Tapping nature in fight against climate change

New research centre at NUS will be helmed by Singaporean conservation scientist


A research centre focusing on how nature can be harnessed to help tackle climate change will be set up by the end of the year at National University of Singapore (NUS), in a move that underscores the Republic's interest in being part of the global push in learning more about nature-based solutions.

Called the Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions, it will be helmed by conservation scientist Koh Lian Pin, who will be returning to Singapore under a National Research Foundation (NRF) scheme after working for more than a decade abroad.

Professor Koh, 43, who is moving back home from Seattle in the US, told The Straits Times that such solutions could include the conservation, restoration and improved management of natural ecosystems such as forests and wetlands, as well as agricultural lands.

Well-managed lands, he said, can help increase the amount of carbon sequestered from the atmosphere. This refers to the natural processes through which trees and soils take in carbon dioxide.

For example, when plants photosynthesise, they use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into organic matter, which is then locked in tree biomass such as trunks and roots.

This process draws down the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, contributing to climate mitigation and enhancing climate resilience. Carbon dioxide, produced by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels for energy, is the main greenhouse gas driving climate change.

Prof Koh cited a 2017 paper published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which had found that natural climate solutions can provide 37 per cent of cost-effective carbon dioxide mitigation needed through 2030 for a greater chance of holding global warming to below 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels.

Yet, while nature-based solutions have potential, trade-offs also have to be considered, he said.

For instance, preserving forests and preventing them from being cut down would mean less land for agriculture, which could negatively affect surrounding communities by compromising their livelihoods and food security.

Further research will help policy-makers determine how to strike this balance, added Prof Koh, who was most recently vice-president of science partnerships and innovation at international environmental group Conservation International Foundation.

Prof Koh has over the past 16 years worked in institutions across Switzerland, Australia and the United States. On April 1, he will assume the appointment of professor of conservation science, technology and policy in the Department of Biological Sciences at the NUS Faculty of Science.

The upcoming centre will have two overarching mandates - investing in policy-relevant research, and building capacity in Singapore and the region to respond "appropriately and decisively" to climate change, Prof Koh said.

Discussions are on to identify a physical space within NUS to house the centre, he added.

"Over the next few months, we will be engaging and collaborating with government, non-governmental and corporate stakeholders to refine the specific aims and activities of the centre," he said.

Prof Koh is the sixth Singaporean scientist under the NRF's Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme, which seeks to attract outstanding overseas-based Singaporean researchers back to lead research in areas important to the Republic.

Professor Chen Tsuhan, NUS deputy president for research and technology, said in a statement yesterday: "NUS is delighted that Prof Koh has chosen to return to his alma mater to lead strategic efforts in growing competencies and evidence-based science to fight climate change... I am confident that he can leverage NUS' strengths and expertise in different domains of sustainability to create innovative solutions that positively impact Singapore and beyond."

Last October, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli told climate scientists gathered in Singapore that the Republic's plans to deal with sea level rise will incorporate nature-based solutions such as mangroves, as well as engineering solutions.

It was the first time the Government had officially said nature-based solutions are on the cards, following Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech last August in which he said Singapore would need to spend $100 billion over the long term to buffer the country against sea level rise.

Prof Koh said Singapore is an "ideal innovation sandbox" for test-bedding climate solutions, pointing to its plan to plant one million trees over the next decade.

"The One Million Trees movement could be a microcosm of the World Economic Forum's One Trillion Tree initiative," he said.

Singapore's experience, he said, could help answer a few key questions, including: how tree-planting can be incorporated into spatial planning to demonstrate green (trees) - grey (concrete) infrastructural development, as well as how cost-effective techniques and technologies can be developed for mapping and monitoring of forest restoration efforts in other parts of the world.

Said Prof Koh: "It is not so much whether we achieve the goal of planting one million trees or what other nature-based solutions we implement in Singapore, but rather, how we do so that could become a model for other cities and countries to emulate."

The United Nations has said nature-based solutions are actions which can benefit human well-being and biodiversity.

Botanist Shawn Lum from the Nanyang Technological University said Singapore's One Million Trees initiative could, for example, help to develop communities and strengthen their bond with nature, and also help create habitats for wildlife.

"Trees are wonderful but individually they are just that - trees. Trees in a thriving, functioning ecosystem are part of a complex, wondrous and life-giving web of life that confers benefits to people and nature alike," said Dr Lum, who is also president of the Nature Society (Singapore).

"Tree planting is beautifully complementary to, and not a substitute for, the care and protection of existing forest habitats."


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2020, with the headline Tapping nature in fight against climate change. Subscribe