Thursday, February 17, 2005

S’pore and Kyoto: Irresponsibility and Missed Opportunities

(This piece was adapted and reprinted in Elements (Apr-Jun Issue 1), pg. 6, the newsletter of the Singapore Environmental Council.)

The Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to fight global warming by imposing caps on carbon dioxide emissions in developed countries, has just come into force. Singapore, a non-signatory to the Protocol, is the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide on a per capita basis. This is largely due to our energy-intensive urban lifestyles, but also our extensive offshore petrochemical refining activities.

The Ministry of Environment’s observation that a large proportion of our carbon dioxide emissions is the result of production of goods that are exported, rather than consumed locally (Straits Times, Feb 17, “Singapore Committed to Cutting Carbon Emissions”) is a tenuous reason to hesitate against signing on to Kyoto; from these exports, our economy prospers from the resulting trade surpluses and our workers earn living wages that drive domestic consumption of other goods. As beneficiaries of the release of greenhouse gases, we must take responsibility.

There are other good reasons to sign on to Kyoto. Not only would we be exempt from the mandatory emission caps (Singapore is not on the list of developed countries to which those caps apply), Singapore would also be able to take advantage of the treaty’s incentive mechanisms that could promote technology transfer to Singapore, and help Kyoto signatories meet their emission caps, at minimal cost to us.

While Singapore’s energy-efficiency proposals deserve credit, one must not confuse carbon-efficiency with carbon emission levels. Having the most efficient system says nothing about its absolute size. In the context of climate change science, it is absolute emissions, not emissions as a proportion of a country’s GDP, that matter. Although carbon efficiency measures are crucial, we must not lose track of our absolute levels of carbon use (and hence emissions).

Emissions caps do not mean that we sacrifice economic welfare. As even Michael Porter, world-renown business management guru, recognizes, environmental regulation can create “innovation offsets,” where compliance to environmental standards spurs quality improvements in business production processes, which either result in energy consumption savings or superior and higher-priced products, that more than compensate for the cost of compliance.

Singapore has a real opportunity to be an international model of sustainable development. The technology and know-how is certainly within reach, as demonstrated by our parade of world’s bests in so many other fields. Indeed, in some respects of sustainability, such as our truly first class public transportation system, we are arguably second to none.

Many of our ASEAN neighbours have ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

For the sake of our children, so should Singapore.