On the Parliamentary Motion towards a Low Carbon Society
Last week, 19 MPs spoke on a private members’ motion on “Singapore's inclusive transition towards a low-carbon society". The full video can be seen here, and these are some of the key points they made:
The carbon tax needs to be higher
Carbon markets will help Singapore meet climate commitments
There should be stronger measures to ensure companies act more sustainably, and with thorough checks to prevent greenwashing
New green jobs will be created with opportunities for workers to learn new skills and transition into them. Such jobs are in fields like engineering, finance, accounting, energy and food
The transition must be just and inclusive, and the average worker must benefit too
We are encouraged to hear many relevant points made by members of both parties, including multiple mentions of the need for not only a green transition but a just one — something we have been calling for since 2020. However, there were also notable omissions, and whether these speeches will have real impact on the policies to be announced at Budget 2022 and beyond remains to be seen.
What was missing?
Much of the conversation centred around policies for businesses and industries, and not on the effects on ordinary people that was a key theme of our recent People in Crisis rally. Even the discussion on green jobs focused on white-collar jobs like finance, technology and consulting, perhaps reflecting the fact that many MPs work in these fields.
But these are not the only green jobs that we need to support. Last year, we spoke about how care work is climate work, and an open letter representing 46 million health workers called for health and equity to be centred in climate policy, yet there was little mention of how to transition our healthcare system and support its workers during the entire debate.
If we truly want to tackle the climate crisis, the green transition cannot be limited to a few sectors of the economy. Every job must become a green job, which should be redefined more broadly. One possible definition suggested by the Century Foundation is “a job that contributes to preserving or enhancing the well-being, culture, and governance of both current and future generations, as well as regenerating the natural resources and ecosystems upon which they rely”. This would also cover the work of care workers, social workers, educators and more, which are often low carbon in nature. Many of these are also jobs that tend to be performed by women and minorities, thus supporting them would also help to support gender and racial equity.
All workers should be able to work in a job with decent working conditions and pay, that does not rely on the exploitation of the environment or the labour of others, whether in Singapore or abroad. This includes our migrant workers, who are often left out of such conversations even though they play an integral role in our society, and platform workers like food delivery riders and private hire drivers, who lack basic job protections. We have spoken in solidarity with both these groups, but their needs and concerns have yet to be addressed. We saw how our migrant workers have suffered the most during the pandemic because of years of neglect. Should we not take the climate crisis as an opportunity to not repeat the same mistake? Climate justice cannot be selectively applied to Singaporeans only.
Despite the many speeches, there was only one call for Singapore to declare a net zero goal by 2050 (MP Louis Ng), and to sign the COP26 Just Transition declaration (MP Dennis Tan). Instead, the broad sentiment underlying most of the speeches is that meeting the challenges of climate change goes hand in hand with capturing opportunities for economic growth, which prioritises profit despite the slogan of ‘Profit, People and Planet’. We are doubtful that prioritising economic growth will make our society more socially equitable and ecologically sustainable, and call for a reconsideration of what we as a society are striving towards. This is where net zero, or even net negative goals and the signing of the Just Transition declaration would show our willingness to measure our progress using other, non-economic indicators. These public commitments will also help to send a strong signal to businesses and the international community that Singapore is serious in achieving these goals, just like many other countries have.
Carbon tax and green finance
Members were largely supportive of an increase in the carbon tax, which is not a surprise as the initial announcement of the carbon tax in 2018 already included an intention to increase it to between $10 and $15 per tonne of emissions by 2030. This is still much lower than estimates of the right price of carbon, which is at USD 75 (SGD 100) in lower estimates, as MAS chief Ravi Menon has acknowledged, while Temasek is already using an internal carbon price of USD 42 to inform its investment decisions. While encouraging sustainable measures is good, a significantly higher carbon tax will be a stronger message to push businesses to transition, and encourage divestment of fossil fuels. However, members seemed wary of too drastic a change.
This is why a just transition is important: to ensure that Singapore's green transition will cushion the impacts on ordinary citizens, particularly lower income groups and others most vulnerable to the impacts of decarbonisation. In light of the recent rise in prices of essential goods and utilities, as well as the upcoming GST hike, there cannot be a repeat of last year’s petrol hike, which only provided rebates that expire this year. Short-term measures like rebates must be followed by more comprehensive measures aimed at raising wage levels for workers, in particular low-income workers, in order to meet the demands of a just transition. Doing so is as urgent a priority as decarbonisation.
It is striking that there has not been any dedicated public consultation conducted to determine the appropriate level of the increased carbon tax. This is disappointing because a public consultation had been conducted in 2017 for the initial implementation of the carbon tax, in 2019 for Singapore's Low Emissions Development Strategy, and was hinted at in September 2021 in response to a parliamentary question from MP Louis Ng. Given the strong response from civil society in previous public consultations, it is clear that this would have helped greatly to ensure that the increased price would be ambitious, yet just and equitable. Most of all, it would have kept to the spirit of the motion to partner with civil society and community in Singapore's green transition.
We are also concerned about the plans to allow emitters to use carbon offsets to reduce their carbon tax burdens, as this could potentially cancel the effect of a higher carbon price. For example, the pilot auction by local carbon credits marketplace Climate Impact X last November cleared at the rather uninspiring rate of US$8 per tonne. Multiple studies have shown that carbon offsets often fund projects that would have gone ahead anyway, overestimate the potential of nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change, and that even high profile projects by major airlines and the UN’s REDD scheme have not reduced deforestation at the scale that they claim. Thus, carbon offsets should only be used as a last resort when there are no other options to decarbonize.
After all this talk, the proof is in the pudding — we will continue to monitor how these proposals are eventually translated into policies, and the plans for raising the carbon tax that will be announced during the Budget speech on 18 Feb. The mention of a just transition in Parliament is proof of our constant effort to speak up to our elected representatives, and we must keep on working to ensure that the green and just transition becomes a reality.