, we have transformed Singapore into a green and liveable home, where our people enjoy clean air and water, lush greenery, quality healthcare and education and safe common spaces. In the face of climate change, we will push forward even more strongly to ensure that Singapore remains a vibrant and liveable city for future generations.