Transparency and public engagement key in tackling sustainability, local activists say

March 25, 2021

We all know what climate change is and the disasters that it has brought globally. From uncontainable forest fires to floods and droughts, the effects of the Earth’s changing weather patterns have been steadily worsening. Though environmental activists have been protesting for change for years, many governments and large corporations have only recently started to take more decisive action against the degradation of our planet, including Singapore.

Earlier in February, the Singapore government announced the rollout of the Singapore Green Plan 2030 — a nationwide movement to advance the national agenda on sustainable development that incorporates education, infrastructure, the economy and more. Despite this extensive list of measures to be taken in the next 10 years, we can’t help but wonder how these measures will be implemented (and how effective they will be), and if there are any other pressing aspects of environmentalism that have been left out.

Following the announcement of the Singapore Green Plan, we worked with SG Green Groups Town Hall to engage with the local community of environmental activists to find out what they thought about the proposed plan. We ran a total of two OPPi crowdsourcing campaigns — one on climate and biodiversity budget cuts among 58 participants, and another on the 2021 Committee of Supply (COS) Debate among 41 participants — across the span of a month, and uncovered some intriguing points of conversation.

An overview of the Singapore Green Plan 2030.

By and large, participants across both polls agreed that while the Singapore Green Plan is a good step forward, there are many crucial things that have been left unaddressed within the plan itself. The two most commonly raised points were a lack of transparency and public engagement.

For instance, in the poll on climate and biodiversity budget cuts, over 90% of respondents were of the opinion that the government can and should publish the national annual emissions figures and flag out the country’s largest emitters by industry and/or company. Many respondents noted that this form of transparency isn’t necessarily negative, as it can help keep the larger emitters and corporations accountable and encourage them to work towards cleaner alternatives.

Some respondents went on to further add that apart from publishing this data, it might also be helpful to share how these calculations were made (i.e., what data is or isn’t taken into account and any assumptions that have been made) so that the public can compare it objectively with global standards.

In the 2021 COS Debate poll, participants shared similar opinions regarding the government’s lack of transparency — 85% of participants agreed that there wasn’t enough transparency and information given about the projected population growth to justify the need to cut down existing green spaces like Dover and Clementi forests.

In the same poll, over 90% of participants disagreed with or were left undecided on the statement “I am satisfied with the policies listed in the recently announced Singapore Green Plan”, with many going on to share that they wanted more details regarding how the government would go about executing the measures listed. Many also felt that the government’s sustainability efforts have been repeatedly presented many times before, and that the Singapore Green Plan offers no new solutions, concrete targets or expected quantitative impacts of each measure listed.

Though sea freight is the most carbon-efficient form of transporting goods globally, the bunker fuel used by ships refuelling in Singapore contributes three times the amount of carbon emissions in our local official greenhouse gas inventory. To this, 44 respondents expressed an interest in knowing whether or not the government has a decarbonisation plan for the maritime industry.

Of course, the government’s efforts in terms of research into green technologies should be acknowledged, but their overall lack of transparency with specific details and figures beyond strategic or policy concerns have left respondents and locals in general sceptical about the efficacy of their proposed plans. Apart from the above suggestions on publishing more data publicly, respondents also felt that the general public can and should be more actively involved in discussions with the government relating to environmental issues and measures.

One such example would be how the government consulted local nature groups on the status of Dover Forest after the environmental baseline studies were completed, but the wider public and residents in the area were left out of these discussions. Among the various thoughts and suggestions shared by respondents, some felt that should not only be actively involved in pre-developmental discussions, but also in co-planning, co-creating and co-managing such plots of forests and land in Singapore. Some also felt that such discussions should happen in earlier stages such as the master planning stage, and not after developmental plans have been formally announced.

Another interesting point that was raised is that members of the public should be given the option to listen in on such discussions and engagements. This would expose the public to differing viewpoints and allow everyone to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the environmental issues that we face here in Singapore. An alternative suggestion is that a common platform could be set up to show different aspects of such discussions with regular updates to make the information more accessible for all.

One good avenue to implement the aforementioned suggestions would be in the government’s plan to convert more road space into cycling paths. With regard to this plan, 30% of respondents were left divided. Some shared that existing bike lanes aren’t very cyclist-friendly, and suggested that conversations between cyclists and the government be held before this plan is implemented. Others felt that most of our roads and laws are too car-centric for cycling paths to be a safe, viable option, so they should first be recognised as one of our primary forms of transport in traffic laws.

As part of the Singapore Green Plan, the government intends to plant 1 million more trees locally, but because only trees that have matured are key in fighting climate change, conservation of existing green spaces will always be far better than demolishing and repurposing them. To this, about 95% of respondents want the government to set a target to conserve existing trees rather than plant new ones.

Among the many thoughts and opinions aired through both polls, one of the more pertinent issues brought forward is the need for a just transition, and not just a green transition. In the journey towards sustainability, the less-privileged are more often than not left behind. For instance, 46 respondents agreed that many of the government’s green initiatives, such as incentives for purchasing electric vehicles, appear to be targeted at more well-to-do individuals that have the luxury of choosing cleaner, but often more costly, alternatives in their daily lives. To this, a respondent shared that the current Certificate of Entitlement (COE) system benefits the rich and penalises the poor, and that a fairer system needs to be looked into when doling out “rights” to drive in Singapore. Some also recognised the need to improve the efficiency, accessibility and sustainability of our public transport system to lessen the need of owning cars. Another respondent b also brought up the fact that the manufacturing of electric vehicles does actually have quite a severe environmental cost, and that electric vehicles shouldn’t be recommended for the sake of appearing green or greenwashing. Instead, responsible sourcing should be prioritised before anything else.

To sum up, there are many aspects of climate change that can and should be addressed, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s very difficult to determine which is more pressing than the other. What’s important is that we realise that we are all fighting the same fight for the betterment of our home on this Earth, and that we work together to make our voices heard so that greater action can be taken. So do you have any thoughts to add on to this conversation? Or any suggestions that you have? No opinion or idea is too big or too small, so go ahead and join our community group on Facebook and leave us a comment — we’d love to hear what you have to say!

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