Skip to main content



The power of straws, and what ordinary people can do to tackle climate change

SINGAPORE — In India’s capital of New Delhi, the air is so toxic that just stepping out of the house is hazardous.

The power of straws, and what ordinary people can do to tackle climate change
Follow us on Instagram and Tiktok, and join our Telegram channel for the latest updates.

SINGAPORE — In India’s capital of New Delhi, the air is so toxic that just stepping out of the house is hazardous.

In fact, a new study has found that the level of pollution there is so high that just breathing in the air is equivalent to smoking 10 cigarettes a day.

And that is the price that the city has paid for relying on fossil fuels, which include coal, oil and natural gas, experts are saying. These may have been the sources of cheap and reliable energy for decades and allowed nations to develop, but it can no longer be depended on for the future, they asserted.

“Your poverty may have been reduced (because of fossil fuels), but you will end up in hospital because of respiratory reasons,” Dr Vinod Thomas, a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), said at a forum on Friday (Nov 22).

Dr Thomas, who has an interest in environmental issues, was speaking at the CNA INSIGHT forum on Asia’s Response to Climate Change, which consisted of a panel of four speakers that was moderated by CNA presenter Steven Chia.

It was held as part of a series of public talks during the LKYSPP’s Festival of Ideas.

The hour-long session examined, among other things, whether Asian countries were doing enough to reduce and curb their carbon emissions.


Mr Abhas Jha, a practice manager at the World Bank Group, said that the biggest polluter is poverty.

“But the fact is climate change is affecting real incomes of people today,” said Mr Jha, who oversees the international financial institution’s urban development and disaster risk management.

For instance, he said that India’s per capita income would have been about 30 per cent higher if there were no global warming.

Mr Jha was referencing a study by the scientific journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, which found that greenhouse gases enriched cool countries like Norway and Sweden, but dragged down the economic growth of warm countries such as India and Nigeria.

The experts agreed that businesses, and even governments, have long prioritised profits over the higher costs of choosing more sustainable solutions.

But this strategy of “pollute now, clean up later” cannot go on indefinitely. “That later, is now,” said Mr Jha. “There is no future without going into green energy.”

Stressing on the importance of acting soon, Dr Thomas said that the world is in an “emergency room”.

“We are witnessing probably the biggest disconnect between scientific knowledge about climate change and real action,” he said.

Rather than taking collective action to solve the problems highlighted by the scientific community, the world is going the opposite direction and exacerbating it instead.

A woman crossing a railway line on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, on Nov 15. Photo: Reuters


On the flip side, because the problems are human-made, they can be solved, said Associate Professor Leong Ching, whose work at the LKYSPP involves making sense of apparently irrational environmental behaviour.

“It is not as if this entire problem is outside our control, like a large meteorite heading towards Earth,” she said. “If we are in an emergency room, there are things we can do about it.”

Assoc Prof Leong said that one area people could start with is dealing with the issue of food waste.

“The world wastes 30 per cent of the food it produces,” she said. “If we add up all the emissions from this waste, it is equal to the entire emissions of the global transport system.”

Mr Jha added: “If coal worries, cows should terrify you.”

About 14 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from the rearing of livestock

Mr Jha says this is similar to that of the aviation and shipping industry put together.

Instead of eating beef, Assoc Prof Leong said alternative protein sources, such as those grown in a lab, could be a good substitute.

For instance, the production of microalgae protein not only has a lower carbon footprint, but it requires very little space. This makes it ideal for land-scarce countries such as Singapore.

Of course, none of these green technologies would serve any good if it is beyond the means of the layperson, said Mr Nazir Foead, the head of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency.


On the growing trend to ban plastic straws, Mr Chia asked the speakers how effective it is in tackling climate change.

Assoc Prof Leong said it really is about political pressure.

“If you increase the salience of the topic for people, they will feel that it is politically important,” she said.

She added that people who care about the environment will then “pressurise their Members of Parliament” by saying that they want a political leader who shares their concerns, and they will make this known by voting in such people.

With these leaders in the government, there will be a higher chance of moving the country towards cleaner solutions.

“And that is the power of straws,” said Assoc Prof Leong.

The CNA INSIGHT forum on Asia’s Response to Climate Change will be aired on CNA at 9pm on Nov 28.

Related topics

environment climate change straws fossil fuel coal oil gas

Read more of the latest in




Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.