Conversations on the Future

On biodiversity, we've done disastrously. On climate change, the window's closing: Tommy Koh

SPH Brightcove Video
In Conversations on the Future, Singapore's ambassador-at-large and veteran diplomat Prof Tommy Koh shares his views with ST's Nirmal Ghosh on climate change, biodiversity, water sustainability and the law of the sea.

WASHINGTON - The global community has failed to stop biodiversity loss, and people do not realise the impact of this persistent trend, warns veteran diplomat, law professor and environmentalist Tommy Koh.

Professor Koh, who chaired the groundbreaking Earth Summit in 1992 and was given the Champions of the Earth award by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2006, was asked to assess humanity's record on the environment in the latest edition of Conversations on the Future, a video series featuring prominent global thinkers.

"On biodiversity, we have done disastrously. We have not only failed to stop the unprecedented loss of biodiversity, but the trend continues," said Prof Koh, Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large and an emeritus professor at NUS Law.

"And people don't realise that the loss of biodiversity, the loss of ecosystem, will ultimately impact life on Earth."

On climate change, the United Nations (UN) has warned that the planet is headed for a 3 deg C global temperature rise over pre-industrial levels - "which will be a disaster", Prof Koh noted.

"We are, at the moment, at the edge - and the window is closing," he warned.

"It really depends on the countries of the world, whether or not we will summon the political will to improve our Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), because what's on the table now is not good enough."

NDCs are each UN member state's climate action plans to cut emissions and adapt to the impact of global warming.

"We also need more countries to pledge that they will achieve net-zero (greenhouse emissions) by 2050," he said. "I'm very pleased that the Prime Minister of Singapore has recently announced that we will do that."

Last year's UN Climate Conference in Glasgow saw incremental steps, which made it a "success story" Prof Koh said. "It managed to mobilise the political will of many countries to enhance their NDCs," he added.

Countries which host the world's remaining rainforest actually signed a pledge to stop deforestation by 2030, Prof Koh noted. "To me... this is unimaginable, but we got it."

There were also "many incremental steps of progress in Glasgow towards our ultimate goal, which is to keep the rise in temperature to 1.5 deg C".

Prof Koh also lauded the British government for involving young people in the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) as important stakeholders "most affected by the future of the planet".

And he disagreed with youth activists who dismissed COP26 as empty talk.

"I used to admire Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish campaigner. But I think she has lost objectivity. When she was asked what she thought of the outcome of Glasgow, she said it was just more 'blah blah blah' - which was so unfair.

"My appeal to young people is be passionate, share your aspiration, your frustration with the adult world, but please retain a certain objectivity and balance."

Prof Koh also singled out modern sanitation as an area of failure, saying that while progress had been made on clean drinking water, countries were not adequately prioritising sanitation.

Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh said people do not realise the impact of failure to stop biodiversity loss. PHOTO: REUTERS

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that in 2020, only 54 per cent of the global population used a "safely managed sanitation service".

Over 1.7 billion people still do not have basic sanitation services, such as private toilets or latrines, WHO says.

Of these, 494 million still defecate in the open - for example, in street gutters, behind bushes, or into open bodies of water. And in 2020, 45 per cent of household wastewater generated globally was discharged without safe treatment, it says.

"In some countries in Asia, there are more mobile phones than toilets - it is just an example of displaced priorities," Prof Koh said.

"Sanitation is so important. It affects public health. It affects the dignity of women, the ability (of children) to go to school, and so on.

"I hope I live long enough to see a day when the peoples of the world have access to clean drinking water and modern sanitation."

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