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Dealing with climate change requires honest accounting: Balakrishnan

SINGAPORE — In tackling climate change, governments play a role in seeking an “honest accounting” of the impact of economic activities, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, said yesterday at the World Engineers Summit Sustainability Leadership Forum. If companies and individuals are made to pay for the pollution caused, they would probably not proceed with environmentally damaging acts that come at the expense of others, he said.

SINGAPORE — In tackling climate change, governments play a role in seeking an “honest accounting” of the impact of economic activities, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, said yesterday at the World Engineers Summit Sustainability Leadership Forum. If companies and individuals are made to pay for the pollution caused, they would probably not proceed with environmentally damaging acts that come at the expense of others, he said.

Yet, implementing initiatives like carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems is “not so easy” and “not something you can rush”.

With global trade, individual countries rushing to implement their own ways of pricing carbon emissions would lead to a lack of coordination and businesses playing “regulatory arbitrage”, said Dr Balakrishnan as he advocated a global agreement to tackle the problem.

Sharing the stage at the forum with representatives from STMicroelectronics and Shell as well as moderator Professor Tommy Koh, Dr Balakrishnan said that, in the case of climate change and global greenhouse emissions, too many people and companies are getting a free ride, because “you don’t necessarily pay for the carbon that you release into the air”.

“If you can make everyone pay for the pollution they cause, they will not pollute the Nile Delta, they will not destroy land, they will not cause deforestation, they will not cause transboundary haze. But it is when people think they can get a free ride (that) you get parasitic activities at the expense of the ordinary person,” he said.

Unequal vulnerabilities and responsibilities have resulted from climate change and low-lying countries such as Singapore stand to be affected by rising sea levels and an increasingly volatile climate.

“And then to complicate things further, in this part of the world when there’s a dry spell, some people still clear forests by burning land and you get transboundary haze,” said Dr Balakrishnan in a pointed reference to haze caused by the burning of forests and plantations in Indonesia that blanketed the region in smog in June.

ST Microelectronics was represented by Mr Francois Guibert, Executive Vice-President and President of Greater China and South Asia, and Shell by Dr Selda Gunsel, Vice-President of Global Commercial Technology.

Mr Guibert said ST Microelectronics tries to ensure sustainability throughout its supply chain, while Dr Gunsel said different sources of energy including renewables should be part of the mix, given the energy challenge posed by a bigger and increasingly affluent world population.

Dr Balakrishnan also noted that feedback from companies indicates that they want regulatory certainty; and not changes with every election, or regulations that capture narrow political interests instead of longer-term systemic solutions.

Asked by a university student if reductions from energy efficiency would be sufficient to make up for the additional billions of people who would consume electricity in future, Dr Balakrishnan said climate change should not be an excuse to deny those from less developed countries their right to development.

The aim is to encourage energy efficiency, proper planning and imaginative use of technology, he added.

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