Australia’s fires, Singapore’s problem

JANUARY 19 — Australia is burning. Well over 10 million hectares of it has already burned.

That is an area larger than South Korea, and over 1,000 times larger than Singapore. It really is hard to imagine devastation on this scale. 

While it may seem to be happening far away, the reality is this sort of environmental destruction impacts and threatens us all.

Forests, rainforests and the oxygen they produce benefit all of us and this scale of fire means yet more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — so possibly even more warming and climate change. 

Even if you remain sceptical about man-made climate change, the reality remains that humans have a significant impact on the environment and this impact is overwhelmingly bad for other species of plants and animals.

Plastics now contaminate every part of the ocean, species are going extinct at a frightening rate and forest cover is ever diminishing; these are absolute facts regardless of climate change.

All of this has an impact on us in Singapore. We too are impacted by fires, by toxicity in the fish we eat, by the quality of the air we breathe and water we drink. Which is why it really is time we did more.

The government has already suggested that measures to mitigate the impact of climate change including flood defences and land reclamation could cost Singapore S$100 billion (RM300 billion).

But before we get to building infrastructure — something we are good at — more needs to be done to change attitudes — something we aren’t so good at.

Given our tiny size, lack of elevation and water resources, few countries are as vulnerable to climate change as Singapore.

Yet the amount of single-use plastic on display in the country is absurd. Plastic spoons, bags, wrappers abound in every shop, stall and virtually every transaction.

Singapore has the financial capability, the systems to do away with single-use plastics extremely rapidly but the government has moved very slowly and cautiously in this regard.

Measures introduced last year will compel firms who sell heavily packaged items like electronics to account for and provide plans for the reduction of plastic packaging but these remain modest steps.

While most responsibility should indeed lie with firms and big corporations, the government has shied away from taking any action to reduce consumer demand for plastics.

Singapore has no compulsory charges for plastic bags, for example. France banned plastic bags in 2015 and Taiwan is looking to phase out all plastic utensils, straws, bags etc. by 2030.

Given how vulnerable we are, the limited measures taken so far seem surprising.  But ultimately in the grand scheme of things, modifying the behaviour of a few million Singaporeans won’t make a huge impact.

To make a real impact, Singapore must not only change behaviour domestically it needs to work across the region and beyond to ensure sustainability.  

A climate change fund where the government provides incentives for positive innovations, and schemes across the region is an option and one Singapore can afford.

Crucially we also need to start working on mechanisms together with our neighbours. 

If there are fires in Indonesia comparable to the ones in Australia, Singapore will be severely affected. 

What can Singapore do to reduce fire risks and combat similar eventualities in Singapore and Malaysia? How do we use our expertise and capability to help the countries around us and in turn help ourselves?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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