Science Talk

What's next for Singapore after Paris Agreement?

Climate movement must work with public sector for a more sustainable future

"Are you crying?" A fellow climate activist-turned-staff of the United Nations asked me as I sat observing the joy in the plenary room when the gavel came down. I just smiled at her while my eyes welled up.

Being present in person at the Paris Agreement was in many ways an emotional experience. Not because of the success it has achieved but, rather, the journey of how it came to be.

A decade ago, my climate change journey began in Singapore, right about the time I started my non-profit, Eco Singapore, that focuses on building a greater green movement in Singapore through working with young people. This was even before we acceded to the Kyoto Protocol (KP) in 2006. Though it was faint, there was no doubt that interest in the issue was brewing. I had the privilege to be involved in the growth of our local climate movement. Looking back, we can categorise it into three phases.

Prior to 2006, traces of the climate movement emerged across three main domains - scientific research, media and industry - that laid the bedrock for progress. In research, climate scientists here began investigating the causes and impact of climate change, and organised public forums to share their findings in the early 2000s.

Gradually, an increasing number of articles appeared in the mainstream media highlighting the key issues and providing environmentalists with a platform to voice their concerns. One independent media source, EnergyAsia, went one step further in 2005. It organised a series of three public forums on climate change, to deepen understanding and to stimulate discussion on government efforts in climate change.

  • About the writer

  • Mr Wilson Ang, 33, is the founder of environmental youth group, Eco Singapore.

    He has been active in the local climate movement since 2005 and, in 2008, started leading Singapore youth delegates to international climate negotiations, including the most recent one in Paris.

    During the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2009, he represented young people involved in the climate movement around the world through Youngo - the Youth Constituency to the UNFCCC.

Support from industry was not far behind. That same year, Senoko Power, the largest energy producer in Singapore, organised the first nationwide climate change awareness campaign, called the National Weather Study Project, for schools. The inaugural event saw the participation of over 180 primary and secondary schools, and junior colleges, with 279 project submissions involving over 1,000 students.

Through involvement in my personal capacity in some of these initiatives, I saw first hand the huge disconnect between the issue and reality then.

But with Singapore acceding to the KP and indicating commitment to combating climate change, the foundations laid earlier allowed young people to swiftly take the driver's seat in the coalescence- building phase of the movement.

Through Eco Singapore, I had opportunities to work with many young champions. Between 2006 and the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, the work of young people took centre stage in concerted advocacy and mass mobilisation.

Efforts included the gathering of over 1,000 youth leaders to reach out to 30,000 members of the public through working with the World Wide Fund for Nature's Earth Hour in the heartland yearly. There were also institution-wide campaigns, such as the National University of Singapore Fights Climate Change that reached out to its student population. Businesses, too, also organised screening sessions for their employees to watch the climate change film, An Inconvenient Truth, through campaigns driven by young employees.

Local advocacy efforts were made through a series of consultation forums, such as the biennial National Youth Environment Forum held in 2006 and again in 2008 by our volunteers, with outcomes submitted to the relevant ministries for consideration.

Internationally, we also began taking young Singaporeans to the climate negotiations annually. There, our youth played a key role in shaping the international youth climate movement, institutionalising young people's engagement at the United Nations climate talks. The annual pilgrimage of young Singaporeans to these talks continues to grow, with more organisations seeing the value of such engagement.

These were exciting times for us young people as the issue gained unprecedented traction through the media and mass mobilisation efforts. It fed our idealism. All these successful initiatives and reassurance by our policymakers helped garner an expectation of stronger political commitments not only by our Government, but also the world, at the Copenhagen Climate Summit.

Alas, the summit failed us. The unsuccessful brokering of a global deal bred distrust among countries. Relationships with the private and people sectors also festered.

Perhaps the most recent development of the movement can be viewed as a form of retaliation in response to this failure. Instead of waning in the uncertain future, the movement responded by taking matters into its own hands and galvanised the world to move towards greater grassroots- and private sector-driven solutions.

In Singapore, businesses such as Unilever took corporate social responsibility to the next level, by setting more ambitious climate impact targets and working closely with its supply chain to achieve them.

Apart from a rise in the number of grassroots-driven campaigns, it should be duly noted that these initiatives went beyond the usual environmental organisations. A prominent example is Singapore's labour movement, Young NTUC, championing the cause through the establishment of 350 Singapore, a local chapter of the global climate campaign, and its trademark event, RUN350, to encourage individual habitual change through sports.

Singapore also saw more partnerships between the people and private sectors, such as developer City Developments' E-Generation Challenge, and tech firm Ricoh's Eco Action Day.

In retrospect, it was the Copenhagen failure that helped fuel a stronger and more pragmatic bottom-up-driven movement. This provided policymakers with motivation and support to lay the necessary building blocks for the successful Paris outcome last month.

It took us a while, but we have the Paris Agreement now. Many like me would consider this a success, largely because it signals to the world that there is now stronger political commitment to combat climate change together. It should give businesses and investors the confidence to go beyond experimental small-scale solutions, towards ones that are scaleable and can be duplicated.

This outcome document, a product of compromises and minimum commitments, can be seen as a starting point in building a sustainable future. It will be a tool that the people's movement can use as a baseline to hold our governments accountable, and then build on more ambitious goals.

The momentum for Singapore's climate movement is set to grow with this agreement. And, for many reasons, this is necessary to drive overall societal change that is needed. Despite the decentralised nature of the movement, there is still a need to consciously guide its trajectory and harness it as a constructive force for the betterment of Singapore.

Here are the three areas that our movement should look into:

• From the outset, initiatives implemented have been focused on generating awareness and deepening knowledge. Awareness aims to get people to see there is a problem while knowledge allows them to see how their actions affect the environment and to change accordingly. What is needed next is to move from awareness into action. Because interests that motivate us vary, the movement should look into creating multiple pockets of motivation. This could come in many forms, from direct financial incentives to the creation of small interest groups within residential estates or community spaces.

• As the movement grows, there is a need to avoid overlapping efforts. This is especially important for Singapore because of its size and limited resources. It currently does not have a central body to coordinate efforts; and such a body may impede the movement if not done properly. This should be worked out. While existing groups and individuals continue their good work, they must make time to look into how they can be more targeted and work with each other. The biggest challenge in coordination efforts lies in getting individuals and groups to cast aside differences and compromise, as they work towards the common cause.

• Diversity is another key characteristic of the movement. Made up of a wide range of interest groups, which includes activists, businesses, researchers and the media, it has at its disposal access to the various stakeholder groups and their resources. Despite signing the new deal, it must be recognised that the Government cannot combat climate change by itself; the movement must fill this gap by harnessing its resources and working with the public sector in an effective manner.

It is always easy to point fingers and take the moral high ground. Instead of just being a voice for what is morally right, viable alternatives and policy recommendations through proper research should be put forward.

Examples include the saving of Chek Jawa in 2001 and, more recently, the position paper of the Nature Society (Singapore) on the development of the Cross Island Line.

The movement must work with the Government to implement recommended plans and policies. This also applies to existing and future governmental plans that may need further improvements to build a more climate-resilient Singapore.

Compared to Copenhagen, where the world walked away with uncertainty, Paris gave hope and momentum for positive change.

We have come a long way, but the real work has only just begun.

It will take all stakeholders to work together to forge a greater movement that will truly bring about a more sustainable future.

Find out more about climate change and how it could affect you on the ST microsite here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2016, with the headline What's next for Singapore after Paris Agreement? . Subscribe