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Commentary: Land-strapped Singapore may struggle to fulfil the new global biodiversity deal, but there are other things it can do

The Paris Agreement was forged eight years ago, and many countries are only just starting to implement plans to achieve the goals under the pact to tackle climate change.

A picture of monkeys at Mandai Wildlife Bridge. It is likely that the global biodiversity framework would subject Singapore’s national biodiversity management plans to more international scrutiny by international groups. 
A picture of monkeys at Mandai Wildlife Bridge. It is likely that the global biodiversity framework would subject Singapore’s national biodiversity management plans to more international scrutiny by international groups. 
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The Paris Agreement was forged eight years ago, and many countries are only just starting to implement plans to achieve the goals under the pact to tackle climate change.

But now there is a new global agreement to deal with another planetary crisis — biodiversity loss. And it is back to the drawing board for countries who have been tasked by the United Nations (UN) to formulate action plans that will stop wildlife species from disappearing. 

If the time taken for action plans to be made under the Paris Agreement was any gauge, it might take years before the new global biodiversity framework is implemented. 

But its adoption is a good start. 

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE CLIMATE AND BIODIVERSITY PACTS 

The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which almost 200 countries adopted in December 2022 at the COP15 biodiversity conference chaired by China and hosted by Canada, has been touted as the biodiversity equivalent of the Paris Agreement. 

Where the Paris pact aims to limit global warming to preferably 1.5 deg C above pre-industrial levels — the threshold to avoiding harsher climate impact — the biodiversity framework seeks to address the dangerous loss of plant and animal life.

A 2019 UN report found that up to one million plant and animal species face extinction, many within decades, because of human activities such as logging and the conversion of forests to agricultural lands. 

The new framework sets out four overarching goals for the world to achieve by 2050, such as increasing the area of natural ecosystems, and 23 targets to be achieved in the shorter term. 

The most attention-grabbing is the target for countries to by 2030 conserve 30 per cent of the planet’s land and sea areas — a figure that land-strapped Singapore may find impossible to meet. 

But there are other ways that Singapore can act.

STANDING UP TO INTERNATIONAL SCRUTINY

The biodiversity or climate agreements are not legally binding. But they do help to ensure accountability if countries fail to have action plans aligned with international goals. 

In the climate space, research consortium Climate Action Tracker has a five-point rating system that ranks countries based on how compatible their climate plans are with the 1.5 deg C temperature target in the Paris Agreement. 

For two years running, the climate watchdog gave Singapore’s climate plans the lowest rating possible, labelling them “critically insufficient”. 

It is likely that the global biodiversity framework would subject Singapore’s national biodiversity management plans to more international scrutiny by international groups. 

The actions Singapore takes to protect biodiversity matter globally for two reasons. 

One, the country’s nature areas are a stronghold for certain species of wildlife that are highly threatened elsewhere. An example is the critically endangered straw-headed bulbul, a songbird poached to extinction in other countries. 

Second, Singapore is a transshipment hub for many wildlife products, from endangered rosewood logs to elephant ivory and pangolin scales. Conservation groups have called on the country to do more to disrupt trafficking syndicates.

Singapore can take further steps to protect local and global wildlife. Here are some ways it can act.

CLIMATE AND BIODIVERSITY IN LAND USE DECISIONS

Given the pressures that the two international agreements will put on land-strapped Singapore, the country needs to invest more in interdisciplinary research factoring in ecological and climate concerns. 

Such studies can guide land use decisions here and help them stand up to international scrutiny. 

The new biodiversity framework has a provision that allows countries to act based on national circumstances, but Singapore will also have to convince observers of the constraints it faces.  

The pressures are already starting to manifest. 

Last year, national water agency PUB said forests in Singapore’s Western Catchment area would have to be cleared to make way for the expansion of a water treatment plant, part of a crucial infrastructure system for Singapore’s water security given forecasts of erratic rainfall patterns in a world on fire. 

Putting solar panels on water bodies that have been identified as wildlife corridors could also affect biodiversity, as could coastal protection works against rising sea levels.

Environmental studies in Singapore have tended to focus either on biodiversity — such as the national effort to map out wildlife corridors throughout the country — or on mitigating climate impact.

But the two planetary crises are linked, and there needs to be more interdisciplinary research that could aid in the development of solutions that hopefully do not come at the expense of either. 

There have been developments on this front. 

In October, the Singapore Land Authority and the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions signed an agreement to collaborate on leveraging geospatial data and technologies for carbon estimation research in Singapore’s nature reserves and other ecosystems. 

This partnership will help in the assessment of the amount of carbon stored in Singapore’s forests and other ecosystems including primary and secondary forests, mangroves as well as parks and gardens. 

Such studies, coupled with other efforts such as biodiversity surveys, will help policymakers better understand the beneficial properties of Singapore’s remaining forested areas. 

GREATER EDUCATION AND OUTREACH 

Another area that Singapore needs to improve on is outreach and education. 

For nature conservation efforts to truly take off in Singapore, society needs to learn how to better coexist with wildlife. Otherwise, nature conservation could lead to backlash, and put conservationists and biodiversity managers in a bind. 

The poster child for this is the smooth-coated otter that was once extinct in Singapore. 

The return of these aquatic mammals to the country’s urban waterways has been touted a conservation success. Yet, there are now calls for their numbers to be controlled, following cases of otters eating expensive koi fish and “attacking” humans.

Living in harmony with nature requires that people adjust their behaviours in recognition that we share our country with species that are different from us. 

This includes, among other things, not feeding wild animals, knowing how to adjust our bodily postures and stances when wild animals are encountered to prevent “attacks”, and slowing down when driving on roads near nature areas. 

Efforts to conserve nature can only go so far without the buy-in from the general population. 

THINKING BIGGER

Singapore can also leverage its strengths in research and financial services to help in the conservation of nature areas overseas. 

The voluntary carbon market can help to save some of the world’s tropical forests from the axe.  

By conserving forests instead of cutting them down, emissions from deforestation are avoided and each tonne of avoided emissions can be sold as a carbon credit. 

The Republic is already making headway in this area, with carbon credit trading platform Climate Impact X and Temasek-backed investment firm GenZero channelling funds into nature-based carbon projects. 

But not all forests can be saved via this mechanism as only areas meant to be cut down in the first place can qualify as sources of carbon credits. 

Areas that have historically low rates of deforestation — so-called high-forest low-deforestation jurisdictions — are assumed to not be under any imminent threat of loss, disqualifying them as suppliers of carbon credits. 

Other forms of forest-management strategies are needed to ensure that the habitats in such regions are left standing. This is an area of ongoing research at the NUS Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions.

Singapore may not be a large emitter of planet-warming emissions, but it has in recent years announced policies that show its determination to help tackle the global climate crisis.

In terms of biodiversity, there are still things that Singapore can do to stop nature from declining further. 

Nature provides humanity with many benefits, such as water regulation, crop pollination and respite from urban stresses. 

Just as unabated climate change would have deleterious impacts on societies, not acting to stymie the loss of nature too would have severe repercussions on humanity.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Audrey Tan is the science communication and outreach lead at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions and the Tropical Marine Science Institute. She was a former environment journalist for almost 10 years.

Related topics

biodiversity environment climate

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