Singapore's efforts to tackle climate change and noise pollution will get more teeth, with changes to a law governing environmental pollution passed yesterday.
The amendments to the Environmental Protection And Management Act give regulatory teeth to existing initiatives to control the release of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) - gases that trap heat on the planet and cause climate change.
The law will also improve contractors' compliance with the no-work rule on Sundays and public holidays, by allowing the National Environment Agency (NEA) to impose electronic video surveillance at certain work sites from Oct 1 next year.
Mr Desmond Tan, Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment, said: "The early switch to low-global warming potential equipment and proper management of HFC refrigerants will ensure that the cooling needs and comfort of Singaporeans will not be compromised as we transit to a low-carbon future."
Commonly used as refrigerants, HFCs are greenhouse gases that have a higher global warming potential range than carbon dioxide (CO2), the main culprit driving climate change. While CO2 has a global warming potential of one, that of HFCs can be up to 12,400.
The law will bar the supply of refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment with high global warming potential from Oct 1 next year.
It will also allow the Government to introduce measures to minimise the venting of spent refrigerants into the atmosphere, and regulate firms that use or handle greenhouse gases. These companies include those involved in the installation, maintenance and decommissioning of cooling equipment.
"Climate-friendly alternatives for such equipment are widely available. They are typically more energy-efficient and users can enjoy energy cost savings," Mr Tan said.
For households, there is no cost difference in switching to climate-friendly refrigerators and air-conditioners, he noted.
For commercial users, low global warming potential water-cooled chillers cost 15 per cent more on average, he said. "But as they are more energy-efficient, their life cycle cost savings more than make up for the higher upfront cost."
Last year, NEA announced measures to reduce HFC emissions.
From October next year, NEA will start barring the supply of household air-conditioners that use refrigerants with a global warming potential of more than 750, and household refrigerators and commercial water-cooled chillers that use refrigerants with a global warming potential of more than 15.
Mr Tan said: "In our industry consultations, most suppliers and importers of cooling equipment have affirmed that they are able to supply climate-friendly models.
"The law will now see the definition of industrial waste under the Environmental Public Health Act expanded to include spent refrigerants, which must be sent for proper treatment by licensed toxic industrial waste collectors."
On the regulation of firms involved in the installation, maintenance and decommissioning of cooling equipment, Mr Tan said this will apply only to companies handling commercial water-cooled chillers for a start. These chillers have much larger refrigerant capacities than household air-conditioners.
Under the law, servicing work that involves refrigerant handling and spent refrigerant recovery must now be supervised or carried out by at least one certified technician.
NEA said it has worked with Temasek Polytechnic to introduce training courses for water-cooled chiller technicians and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) for household air-conditioner technicians. The course at ITE was introduced last October.
During the debate, Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked if the Government will consider courses in languages other than English, to cater to technicians who are less proficient in the language.
Mr Tan said the courses will be conducted in "simple spoken English", but added: "Trainers will also give practical demonstrations and conduct hands-on practice to enhance understanding.
"To be certified, technicians have to pass an open-book test comprising multiple-choice questions and a simple practical assessment."
Singaporeans and permanent residents will be eligible for up to 90 per cent subsidies for these courses under SkillsFuture SG, and the balance of $85 can be paid for using their SkillsFuture credits, added Mr Tan.
On noise management, he noted that his ministry has taken action to mitigate this over the years. This includes giving grants to incentivise contractors to adopt quieter construction equipment and methods, and implementing in 2011 a no-work rule on Sundays and public holidays.
Mr Tan added that most contractors comply, but there is a small group of contractors that has continued to violate the no-work rule.
There are limitations to the current enforcement approach as violations can be confirmed only through physical site inspections by NEA officers. The resource-intensive endeavour may not always pay off as the breaches could have stopped before their arrival, said Mr Tan.
"This is where technology can make a difference. From Oct 1 next year, we will impose electronic video surveillance on the small subset of offenders to deter further violations of the no-work rule and improve NEA's operational effectiveness," he added.