Environmental pollution law receives boost to tackle climate change, noise

The amended law, if passed, will bar the supply of refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment with high global warming potential from Oct 1, 2022. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Efforts by Singapore to tackle climate change and noise pollution will get more teeth, with changes to a law governing environmental pollution passed in Parliament on Monday (Sept 13).

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 now 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 amendments help lay the foundations to achieve our climate ambitions.

"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 modern climate change due to the sheer amount being released into the atmosphere.

While CO2 has a global warming potential of one, that of HFCs can be up to 12,400. For example, the typical refrigerant used in chillers, R134a, has a global warming potential of 1,300.

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.

Mr Tan said cooling is essential in Singapore's hot and humid climate, but that the Republic must also be mindful about environmental impact.

"Climate-friendly alternatives for such equipment are widely available. They are typically more energy-efficient and users can enjoy energy cost savings," he added.

For households, there is no cost difference in switching to climate-friendly refrigerators and air-conditioners, Mr Tan noted.

For commercial users, he acknowledged that low global warming potential water-cooled chillers cost 15 per cent more on average. "But as they are more energy-efficient, their life-cycle cost savings more than make up for the higher upfront cost," he said.

He added that his ministry is aware of the need to curb the environmental impact of cooling Singapore.

Measures were announced last year by the National Environment Agency (NEA) to reduce HFC emissions. These included efforts to phase out equipment that use HFCs with high global warming potential, raise the industry's competency in handling HFC refrigerants, and mandate the recovery of spent HFCs.

Said Mr Tan: "These (changes) will give effect to these measures."

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.

Said Mr Tan: "With this change, spent refrigerants recovered during refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment servicing and disposal 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.

But companies handling household refrigerators and air-conditioners are encouraged to certify their technicians, he added.

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, NEA said. More information regarding the course at Temasek Polytechnic for chiller technicians will be released at a later date.

During the debate, Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked if the Government will consider having such courses in languages other than English, to cater to technicians who are less proficient in the language.

In response, 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 of these courses under SkillsFuture SG, and the balance of $85 can be paid for using their SkillsFuture credits, Mr Tan said.

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.

From 2016 to 2020, NEA prosecuted an average of 3 per cent of construction sites, or around 150, for first-time violation of the no-work rule each year. Twenty-two per cent of this group would go on to repeat the offence, said Mr Tan.

But 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.

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