Singaporean Minister: ‘Business as usual is not viable’

vivan balakrishnan

Editor’s note: The following text is an edited transcript of a speech delivered by Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, the Singaporean Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, at the Singapore Sustainability Symposium, 8 January 2014.
… I want to wish all of you a very happy new year, a year which is going to be interesting. Depending on your point of view, wishing someone an interesting year is not necessarily a blessing. You have heard two eminent Professors speak before me, and I took notes. I arrived at three conclusions.

First, business-as-usual is not viable. It is not sustainable. The second point is that in fact, much of the technology and many of the solutions are actually already available, which then raises the question – why hasn’t the world been able to fully utilise the technologies and solutions which are already available, in order to better deal with the challenges of the future?

My third point is that we need leadership. Leadership needs to come from the academic, technological and the business fields. Because without making these new technologies and solutions economically viable, it would not take off. And finally, political leadership, in order to put everything together. So the point that I am making is that we need broad based leadership in order to translate available technologies into viable solutions, so that we can make our way forward into the future.

Let me spend some time putting things in context. We all know that the world’s population today exceeds seven billion people. This is unprecedented. Never before in human history have there been seven billion people alive at the same time. We also know that more than half of the seven billion people today live in cities. This is also unprecedented, because never before in human history, have the majority of human beings lived in cities.

Prior to this, the majority of us lived in villages, or in the countryside or in an agricultural setting. Since the Industrial Revolution which occurred only about 250 years ago, great fortunes have been made by extracting the earth’s resources, literally just mining it out of the ground. But, we know that simply extracting resources and generating great wealth from that, is not sustainable because we are now at the point where there is a real risk of resource depletion. Related to this, is the fact that we, human beings, have also collectively polluted the air, the water, the ground and the sea at unprecedented levels, over the last two centuries. So, this attitude that we can get a free ride by simply extracting and polluting and not have to account for externalities, is one key reason why business-as-usual is not viable.

We are also painfully aware of the reports that have been submitted by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Each report becomes gloomier, and they point to unequivocal signs that the climate is changing. Perhaps it was a poor choice of words to use the term “global warming” — because that is only one side of the equation. What is really happening is that the global climate is changing; the amount of water in the world has not changed; but the amount of energy which is churning the water round is affecting sea levels, affecting storms, causing droughts, and causing polar conditions to be in the continental United States. … We are facing greater climate volatility and the risk for human beings is exponentially increased. My point is that we are also at unprecedented levels, as far as climate change is concerned and the pace of that change, and the impact that has on very fragile support systems for human beings.

… The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hovers now at around 400 parts per million. This again is a level which is unprecedented on the scale of millions of years and beyond. It is not just the absolute level but the rate of change. So my point is that we are truly living in interesting and dangerous times.

… If we move to the technological front, great strides have been made for renewable energy, whether it is solar, wind, tidal, or geothermal. In fact, the unit cost of renewable energy has come down drastically in the last decade. But the point is that our renewable energy sectors have to compete with the fossil fuels sector, which still enjoys a huge level of subsidies. The estimated subsidies range from 600 billion to 1.8 trillion dollars per year. These levels of subsidies far exceed the investments in academia and in technology to generate renewable solutions for a sustainable world. My point is that the opportunities are there, but for a variety of reasons, we are not fully harvesting these opportunities.

On the climate change negotiations front, I am more pessimistic. Fundamentally, we know something is going on, we know something needs to be done, but the problem is a political one. There is not enough political will and perhaps, fortunately or unfortunately, the level of global ecological disasters have not yet reached the tipping point where electorates are going to force politicians to exercise leadership and expend political capital in order to do the right thing for the long term.

So, I believe it is now time for us to galvanise everyone. Both within Singapore, as well as the global community at large – to make a realistic assessment of the state of the world; to conclude, like many of you in this room, that business-as-usual is not viable; to exercise our minds and imagination to generate even more solutions; and then to get governments and societies to take those discoveries and solutions and upscale them into national and international projects which will make a difference.

Now, I cannot speak for the world, but we are responsible for Singapore. Let me share a few aspects about Singapore’s environmental journey and how that has shaped our perspective. Singapore is extremely small, 700 square kilometres, and we have no natural resources. In a paradoxical way, the blessing of being small and of having no natural resources has meant that the environment has always been an existential issue. Let me give you a few examples. Because, we are small, “my backyard is your front yard, my side gate is your side gate”. We do not have the land available to have a toxic dump, where we can just dump something that is inconvenient and forget about it. That has been since day one of independence.

Another example – we could never allow our industries to pollute our air, regardless of the external impact, because we live right next to our industrial zones. Toxins or pollutants in the air immediately have an impact on the health of our population. So, we have been very careful about measuring, about legislation, and about enforcement, to ensure that pollution is well controlled.

Another example – to this day, we import half of our water from Malaysia. Water has always been an existential issue. But, because, we had our backs against the wall, we had the opportunity to upscale technological solutions into a viable approach. For instance, we did not invent the reverse osmosis membranes, but we are probably the first sovereign state that has taken that, upscaled that into a national solution and today, our water companies have business opportunities in many other parts of the world. Their calling card is the track record in Singapore, that we have substantially solved the challenge of water supply for our city. So, there again, the point is that if you take an enlightened long-term approach to your short- term existential problems, you can actually generate many opportunities for the future.

We are going to spend the next year or so in Singapore focusing on a national exercise to review two dimensions of our environmental journey. First, because our circumstances and challenges have changed so drastically, I think it is time for us to redefine the vision and the values that underpin our approach to the environment, and this cannot be a government-dictated exercise. Fortunately, we have a vibrant non-governmental sector that is increasingly dynamic, prepared to speak up, and even objecting to developments that they consider unsustainable.

We need to engage in an honest and open exercise to define what the vision for Singapore is in a completely changed world with fundamental environmental challenges. The vision cannot be just a fairytale, a hope or a set of wishes. I believe a vision must be grounded on values. Now, I do not want to pre-judge the issues but if you look at our environmental story, there have been some fundamental values that have underpinned Singapore’s approach to the environment so far.

First, it’s all about people. We protect the air, the sea, the water and the biodiversity; not just because we are green, but because anyone who is seriously interested in the welfare of human beings has to be an environmentalist. So, the first value is about people.

Another value that we can consider, and I will use our own history as an example, is that you have to take a long-term approach. A knee-jerk reaction is not enough. We took decades to solve our environmental challenges and huge investments, not just financially, but also in terms of manpower to generate the solutions which we have today.

Also related to this point, is the third value I submit that we should consider. That is the concept of fairness. The reason why current models of prosperity are not viable is because they are fundamentally unfair. Extractive and pollutive ways of making money are unfair to the stakeholders, both today and tomorrow. It will not be fair to our children and grandchildren to leave them with depleted and polluted resources.

Another value that perhaps will underpin our future is that of partnership. … The solutions for our challenges tomorrow will be at the boundaries of different disciplines and different groups. It will not be just government; but it will be government, non-government organisations and businesses. Because, at the end of the day, we need to generate solutions which are ecologically sound, economically viable and socially and politically fair. These are some examples and values that I hope we will have the opportunity to discuss and to illuminate and undergird the vision for our future.

… I want therefore to invite all the non-governmental organisations which have a stake in this field; and the young people, because we know that young Singaporeans are perhaps even more green-conscious than preceding generations. Perhaps, it is because young people instinctively understand that they have a bigger stake in a sustainable future, as they are going to inherit the world that we will leave behind.

… One of our visions for Singapore is for Singapore to be a working model of the future. Since the future is going to be primarily about cities; and since the future is going to consist of the challenge of changing our way of life and our livelihoods to deal with environmental and social changes, the experiments, pilot projects, and the national projects that we embark on in Singapore will have relevance to other parts of the world.

So, please devote your minds and energy to this. This will be a worthwhile effort.

Leave a Reply