PM Lee: Efforts to tackle climate crisis not helped by geopolitical tensions

PM Lee Hsien Loong at a dialogue moderated by Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass on March 30, 2022. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

WASHINGTON - Global efforts to mitigate the climate crisis will be "inadequate" and are not being helped by geopolitical realities like the Russia-Ukraine war and tensions between the United States and China, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (March 30).

Therefore, Singapore has to adapt to climate change for its survival, he added at a dialogue at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.

"The scientists are quite unambiguous. They are quite polite and hedged in their views. But their directions have consistently been more extreme than their predictions for quite some time now," said PM Lee.

Singapore takes climate change very seriously, given its vulnerability to rising sea levels, and is doing its part. But much more depends on global initiatives because Singapore forms such a small fraction of global emissions, PM Lee added.

Singapore's carbon dioxide emissions make up about 0.2 per cent of the world's total, according to the European Commission's Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research.

Singapore hopes to reach net-zero emissions around 2050, but the exact timing depends on, among other things, technology and carbon markets, which are "big question marks", PM Lee said.

Much also depends on the international order, and ongoing developments like Russia's war with Ukraine and fraught US-China relations make it harder to cooperate on climate change, he added. "If you are at war with Russia, you will not be able to agree with Russia on reducing emissions, much less apportioning responsibility for cutting carbon," said PM Lee.

"I think that is going to be a big problem even if you are not at war, even with China, where you have got a dialogue and (US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate) John Kerry works very hard visiting them and talking to them.

"Because your relations are so fraught, it is very difficult to make progress and you have explicitly said you are not prepared to trade off climate against other issues. Then the Chinese say, well, what is the point of this?" added the Prime Minister.

"I think it is going to be very difficult, and we are going to fall short of their goals - and their goals themselves are not high enough - and we should prepare for that," he said.

The US and China are the world's top two emitters of carbon dioxide, and Russia is the fourth largest.

Asked if climate cooperation had been relegated by the renewed emphasis on energy security, as Europe attempts to grow less dependent on Russian gas exports, PM Lee said that cutting off dependence on Russia will impact Europe in the first place.

"But unless the Russian oil disappears from the world and they themselves do not consume it, it is going to pop up somewhere else. From the climate point of view, that does not solve the problem," he said.

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PM Lee was also asked about how Singapore manages to do business with China, in comparison with America's unhappiness over China's business practices. Washington has accused Chinese companies of intellectual property theft, among other issues, and responded with sanctions and tariffs.

The Prime Minister replied that he did not think sanctions would get the US very far, and said that a certain basis of trust was needed to do business and solve problems together.

"What you will need to do is to have a very serious conversation at very senior levels, to make it quite clear that to have stable relations, you must have trust," he said.

"As (former US secretary of state) George Shultz said on his 100th birthday: Trust is the coin of the realm. That is gravely lacking now and one of the reasons is this question of intellectual property theft and cyber security is a problem."

Singapore also does not benefit from the difficulties in Chinese markets, said PM Lee in reply to another question. He said some companies or people in Hong Kong will think of moving to Singapore, "and if they do, we will be happy to take them".

"But from a broader point of view, it is not to our advantage to have Hong Kong languish," he added.

"Far better for us to have a robust competitor. They thrive, we thrive. We will make a living, and so will they. It is not Hertz or Avis," he added, referring to the rival American rental car companies.

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