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Earth to Singapore: Join up the green dots

It's Singapore's Year of Climate Action. But environmental groups say closer coordination between them and the Government is needed for the campaign to get off the ground.

A Web resource portal. A Climate Action pledge for individuals, organisations and schools to do their bit. A Climate Action logo.

These were unveiled as part of the launch last month of Singapore's Year of Climate Action, a 12-month national initiative aimed at raising awareness of climate change and the urgency to do something about it.

Environmental groups tell The Straits Times they are hopeful that outreach efforts can narrow the gap between awareness and action.

Indeed, increasing Singaporeans' knowledge about how individuals can do their part, such as recycling or cracking down on the use of plastic bags - where Singapore has lagged behind efforts of other countries - is a pressing one, amid the wider need to get them to grasp just how dire the situation is.

But climate groups say that while the initiative shows the Government is willing to put climate change on the national agenda, most feel that a clear action plan is lacking.

For example, there are so many aspects to climate change, which one should outreach efforts focus on? How should green groups coordinate their outreach, so efforts are not duplicated? How will success be measured?

The co-founder of the Singapore Youth for Climate Action (SYCA), Ms Nor Lastrina Hamid, said: "Credibility is about ensuring that everyone - from government agencies to green groups - is coordinated in its approach to climate change. This will show that Singapore is serious about the issue."

True, there is a lack of focus on which aspect of climate change to target. The environmental groups have their wish lists. What is the situation and where does that stand in the context of a country and its individuals helping fight this huge threat to the planet's future?

MAKING IT PERSONAL

Climate change refers to the human-induced warming of the Earth, caused by deforestation and the excessive consumption of resources that result in the production of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Individuals here may not have direct control over emissions, but everyone can reduce consumption of resources. The message of the importance of the "3Rs" (reduce, reuse and recycle) has to come out clearer and stronger.

Besides, the major polluters in Singapore are already being dealt with. The Government has, among other things, plans to introduce a carbon tax for industries, invested in solar energy, frozen car population growth and expanded the public transport network.

The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) has tried to promote the 3Rs via a social media campaign, in which it pays social media personalities to post photographs of themselves engaging in "green" habits, such as turning up the air-conditioning.

The 3Rs is also reflected in the Climate Action Pledge, which has already garnered more than 1,600 signatures. For example, individuals can commit to recycling the right way, not using a plastic straw, or to taking reusable bags with them when they go shopping.

But these efforts merely repeat what people already know: That recycling, not taking plastic bags, taking public transport, and ordering only what you need, are good for the environment.

 
 
 

What is needed is a way to make people want to practise them.

Communications expert Ginny-Ann Oh, director of public relations firm Asia PR Werkz, said repetition could help reinforce the message: "Understanding human behaviour, such as how long it takes for a habit to be formed, could be useful as timely reminders can be put out on platforms that reach pledgers, whether through social media or advertising campaigns, to remind them of the green commitments they made."

Miss Pamela Low from SYCA believes an effective way of encouraging people to practise the 3Rs is to personalise "green habits", and link them to personal benefits.

"Most things that fall under 'climate action' actually bring us back to our grandparents' time of being resourceful or thrifty, and this aligns very well with our priorities of health and money," she said.

Miss Low is partnering some schools to roll out a zero-waste initiative called Tingkat Heroes, which encourages people to eat in, or to use their own takeaway containers if they have to eat out.

BETTER DATA NEEDED

Data can make campaigns more compelling, especially if it is shocking enough to spur action.

In 2010, for example, World Wildlife Fund India launched a campaign to save tigers, which included posters that read "Just 1,411 left". This referred to tigers left in the wild - a decline from the 3,642 tigers in 2002. More than 75,000 people signed up on the campaign website within the first first week of its launch.

But detailed information is scant when it comes to Singapore's progress on the 3Rs.

Take the issue of plastic bags, which environmental groups say people should pay for, so they'll take fewer of them. Figures could show the gravity of the problem here - and it would be easier to decide if punitive action is necessary.

England, which has a plastic bag tax, kept track of the number of plastic bags it used before implementing the charge - seven billion a year, distributed by seven main supermarkets. This fell to 500 million in the first six months after the charge was introduced.

In Singapore, there is no data for how many plastic bags are used each year. The latest available figure dates back to 2011, when the Singapore Environment Council did a study to show that three billion plastic bags were used that year.

This has likely gone up as the population increases, yet nobody knows by how many.

On the recycling front, Singapore's domestic sector continues to fare poorly, showing that the mere provision of infrastructure such as recycling bins or chutes is not enough. In 2016, only 21 per cent of waste produced by households was recycled.

In comparison, Taiwan has a household recycling rate of 55 per cent. Germany's recycling rate for municipal waste is 64 per cent and that of South Korea is 59 per cent, according to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In Singapore, household waste is either recycled by the informal recycling sector, such as rag-and-bone men, or under the National Recycling Programme - a scheme under which licensed public waste collectors provide bins and collection services to all Housing Board estates, and private property opted into the scheme.

But the National Environment Agency (NEA) said it has no breakdown of the quantity of recyclables collected from the blue recycling bins deployed at HDB blocks and private landed homes. Only the combined weight of the recyclables is available.

Considering the differences across each housing type - recycling bins in HDB estates are placed at the foot of each block, whereas in landed estates, each house has its own bin - a breakdown could allow recycling campaigns to be more targeted.

The MEWR - the parent ministry of NEA - said the breakdown is not tracked, but that this will be reviewed if there is a need to in the future.

Ms Cheryl Lee, community manager at Up2Degrees - a movement that raises awareness of climate change in Singapore by getting people to turn their air-conditioners up by 2 deg C - said data could help people visualise the extent of a problem.

"It could make messages more impactful - instead of relying on a 'Save the Earth' rhetoric, people can actually see the gravity of the problem," she said.

COLLABORATIVE APPROACH

At the launch of the Year of Climate Action, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli emphasised the need for the Government to work with various parties, including environmental groups.

The MEWR said it has been engaging the green groups since 2016, and that a roundtable discussion session on climate action was held with them on Jan 3.

But to make the Year of Climate Action have more of an impact, closer collaboration in terms of campaign action is needed between the Government and ground-up groups. The Government has resources, whereas the ground-up groups, each with its own focus areas, have knowledge of the subject matter.

The National Parks Board has a good model for this. It works closely with nature lovers and green groups on outreach activities, and events like the annual Festival of Biodiversity celebration which showcases native wildlife.

Various nature groups, each with its own niche areas - for instance, reptiles, primates or marine life - pitch in to set up booths at the event, usually held at public places such as malls, or help to conduct guided walks.

This is ultimately what climate groups here want: getting more of them involved in the Year of Climate Action. With all groups on the same page, it would be easier to prevent the duplication of work. The Government can then step in to scale up some of their activities to a national level, so the impact is greater.

There are plenty of ground-up campaigns to choose from.

There is Miss Low's Tingkat Heroes project to get people to reduce their use of disposables, and the Up 2 Degrees movement. Another green group, Zero Waste Singapore, has a BYO (Bring Your Own) campaign to get people to use their own bags, bottles or reusable containers when they shop.

The local art scene also wants to chip in. Artist Seelan Palay said he is gathering a few artists to create sculptures using recycled or reused material. The hope is that a new installation can be done every quarter and placed in a public area to spur discussion about the 3Rs and its link to climate change.

Green groups also want the public sector to take the lead. As Ms Lastrina said: "It's the whole idea of how different sectors and types or organisations have their own audience reach, and can affect change at various levels."

An MEWR spokesman said the Government has committed to reducing electricity consumption by 15 per cent, and improving water efficiency by 5 per cent, in 2020, under the Public Sector Sustainability Plan launched last year.

"In this Year of Climate Action, we intend to expand our targets under the plan to also include new targets in waste reduction and the adoption of renewable solar energy. We are also studying the expansion of our green procurement requirements to include other products," he added.

All this shows that when it comes to climate action, the dots are already there. What is needed this Year of Climate Action is a more cohesive way to link them all up.

Yes, this will come at a cost - in terms of money, time and effort at collating ground-up efforts and scaling them up.

There is also a social cost when it comes to getting people to switch to less convenient options. And for the Government, there could be a knee-jerk backlash over its support, or even perceived support, for such efforts.

Just last week, there was plenty of unhappiness when it was announced that more hawker centres could implement a system of charging a deposit that will be forfeited if people do not return their food trays.

But there is a much bigger price to be paid if the Year of Climate Action campaign does not translate into genuine action - that is, the very future of human life on Singapore and, indeed, Earth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2018, with the headline 'Earth to Singapore: Join up the green dots'. Print Edition | Subscribe