Mitigating rising sea levels a burden that future generations of Singaporeans should shoulder: Sam Tan

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sam Tan speaking during the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, Norway, on Jan 28, 2020. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

TROMSO - Rising sea levels threaten Singapore's survival directly, and mitigating the effects is a burden that future generations of Singaporeans have to shoulder, said Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sam Tan.

"Climate change concerns the well-being of future generations. I think it is only fair that they would have to shoulder their share of the responsibility because it cuts across so many decades," he said.

Mr Tan was speaking to The Straits Times on the sidelines of the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, Norway, where he attended one of the plenary sessions as a panellist. The secretariat of the conference, now in its 14th edition, is run by Akvaplan-niva, a research institute in Tromso.

"It's not sufficient for one generation to raise the funds. Our generation also has our own priorities and important infrastructure that we want to put in place to make sure we are able to grow the economy and create enough jobs," Mr Tan said.

Borrowed spending was cited last year as one of the possible sources the Government would tap to fund infrastructural projects that are essential in the light of climate change, such as sea walls and polders.

During the plenary session themed Sustainable Arctic Ocean on Tuesday (Jan 28), Mr Tan highlighted that developments in the Arctic could affect Singapore.

The melting of sea ice in the region leads to more heat being absorbed by the oceans, since sea ice serves to reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere - a phenomenon known as the albedo effect.

As the ocean warms and expands, it also results in sea level rise.

Mr Tan told an audience made up of academics, businessmen and policymakers: "We have 5.7 million people living on this tiny island, and we have literally built our city to the brink of the land... With climate change, a melting Arctic and rising sea levels, Singapore is also in trouble.

"If this happens, our future prime minister will have to conduct Cabinet meetings in a scuba diver's suit, for we will be submerged underwater," quipped Mr Tan.

According to the latest report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year, sea levels could rise by up to 1.1m if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.

The Republic is expected to spend an estimated $100 billion to mitigate the effects of climate change, an issue Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong termed an existential threat to Singapore during his National Day Rally speech last year.

Already the island-state has been gearing up for the changes to come, by, for example, constructing new buildings higher and raising roads. One-third of Singapore - including the country's central business district - is low-lying, or less than 5m above sea level.

Said Mr Tan: "We will raise our peripheral and low-lying areas by more than 1m by 2100. We have decided to set aside more than $100 billion to deal with the rising sea level. New developments will be built 4m above sea level, and critical infrastructure will be elevated 5m above sea level."

Mr Audun Halvorsen, State Secretary to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Straits Times that countries in the tropics like Singapore can affect the Arctic and vice versa.

He said: "The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. The Arctic sea ice is retreating faster than ever, and the polar glaciers and ice caps are shrinking."

"But this development is mainly caused by factors outside of the Arctic, for example, emission from factories, cars and other pollutants. We therefore need to find global solutions to this problem."

During the plenary, Mr Tan emphasised Singapore's commitment to reduce carbon emissions, citing the carbon tax which came into effect last year as an example.

The tax is imposed on facilities that generate 25,000 tonnes or more of greenhouse gas emissions in a year, and applies uniformly to all sectors.

"There are quite a number of countries that impose the carbon tax, but with exemptions for certain industries. For us, we want to go the full measure," said Mr Tan.

"Around 2030, we want to reduce our emissions intensity by 36 per cent from 2005 levels. This is a very painful process. But compared to the pain of Singapore being overrun by seawater, it is a political price we think we should pay."

The Arctic Frontiers is an international conference that brings over 3,000 delegates from more than 35 countries together to discuss pertinent Arctic issues, including the effects of climate change in the region and its biodiversity, as well as sustainable management of the Arctic ocean and its resources.

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