“Increasingly in the future, in your future, green issues and the environment will be in play. And people who are prepared for the future will always be one step ahead.” said Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources on February 16th 2012. Dr Balakrishnan was speaking to an assembled audience of students and members of the public at the Youth Climate Change Forum on the challenges of climate change and its national implications at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The forum was jointly organized by the NUS Students Against Violation of the Earth (SAVE) and the NUS Political Association (NUSPA). The lively two hour long parley was moderated by local environmental activist Ms. Olivia Choong.
Dr Balakrishnan told the crowd that it is difficult for leaders to get the world to care about environmental issues, let alone motivate Singaporeans to take action on the matter. Public apathy and inertia are constant challenges that the government faces when it formulates its environmental policies.
“Climate change is a field of great uncertainty and it’s all in the long term and the pay offs aren’t so immediate. It is very hard to get people to think long term. The environment belongs to everyone it’s everybody’s problem but no one wants to step up.” Explained Dr Balakrishnan as he detailed the reason why the world has been slow to act on the challenges of climate change.
“The government believes that global climate change is a global problem and needs a multilateral approach and enforcement to be solved. Singapore will do its fair share when the world decides to solve the problem together. However, Singapore will not impose an unfair burden on Singaporeans when the rest of the world is not prepared to act. For those who do their part by going vegetarian, taking public transport, please continue to do so. But it is not fair to ask the government to impose that on others who don’t.” opined Dr Balakrishnan when asked by a member of the audience on what Singapore is prepared to do in the battle against climate change.
When asked if it is possible to encourage citizens to reduce their meat consumption and carbon footprint by going back to the vegetable dominated diets of old, Dr Balakrishnan candidly said: “How do I tell you what to eat? How do I tell you to eat more vegetables? Even our mothers can’t make us eat our vegetables…do you think a minister can?”
Ms. Choong interjected, suggesting that perhaps the government could spearhead more healthy eating campaigns to help educate the public on the health and environmental benefits of switching to a vegetable dominated diet. Dr Balakrishnan answered by saying that the government will try but reminded the audience that there are limits as to how much one can change human behavior.
Dr Balakrishnan shared the following about Singapore’s energy challenges:
Almost all of Singapore’s electricity production is fossil based:
“It is well known that coal is the most polluting of fossil fuels. But the reality is that it’s impossible to ween humanity away from using coal.” Said Dr Balakrishnan. He then went onto elucidate that Singapore has avoided coal in its energy production because of its pollutive effects and the fact that Singapore’s small size makes it impossible to hide from the air pollution that burning coal generates.
Dr Balakrishnan said that renewable energy sources in Singapore are currently not feasible due to the following constraints:
Dr Balakrishnan explained that for the time being, the most effective strategy for Singapore’s energy security is energy conservation and energy efficiency. He went on to reveal that an energy conservation act will be put to parliament later this year to promote public energy conservation. Dr Balakrishnan also elaborated that there are also government schemes and grants for companies, particularly the larger consumers, to encourage them do their energy consumption in the most efficient way possible.
Dr Balakrishnan said that the reason why Singaporeans pay full price for their electricity is because the government does not subsidize energy. “Subsidizing energy will only incentivize people to over consume and waste energy even though politically it is the popular thing to do.”
Dr Balakrishnan ended the discussion on energy security by reiterating that energy is one of the central variables of the Singaporean economy and society, and the government will continue to look at ways to make the nation more energy secure.
“We import virtually all our food. Our ambition is to make sure Singapore is amongst the richest nations in the world and then the issue for food security is to make sure we have multiple sources of food and we can pay global prices for food. I do not believe, even with hydroponics, we can ever be self sufficient regarding food due to our land constraints.” Said Dr Balakrishnan.
Dr Balakrishnan went on to state that genetically modified (GM) food is where the next breakthrough in global food production will be and that GM food will allow the world to continue to feed itself. But he also warned the audience that a global food crisis will be upon the world in about ten to twenty years down the road if there are no breakthroughs in global food production.
When prompted by Dr Balakrishnan for her views on food security, Ms. Olivia Choong said: “We’re kind of playing with fire if we don’t do something; we can’t keep imagining that we’re going be rich and everything’s going to be fine.” Ms. Choong went on to cite the successes that local fish farms have experienced in food production and asked if it is possible to use fish farms to increase Singapore’s food security.
Dr Balakrishnan replied that fish farms as a solution is not the answer because fish farms are constrained by the fact by Singapore’s limited sea space; Fish farming requires more open seas and Singapore is confined by its maritime borders.
After a lively back and forth with the audience, Dr Balakrishnan ended the forum by posing a thought provoking prediction: “Our Earth has been through a lot and quite frankly does not need to be saved by us…Yes, we may make things difficult, yes we make things warmer, we may make the earth an unpleasant place but earth and nature and biology will survive us. The real question is whether we will survive.”