Multilateral approach needed to deal with climate change, says Singapore’s PM Lee in statement to UN

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking during the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at the UN headquarters in New York September 23, 2019. — Reuters pic
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking during the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at the UN headquarters in New York September 23, 2019. — Reuters pic

NEW YORK, Sept 27 — World leaders have to inculcate in their people a mindset to “live sustainably and in harmony with the environment”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his first address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) since he became prime minister 15 years ago.

Countries also have to work together to deal with this “wicked global problem” of climate change, he said today.

“This is an issue that our young people are seized with, and rightfully so because it is about their futures during their lifetimes,” said Lee at the UN General Assembly (UNGA). He acknowledged that Singaporeans, as well as hundreds of thousands of young people across the world, had rallied for climate action over the past week.

Lee was also at the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit on Monday, where Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg had lashed out at world leaders, urging them to take responsibility for the environment.

Lee said today: “We owe them a responsibility to act, and they deserve our full support.”

The prime minister was delivering Singapore’s national statement at the UNGA’s general debate and leading the Republic’s delegation for the first time.

Of his predecessors, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong did so thrice in 1995, 1997 and 2000, while the late Lee Kuan Yew attended the UNGA in 1967, 1968 and 1970, although he did not address the assembly.

Beyond the existential threat of global warming and rising sea levels, low-lying island states like Singapore will also face other effects of climate change, such as new diseases, more extreme weather events, food shortages, forced migration or war, Lee said.

Reiterating a point he made during the Climate Action Summit, he said that Singapore contributes only 0.11 per cent of global emissions and is hampered in its ability to rely on alternative and renewable sources of energy.

Yet, Singapore is committed to do its share to reduce emissions under the Paris Agreement — the city state is the first in South-east Asia to impose a carbon tax “which we apply economy-wide with no exceptions”, Lee pointed out.

While he acknowledged that it will be difficult to meet the agreement’s target of less than 1.5°C of global warming, he said: “We must try our best, and over time, all countries will have to do more to mitigate climate change.”

For now, nations must prepare early to adapt to climate change, which will be costly, Lee said. Singapore’s bid to protect its coastlines, for example, could cost more than S$100 billion (RM303 billion) over a century, as he had mentioned at this year’s National Day Rally.

“Adaptation efforts will be costly, but they are an essential investment to protect not just our coastlines, but also our communities, and our very existence. It is the responsibility of our generation to leave future generations with a habitable planet, both through mitigation and adaptation,” said Lee.

Multilateralism needed

Because the problem of climate change is one that no single country can solve alone, multilateral co-operation is essential, Lee said, otherwise there will be “disastrous consequences” for all countries.

But with the world today undergoing a “complex transition” away from multilateralism, global consensus on the benefits of globalisation and the support for multilateralism has declined, he noted.

More countries are becoming inward-looking and nativist, resulting in a more polarised world, said Lee.

“In such a world, a multilateral approach is not an option but a necessity, to deal with complex global problems including poverty eradication, pandemics and climate change.”

He said the pushback against an open and integrated global economy seen today will lead to a fragmented world with less growth and prosperity, which will create fewer jobs, limiting the ability for developing countries to uplift standards of living on their own.

Lee noted that since 2001, China’s accession into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has lifted more than 850 million people out of poverty. India has also grown steadily since it liberalised its economy in the 1990s.

Singapore and other small Asian economies had also risen from poverty at an earlier time, thanks to an open international economy.

“Now many developing countries in Africa and Latin America are making the same journey. But if global markets become less open, and conditions for trade and investment become more uncertain and disorderly, their progress will become much harder,” said Lee.

While all countries have benefited from globalisation, not all countries have succeeded “in squaring off the benefits and costs of globalisation domestically”.

“Then the international system often becomes the scapegoat,” he said.

The statement was a marked contrast to comments made by United States President Donald Trump earlier this week at the UN. Trump said all nations should be inward-looking and consider domestic interests first. “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots,” he said.

In his speech, Lee said the multilateral system is not perfect. Post-war multilateral institutions like the WTO have “serious weaknesses”, too, and require reform, he said.

In the meantime, new mechanisms and frameworks for international co-operation have sprung up as countries can ill-afford to wait for these reforms. Singapore, for example, is party to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which aim to lower trade barriers and raise standards for trade in goods and services.

“These regional or plurilateral arrangements may be second best to multilateral ones, but in an imperfect world they address real needs, and help us progress step by step. The key is to keep these arrangements open and inclusive, so that the arrangements can overlap and add to one another, and allow other countries to join when they are ready,” said Lee.

“We need to avoid creating rival economic blocs or a bifurcated global economy, forcing countries to choose sides and undermining the international order.”

Singapore is currently discussing a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Eurasian Economic Union, often described as Russia’s equivalent to the European Union, with whom Singapore has also inked an FTA.

After meeting overseas Singaporeans in New York on Friday, Lee is slated to fly to Armenia’s capital Yerevan to conclude the deal. — TODAY

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