Why aren’t we doing enough for climate change?

Updated: Mar 9

By Loraine Lee Yen

PHOTO: LIANG LEI


I don’t understand — why are we not acting faster in response to climate change?


Rising sea levels threaten to sink our tiny island, unprecedented bushfires have burnt over 3 million acres of land in Australia and the North Pole is on the brink of disappearing. It’s all over the news, and yet we are not responding fast enough to curb the effects of climate change.


The Government knows rising sea levels could be our undoing, a threat it called “significant” when announcing a new $5 billion Coastal and Flood Protection fund in this year’s Budget.


Yet, Singapore is lagging behind in its efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change. We produced 11.6 million tonnes more greenhouse gases than Hong Kong in 2017 despite the latter being twice our size. Our household recycling rates was merely 22 per cent in 2018, which pales in comparison to the 99 per cent of waste that Swedish households recycle yearly.


I can’t help but question, if we recognise the implications of climate change, why are we not doing more?


It’s not like we don’t care about our environment. There is a sentiment among Singaporeans that we (or at least, somebody) need to act. A 2019 study by MediaCorp found that 92 per cent of respondents were concerned about the impacts of climate change in Singapore and 96 per cent felt the Government had to do more to minimise its impact.


Although 92 per cent of respondents said they would do their part for the environment, hard numbers prove we do not practice what we preach. Plastic recycling rates in Singapore was 4 per cent in 2018, down from 6 per cent in 2017, and plastic waste increased from 822,000 tonnes to 950,000 tonnes over the same period.


Must we always depend on the Government to incentivise good behaviour and penalise the bad? The number of cars on the road are limited by the Certificate of Entitlement quota, people are fined for littering, and are encouraged to buy environmentally-friendly cars with rebates and surpluses from the Vehicular Emissions Scheme (VES).


A recycling bin was placed in every HDB Block from 2011, as part of the National Recycling Programme. Nine years later, people still don’t know what belongs in the blue bin – 67 per cent of Singaporeans believed dirty paper food boxes could be recycled and 62 per cent thought glass and porcelain cookware belonged in the blue bin. Not only are these items unrecyclable, they contaminate up to 40 per cent of recyclable items.


Granted, those bins had unclear recycling instructions and were redesigned in 2019 in the Zero Waste Masterplan. The older bins will be replaced by mid-2020. New HDB blocks are also built with recycling chutes on every floor, saving residents a trip downstairs to save the planet.


Singapore will make a big move towards electric vehicles (EV), having announced its intention to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2040 during the Budget. But let’s not forget that Singapore generates most of its electricity from fossil fuels, mainly natural gas. Carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas may be about half that from other fossil fuels like coal, but accidental leakage of methane during the combustion process poses greater harm to the environment.


While solar energy production is planned to multiply by over seven times by 2020, the switch to renewable energy resources is cumbered by high cost, weather dependency and large space requirements. Natural gas will remain a “substantial part of our energy need” for the next 50 years, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing.


This highlights the conundrum in switching to EVs by 2040: our dependence on electricity is only going to increase. But what could we do, if electricity from fossil fuels is all we rely on?


Then again, there is no knowing how well the transition from petrol and diesel cars to EVs will go. Would the subsidies to encourage early adoption of EVs work, given the premium price tag of EVs and the slim variety of EV models in Singapore?


At the ground level, individual effort requires individual spending. Sustainable living requires investing money in solutions like metal straws, reusable cups and bags.


The growing push toward sustainability is also a money-making business. The United States is projected to spend $150 billion on sustainable goods by 2021. While there are no statistics showing the size of the sustainability market in Singapore, if I count every metal straw I’ve been gifted, my friends would have already contributed $50 to the market.


Green movements by corporations such as H&M, Miniso and Bossini to charge consumers for plastic bags is a good deterrence for the cost-conscious consumer. However, some argue it allows companies to profit off what was once free for the consumer. And while it may prevent consumers from taking plastic bags, it doesn't reach the root of the problem — people aren’t willing to make habitual changes for the environment.


Ultimately, it boils down to what is cheap and what is convenient. My mom chides me for accidentally leaving my lights turned on — not for the climate but her rebates. I get it, cost is a major factor. I would much rather go to my local NTUC for plastic-wrapped groceries than an eco-friendly shop that would charge extra. And I dare say it’s the same for most Singaporeans.


Despite the detrimental impact of incinerating plastic bags, the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources has been reluctant to put a levy on plastic bag usage. It said a ban or levy on plastic bags was “unlikely to improve environmental outcomes” and phasing out single-use plastic would be more sustainable. But wouldn’t the levy deter those who persistently use plastic bags?


When some supermarkets and convenience shops trialled charging ten cents for plastic bags for one month last year, 71 per cent of customers surveyed supported the fee. Japanese retailer Miniso also reported that 75 per cent of customers refused a plastic bag following its 10 cent charge.


It’s not that the Government has never enforced heavy-handed bans for climate change efforts. In February 1991, Singapore stopped importing and manufacturing aerosol products — like some hairspray and insecticide — containing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are ozone-depleting gases.


So, who is to blame for our lack of effort towards climate change? The Government for not implementing enough bans and more all-rounded solutions? Corporations that profit from the sustainability movement? Or people who only act if they feel the pain (money) or relief (convenience).


Sadly, it appears that people are more motivated to act because of punishments or incentives, rather than desiring to mitigate the impacts of climate change. How much more does the situation need to worsen for people to take responsibility for the future of our planet home?

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