Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.

Science, Technology
& Innovation

The Road Ahead for Climate Change

think-09-06-The Road Ahead for Climate Change-Featured Image
An Interview with Prof Koh Lian Pin

You’ve been teaching and doing research in many countries, including Switzerland, Australia and the US. Why did you choose to return to Singapore to continue your work in fighting climate change?

Firstly, I am hoping to take advantage of the rich resources and good R&D and education infrastructures here to amplify my research in nature-based climate solutions. I also wish to help build leadership capacity for climate mitigation in the region, so that informed policy and business decisions can be made in both the public and private sectors through a science-based approach.

A visualisation of the Rail Corridor of the Future

The Singapore government unveiled the Singapore Green Plan 2030 to advance the national agenda on sustainable development with its long-term goal to achieve net-zero emissions. One million more trees are expected across Singapore, in addition to a three-fold expansion of the cycling path network and an increase of over 50% in nature park land by 2030. Source: www.ura.gov.sg / Nikken Sekkei

Being a very small country, Singapore may not make a significant impact in slowing down climate change. Is Singapore able to play a bigger role in the region?

I do not quite agree that Singapore does not make an impact. In fact, Singapore has a huge impact although it is physically small. Being the regional hub for many things, a lot of products and services that are causing climate change in places where they are produced or traded come through Singapore in their supply chains. A lot of the capitals from Singapore are also investing in businesses in the region that are causing deforestation and carbon emission. By helping our business and policy leaders to make informed decisions that are more aligned with a climate-friendly economy, Singapore can actually have a huge impact on the rest of the region.

 

Could you share an example of how this role of Singapore’s is realised in practice?

Let me quote a concrete example which is specific to my area of interest, which is nature-based solutions. There are many multinationals and regional corporations with their headquarters or holding companies in Singapore. There are therefore opportunities for us to influence them to transform their businesses to be more climate-friendly. For example, we are working with a big forestry company which is interested in transforming their business to become more aligned with forest protection actions. Instead of using all their land holdings for paper production, they are now interested in setting aside some of the forests as protection forests, and are trying to generate carbon offset credits from them. By doing so, they fulfil two objectives. Firstly, it helps to prevent deforestation. Secondly, it diversifies the corporation’s business by creating another income stream through carbon finance and carbon trading.

“Green finance... Is able to help [corporates] capture, or at least retain, market share if they are sensitive to the market’s desire for more climate- and environment-friendly products.”

These are for-profit companies and their mission is to maximise shareholders’ benefits. In your experience, which is more effective in motivating them to be more climate-friendly, the stick or the carrot?

 

The easy answer is, obviously, both. In my mind, the carrot is at least as important as the stick, although the carrot was less emphasised in the past. In recent years, corporates have begun to realise there are new economic opportunities if they invest in green finance, and a lot of them are starting to do so. Green finance, carbon finance or climate finance, whatever you call it, is able to help them capture, or at least retain, market share if they are sensitive to the market’s desire for more climate- and environment-friendly products. They are also reacting to the trend of the market turning away from extractive products and industries. Since many of these companies are multinationals, when they take action to supply green products and services and get rewarded from improved market share, the benefits are across multiple countries. That’s the carrot part.

 

As for the stick, some businesses within the private sector are beginning to realise the risks of holding on to some of their traditional business practices and assets. There are many talks in the media about stranded assets. These are assets that produce products and services that nobody will want to buy in the coming years. The fossil fuel industry, obviously, has many of them, for example, their refineries.

Green economy potential in Southeast Asia

An analysis from Bain & Company suggests that developing Southeast Asia’s green economy could provide up to one trillion USD in annual economic opportunities by 2030. Revenue pools from new growth sectors and estimated cost savings from efficiencies. Photo: iStock

In addition to that, some industries are also beginning to realise that some of their businesses are incurring more and more risks because of climate change. In the agriculture sector, for example, climate change is causing a higher frequency of extreme events that could compromise crop yield. As a result, they realise they need to contribute more towards mitigating the impact of climate change. Such risks are becoming very real for the private sector, and this can be considered a stick that forces them to react.

 

Then there are obviously the sticks from the public sector or governments. One of the biggest sticks is, of course, the carbon tax which is beginning to be implemented. It is not so much an additional cost to businesses, but rather a way of recognising, or internalising, the environmental costs of doing business that have not been recognised so far. It is just a way of putting a more realistic price on the products and services that have been causing carbon emission.

 

What you have just described is at the business level. What about tension at the international level? As we know, many countries in the region are still developing, and they need to clear forests and burn coal, for example, to improve the lives of their people, while the pressure is also on them to be more environmentally responsible. How can we strike a good balance?

The developed countries are further along in their development, and their polluting activities already happened in the past, whereas the developing countries, like those in our region, are still early in the development process and are currently contributing quite a bit more to polluting the environment. However, this is not a new problem. The UN’s Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) and their Kyoto Protocol signed in 1997 tried to address this issue. Their Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allowed developed countries to atone for their ‘sins’ in the past and offset their emissions by investing in forest protection, reforestation, hydro power, solar power and other clean development projects in the developing countries. In principle, such mechanisms of moving financial resources from developed countries to developing countries would allow the developing countries to continue to develop, and their communities to prosper, without destroying their natural capital.

“Since a lot of nature is still at stake in the developing countries, nature-based solutions and nature-based carbon financing mechanisms are good ways of incentivising developing nations to preserve their nature.”

The successor of the CDM is the Sustainable Development Mechanism (SDM) under the Paris Agreement. It allows developed countries to buy carbon offsets from developing countries, based on the same concept of enabling movement of capital to the developing countries.

 

This balancing mechanism can be seen in the voluntary carbon market as well. Private businesses from the developed economies have the preference of purchasing carbon offsets from projects in the developing countries. This also helps to address the need to support clean development.

 

When we speak of clean development, what comes to mind are nature-based climate solutions, which is your area of focus. Are such solutions the most effective in helping to ensure clean development?

Nature-based solutions are definitely important, especially in developing countries, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there is still a lot of nature in many developing countries, unlike in developed countries where much of the land had been completely destroyed in the past. Since a lot of nature is still at stake in the developing countries, nature-based solutions and nature-based carbon financing mechanisms are good ways of incentivising developing nations to preserve their nature.

 

Secondly, in terms of carbon capture – meaning removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – growing trees and reforestation are still the most cost-effective solutions at the moment. Engineered means of removing carbon dioxide are still not effective because powering them releases more carbon dioxide than they capture.

 

However, a natured-based solution may not be the best solution sometimes. For example, building a seawall could be the preferred solution compared to planting mangroves if the situation calls for speed and certainty. We need to consider the situation holistically as a system and consider all tangible and intangible factors.

Tanguar Haor conservation project

Tanguar Haor wetland in Bangladesh was once declared an Ecologically Critical Area due to decades of rampant exploitation of its fishery resources by the elites. In 2001, management and ownership of Tanguar Haor was transferred to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Subsequently, MoEF initiated a community-based management system for the conservation, stabilisation and sustainable use of the natural resources of Tanguar Haor that generates significant improvements in the livelihoods of rural communities. Photo: Sipa USA / Alamy Stock Photo

Technology certainly plays an important role in climate protection today, including implementing, monitoring, measuring and computing the impact of various climate actions. In your mind, what is the most important technology in fighting climate change?

Many technologies are important. But if we have to pinpoint one that is the most important or most scalable when it comes to nature-based solutions, I think it would have to be space technology, or satellite-based remote sensing technology. It is our eye in the sky that can capture high-resolution images of our land and sea surfaces. These images help us to monitor, for example, the progress of our forest protection projects in Indonesia or reforestation projects in Vietnam to make sure they are delivering on their promises. A lot of such performance indicators of these projects translate directly into the amount of carbon credits which, in turn, translate into financial returns.

 

These space cameras are like a constellation of CCTV cameras orbiting the Earth and taking pictures all the time to keep us informed. In fact, satellite-based technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the years. Not only have we improved the resolution of satellite images, the sensors have improved a lot as well. For example, they can now capture the near- infrared part of the light spectrum which is invisible to human eyes, as well as thermal images. Lasers in the international space station and some satellites are also capturing 3D information which helps us to digitally reconstruct the seascape and landscape. For nature-based solutions, such information is actually very important. For example, it tells us the heights and sizes of trees so that we can determine how much carbon is stored in them, and how that changes over time.

Nature-based solutions for flood mitigation

The Metro Colombo Urban Development Project in Sri Lanka pioneered the use of urban wetlands as a nature-based solution for flood risk mitigation, building climate change resilience and improving urban livability. Efforts in preserving wetlands in the city made Colombo the first South Asian Ramsar-accredited wetland city. Source: wle.cgiar.org

If we are already collecting so much information through space technology, how well are these data being shared among scientists and researchers for climate protection?

Obtaining satellite images for research is usually not a problem. Since the 1970s, the Landsat Program run by the US has been making satellite images available for scientists and researchers, and millions of such images are now available free of charge. There are also commercial enterprises that sell proprietary satellite images and data. Governments and organisations who need them can always pay for them as long as they have the funds to do so.

Drones to map and monitor biodiversity

Co-founded by Prof Koh and fellow ecologist Serge Wich, ConservationDrones.org was set up to build and promote the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for biodiversity conservation applications and share the low-cost drone technology as an open source forum. Source: Koh Lian Pin

“The more important issue is how data can be processed into information and knowledge to address specific problems, and getting that knowledge to the decision makers who can actually make things happen.”

While data acquisition is usually not a problem, the more important issue is how data can be processed into information and knowledge to address specific problems, and getting that knowledge to the decision makers who can actually make things happen. As academics and researchers, we like doing research and publishing papers, but 99% of those papers never get read by politicians or CEOs of companies. To address that problem, we researchers are now getting more and more involved in developing online tools that complement our research. For example, we now use online maps and online dashboards to make it a lot easier for non-technical decision makers to visualise information, so that they can use it to decide what actions to take to help stabilise the climate.

Managing climate change for a better tomorrow

The potential impact of climate change on the health and well-being of its citizens needs to remain a necessary priority for individuals, corporations and governments worldwide. Source: World Travel & Tourism Council

Can you tell us more about the organisation ConservationDrones.org you founded? How effective is drone technology as a conservation and climate solution?

We started that organisation in 2013 when not many people knew very much about drones and their potential for being used in environmental research and applications. Drones were also quite unaffordable and inaccessible at that time. We had to build our own drones and we taught others how to build drones for their own purposes.

 

Fast forward to today, the mandate of that organisation is less relevant now because drones have become very affordable and anyone can quite easily fly them. At the same time, the utility of drone technology has also expanded tremendously. Many environmentalists are now using them to monitor trees, forests, biodiversity and so on. The technology is definitely an indispensable tool for environmental protection today. In fact, we are also building a drone unit in our centre here in NUS.

 

You are leading the newly-established NUS Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions (CNCS), and one of the objectives of CNCS is to address knowledge gaps. What is CNCS’ role in terms of creating awareness and educating? Who are your target audiences?

We are starting in Singapore, and our main audiences at the moment are policymakers, business leaders and the general public. For the public, we are collaborating with many public- facing organisations in Singapore, for example, the Zoo, Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa, to bring climate protection messages to their visitors. For the business and public sectors, we engage them by sharing reports and running seminars – including the webinars we recently co-hosted with The HEAD Foundation.

“Environmentalists are now using [drones] to monitor trees, forests, biodiversity and so on. The technology is definitely an indispensable tool for environmental protection today.”

We are also beginning to reach out to stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific region. For example, we are engaging some corporations in Indonesia who are interested to learn about ways to transition their forestry businesses to nature-based solutions through the carbon credits mechanism.

 

We are also going as far out as the Pacific islands because they are, like Singapore, at the receiving end of rising sea level. At the same time, they have a lot of potential for nature-based solutions, in the form of both blue carbon and green carbon. We are therefore working with them to raise awareness and build capacity, and helping them to implement nature-based solutions.

 

One of the mandates of CNCS is to build capacity for climate solutions. Capacity- building is a very general term. Can you share some examples of your capacity- building activities?

Our capacity-building activities include those I mentioned earlier – creating awareness among the public, policymakers and business leaders. We are also developing some more structured programmes, like Master’s degree programmes targeted at professionals. In fact, we are running one of these programmes at the moment and just completed its first semester. The Master of Science in Biodiversity Conservation and Nature- based Climate Solutions (MBCNCS) programme is quite successful in attracting some working professionals who wish to learn more about environmental sustainability and nature-based climate solutions. Many of the participants in the programme took a year off from their jobs, came to NUS, and signed up for this programme to equip themselves before returning to their industry or moving on to a different one.

Green School in Bali

This environmentally-focused school reinvents traditional schooling and develops their curriculum around the UN sustainable development goals. The syllabus features annual “Greenstone projects”, giving students the opportunity to devise business plans and work with local communities to address current challenges like climate change and inequality. Source: www.greenschool.org

The HEAD Foundation focuses its works on Education and Healthcare. How do you think we can contribute to the fight against climate change as a non-profit organisation?

I think your two focuses are perfect in reinforcing each other to address climate change. You need to educate your audience on the potential impact of climate change on human health in a variety of ways, for example, its impact on food security that could result in malnutrition, and the impact of the prevalence of diseases induced by changes in climate. Since you are already investing in education, if you can also invest in educating the masses on issues around climate change, that will help to fulfil your other mandate of ensuring the impact of climate change can be reduced or minimised on human health.

PROF KOH LIAN PIN

Prof Koh Lian Pin is Director of the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions. He has had 16 years of international research experience in the field of sustainability and environmental science. In 2020, he returned to Singapore under the National Research Foundation’s Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme to join NUS. In addition to being one of the most highly cited conservation scientists in Asia, he is also a TED-Global speaker, Founding Director of ConservationDrones.org, Director of the Tropical Marine Science Institute at NUS, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. He is also a nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore.

DECEMBER 2021 | ISSUE 9

Tomorrow's Technology Today

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

Join our mailing list

Stay updated on all the latest news and events

Join our mailing list

Stay updated on all the latest news and events