Fast Forward: Disruption and the Singapore Economy

Growing allure of green jobs

Ms Gracie Low, 22, has a lofty dream: She wants to help save the earth. The National University of Singapore undergraduate, who enters the workforce next year, is on the lookout for jobs that will let her help companies cut waste, whether through education, technology, research or policy.

"There are so many opportunities out there," she says.

Waste management may strike some as dirty work but more young people are realising the value of such green jobs. Attitudes towards these jobs have in recent years undergone a sea change, says Mr Wilson Ang, executive director of charity Global Compact Network Singapore which promotes corporate sustainability.

Singaporeans used to think these jobs were to be found only in government agencies like the National Environment Agency or water agency PUB, or involved signing up with a conservation group and being paid a pittance. Now, though, more are becoming aware that "green jobs" in the sustainability sector can earn them a fair wage and provide them with a chance to do meaningful work that helps protect the environment.

Mr Ang says a turning point was the collapse of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, when nations failed to agree on terms to curb greenhouse gas emissions. In the lead-up to that summit, businesses and trade unions had come together to show that a low carbon future was viable, compatible with economic progress and would create jobs, says Mr Ang, who has been involved in the climate movement since 2005. "Because of the failure, the climate movement realised that action needed to start from the ground up - with or without governmental policies in place. This helped build awareness among people, especially the young, that every industry can be greened," he adds.

Last December's Paris Agreement to fight climate change has fanned those sparks of interest into flames. Mr Ken Hickson, chairman of Sustain Ability Showcase Asia consultancy, says: "With almost 200 countries agreeing to take active steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it gave companies the affirmation they needed that going green makes business sense." He believes Singapore is in a prime position to drive investment in this area, given its track record of economic transparency and good corporate governance.

NUS undergraduate Gracie Low, who enters the workforce next year, will be looking for jobs that will help companies cut waste. She believes there are many opportunities in the green sector.  PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Companies like wind energy firm The Blue Circle have set up their headquarters here to invest in clean energy projects in Vietnam and Thailand. Demand in this sector is set to grow with much of Asia now coming face to face with challenges that Singapore has long grappled with, including rapid urbanisation, waste management and congestion.

"These present numerous opportunities for Singapore-based companies to export smart and sustainable urban solutions as cities in Asia race to be more smart, sustainable and liveable," says Mr Goh Chee Kiong, the Economic Development Board's (EDB) executive director of cleantech and cities, infrastructure and industrial solutions.

EDB includes in the sustainability sector renewable energy, energy efficiency, water treatment, environmental engineering and green building technology. The sector is estimated to contribute $6.2 billion to Singapore's gross domestic product and provide about 60,000 jobs.

Mr Ang expects the number of jobs to grow as more people become aware of the need to protect the environment and use resources more efficiently. The youth wing of the National Trades Union Congress is now promoting green jobs. In April, Young NTUC organised a Green Jobs Symposium to raise awareness of the viability of careers in the green sector.

What do these winds of change mean for jobs in "un-green" industries, such as oil refining?

This is a period of transition, says Mr Ang, and that means "un-green" jobs will not be phased out immediately. Workers, he says, have a chance to upgrade their skills and technological know-how so they can meet the needs of the changing economy.

Audrey Tan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'Growing allure of green jobs'. Print Edition | Subscribe