[Sustainability Series] An Interview with Melissa Low: Part One
BY SHI LE WONG AND RUSSELL YIP
We interviewed Melissa Low, a research fellow at the Energy Studies Institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS), in early January to find out more about her work and her views on environmental and sustainability issues in Singapore and the international context. This article is the first of a two-part series and focuses on domestic issues and recent developments in the sustainability sector, while the second will focus on the broader global context and Singapore’s role in it.
SPJ: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do in the Energy Studies Institute as a fellow?
Melissa: As a research fellow, I do policy research in climate change policy, [and in particular] energy policy, of course, because this is the Energy Studies Institute (ESI). I’ve been here for 10 years. I started out as an energy analyst, or what we would call a research assistant, and then got my master’s during the process. I wasn’t quite ready for a PhD then, so I did another master’s, and I am now doing my PhD at NUS in Geography.
Currently, there are some projects related to greenhouse gas inventory work. Every two and four years, Singapore, like all countries, has to submit reports to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and ESI was commissioned to do some work [on it]. We also provide analysis on anything from carbon pricing to renewable energy uptake in Singapore, and Singapore’s power generation mix, and I work with colleagues in an interdisciplinary fashion to get those projects done and reports out to government agencies. At times, we are also commissioned by external parties such as consultants. Sometimes the project is on Singapore; sometimes it’s on Southeast Asia or other parts of the world. That essentially occupies my time in the office.
One of the main reasons why I decided to do my PhD is because I think in academia, it’s sort of inevitable to go down this line, and I just thought it would give some credibility to the kind of work that I put out. My interest areas include transparency reporting on climate change, so in my thesis research I will be investigating whether and under what conditions will transparency reporting lead to greater accountability in countries’ climate actions.
SPJ: What are the environmental issues or challenges facing Singapore today that concern you the most?
Melissa: Wow, there are a lot of environmental challenges facing Singapore that worries me. Well, I would imagine that waste is a big, big problem. 2019 was the Year Towards Zero Waste. I remember hearing a lot about how Pulau Semakau, and I’ve visited it twice, is filling up; and if we don’t change our trajectory, in 16 years’ time, we will have no further landfill space available to us. It certainly requires more than technological innovations to reduce the volume of incinerated bottom ash or to process hawker waste—maybe you’ve seen some food digesters being put into hawker centers and industrial kitchens—so that we can reduce the amount of waste.
One of the major concerns I have is, while we can address the issues at the end of the pipe, i.e. the waste is already produced so let’s deal with the waste, my concern is that waste issues should be dealt with upstream. This means curtailing consumption if possible, which from an economic point of view may be quite challenging to address because of the paradox of thrift. If people don’t spend, then it means somebody earns less of an income and so on. So I think that sort of big picture is important. We shouldn’t lose track of that, because for Singapore to maintain its position as a hub, we do consume a fair amount of resources. And I do wonder: if we were to curb consumption, would that have negative knock-on effects? And to what extent will that affect our economic status, jobs, and so on, so forth? There are no easy solutions, and I doubt we will get to a solution very soon. Because it’s one thing to aspire—we all have friends who are labeled as greenies, and then they say “Use less, consume less.” But to actually get the masses to do it is very hard. And if people are fatigued, I think this green message is always somebody else’s job. So it’s not only difficult from a government point of view, it’s also difficult from a civil society point of view, and certainly from an academic point of view; you know, trying to make recommendations is also challenging. So, waste is one of the major concerns, because I think as a small country, we shouldn’t really be producing that much.
A friend told me this very funny anecdote many years ago: Singapore has four seasons, IT Show, The PC Show, COMEX, and SITEX, which is very funny, because actually, when I checked, it was true, you know, [they were held in] March, June, September and December [respectively]. It is four seasons and basically, you’re expected to change your consumer electronics every three months. To me, that’s very wasteful. And I think it came up as a major issue—e-waste is a major issue—and it’s covered under the Resource Sustainability Act. I think you guys have covered that story under the Extended Producer Responsibility article.
So small steps, because at the moment, I think even legislation is only requiring suppliers to report and it will take some time to establish that reporting. The reporting steps and compliance cost that is borne by the company administratively has to be internalized first. You can’t reduce what you can’t measure. So, if companies have not been actually measuring the amount of packaging, the amount of waste that’s being produced, there’s no real way to reduce it because you don’t know what the baseline is. I think that’s where, I have observed, the government has tried to do this step by step. Even with energy conservation, they started with the Energy Conservation Act, which was to ask companies to report. Same with plastics and with e-waste. So they’re now asking companies to report by 2021 how much they have generated and I think this is a great first step. Maybe my anxiety and concern will reduce over time, but to me, there’s still a tension between individual behavior and I guess you would call it collective action. Is it the role of governments or businesses from a top down point of view, or is it the role of individuals to address climate change? I don’t have an answer. I think it’s certainly everybody, but it doesn’t help if we are pointing fingers at one another.
SPJ: Back in July 2020, it was announced that the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) was to be rebranded as the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) to reflect an increasing interest by the government in sustainability issues. What impact if any, in this short period of time, do you think the rebranding of the ministry has had thus far on environmental policy in Singapore?
Melissa: It’s quite soon to tell, because Minister Grace Fu just took over the portfolio of Minister for Sustainability and the Environment in July 2020. She used to be from the Culture, Community and Youth portfolio. It is great, because I suppose that would mean that she’s likely to continue engaging with the community and young people as well when dealing with environmental issues.
Now, one thing that strikes me is that the term sustainability is all-encompassing. I think that helps with the ministry’s ability to then get the buy-in of other agencies and ministries that have a stake in environmental issues. The inclusion of sustainability is one way to sort of indicate and signal that much more coordination needs to be in place in order to address the complex problems, or sometimes people call it a wicked problem because there’s no easy one size fits all solution.
In Singapore, this is particularly true, because we are an open economy, we are export-oriented. In fact, I think a lot of the products produced here are not being consumed here; it’s exported to the rest of the region, to the world. But I guess one could say that because the emissions in the production process are actually generated on our shores, it’s attributed to us. Whether this is fair, I think it’s a conversation for another day, but certainly the same can be said for, say, a country like China. They are also producing a lot of products that are exported to the rest of the world but they’re being labeled as the bad guys, “Oh, you are the largest producer of emissions.” They exceeded the US in terms of emissions in 2008. So, the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference was very interesting because everyone’s like, “Ah, China,” but they forget that the US is still accounting for the second largest emissions.
So Singapore is actually way down all that; we’re only producing, and you hear the narrative being raised in many forums, 0.11% of global emissions. However, the use of those products being produced here, for example, crude oil distillates, can result in emissions elsewhere. Right, so crude oil is being refined in Singapore. I mean, even if there are economies of scale, which there are, by producing and distilling it all here; and because we have a great hub, our port is really efficient, you could say that actually having an efficient port here reduces turnaround time, ships emissions, and things like that. There’s also this narrative of carbon leakage—so if let’s say these products were made elsewhere, would you actually end up with more emissions as opposed to it being made here in Singapore?
So these are questions that are not easy to handle, and it’s not that they have not been in good position before they were rebranded, but I rather think that now with their name change, it may put them in a more strategic position to be able to link up with other ministries like the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), which clearly is very important in addressing climate change, because most emissions comes from economic activity. So without MTI’s involvement, it’s very hard to actually reduce emissions in an absolute fashion.
Sustainability is also an interesting term, because some critics have pointed out that it could also mean economic sustainability or sustainable development—there’s still the development part in the second half of the term. Some environmentalists or critics will highlight this fact that it’s still growth. So we’re still subscribing to the capitalist model of thinking, and ultimately it’s not going to solve climate change at the rate we need to solve it. I am sympathetic to that view—we may need to rethink even concepts like green growth, sustainable development, but only to the extent where … so, thinking about it philosophically and theorizing about it is, to me, okay, can can, you can do it, but then you still need to go out and make sure things are moving, educating people and raising awareness, so that you enable them and empower them to act. Talking about it in circles is not going to be helpful. So you can critique and criticize, but then still go out and get the job done. So I would say that I think it’s a good move, and I hope to see more from the ministry, and to see more working together, because clearly COVID-19 is a game changer in the world right now.
I think it’s a good move, and I do hope to see maybe more elaboration also from the Ministry itself. But [the rebranding is] a good signal.
SPJ: We would like to know how various stakeholders are engaged in the formulation of environmental and sustainability policy. Could you give us an overview of how this aspect of the policy process is like?
Melissa: Just so I understand you correctly, your question is about how policy accounts for the views of social environmental advocates, for example. Well, I think every agency has a different approach to it, in terms of the extent [to which] they include those views. I’m certain that there’s always some form of [public participation] for every legislation and regulation that goes out. I think for a long time, the focus was always on the stakeholders that the legislation is most likely to affect. So consumers, or manufacturers, generally speaking. That’s the tone, right? We have industry roundtables, we get you in closed door sessions. But I think things have shifted in Singapore. There’s a greater demand for transparency even with these public consultations, where there’s almost an expectation that the information that’s shared doesn’t go into a black hole, and the agency in question doesn’t just take what they like.
So in any case, I’ve seen, [over] the last 10 years, sort of civil society re-finding their voice, or maybe there’s a newfound space, an online space, and then now moving into the physical realm. But I think it’s also the people who are engaging the stakeholders also need to come to terms with it. So maybe in the past, policymaking was a little bit more straightforward, but now you have to really pay attention to what the media is saying, and to what activists are saying.
One example I would love to cite is a recent case of public stakeholder consultation done by the National Climate Change Secretariat, incidentally. The consultation was put on REACH and it was done for the Long-Term Low-Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS). Under the Paris Agreement, countries are encouraged to submit what we call [Nationally Determined Contributions]… actually it’s interchangeable with Mid-Century Strategy. Okay, so NCCS called a public consultation. It was originally supposed to be [from] July to August, for two months, [but] they actually ended up extending it for an additional month because there was really a lot of feedback. In the end they received 2000 plus [responses] and they told people that the bulk of it came from templates. This is self organization at play. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) had issued a call for people to go and do this public consultation. And there was another group called Speak for Climate that had really good templates for people to use. They also hosted [the templates] on their GitHub site and allowed other people to post their feedback, what they wrote, so other people could draw inspiration.
It was interesting because when I first saw the call for public consultation, it was an email feedback form. There are many ways you can gather feedback: emails, MCQ (multiple choice questions), or you could do [something] like small text. For each of these [formats], they have varying degrees of barriers to entry. Emails, in my opinion, have the highest barrier to entry, because your name goes along with it, and by extension, somebody can Google you and figure out who you are. Whereas if it’s like MCQ, then the choices are already there, and it preempts or predisposes people to certain answers, which is good and bad. But the point is that emails have a very high barrier to entry. So therefore, these self-organized groups were really helpful because they were able to generate [more than a thousand responses].
And then later on something further surprised me: NCCS saw all the feedback, and they issued a 94-page document—what they call a living document. Like wah, this has never been done before. They basically said that your questions are on the left side of the table, and then our answers [on the right]; and 25 different government agencies came together and issued answers. It was really like question one to like, you know, I don’t know how many, and it was done very nicely. They say that as feedback continues to come in, they will continue to evolve this document. And they said, look, those of you who want to publish what you send to us, you can upload your file, your email or your document to this site, and we’ll post it on the NCCS website.
So I was agonizing over this: Oh no, for accountability purposes, should I post mine? So as a member of civil society or academia, you think about this very carefully. Are you representing yourself, as an active citizen? Or do you represent ESI? Or NUS? Or whatever other hats you wear? So being me, I put a disclaimer like “oh, yeah, it’s just representing me, and then this is my feedback.” But the point is that, for the first time ever, I felt that this degree of accountability really raised the bar. Because how do you move forward from this? Then moving forward, every public consultation should be like that, because it also imposes accountability on the civil society members who give feedback. I mean, if you’re willing to say then you should be willing to follow through also, right? You cannot just criticize and say the government never does anything. If you propose some changes and the government comes and asks you, “How do you think this can help?” you also need to put on your thinking cap. You cannot say, “Oh, that’s your job.” or “Taxpayer’s money, you should go.” So to me, it’s a very interesting way of policymaking. Once you put up everything openly, [it’s] sort of like freedom of information, then even government agencies will be able to see what civil society has said in their own words. They can take you up on it. And it’s not just a one way street—feedback shouldn’t just be one way and go into the proverbial black hole that I talked about earlier.
So I think this could be a new way [of engagement]. I don’t know if any other agencies intend to do public consultations this way. But I personally felt it was a very unique way of addressing it. Now, to what extent the actual Long-Term Low-Emissions Development Strategy included those views, I think you can go and read it and see for yourself. My sense is that timeline wise, usually [such feedback] is a bit late in the game. So I mean, governments will always try to package it in a way that is ready to go. And the [LEDS] had to be submitted within 2020. So they had done all of that, by March or February, because the Committee of Supply meets in February. The public consultation was done in July to September.
So I asked this question, and it’s available online because I submitted it: to what extent will this feedback actually be in time for inclusion in the actual LEDS. You ask all these questions, but we don’t really have time to engage about what’s going to go into that report that’s going to be submitted in 2020. So anyway, I believe that the response that came back was, well, you know, this is a consultation exercise for that purpose. But at times, I did feel that the responses were not necessarily complete, or it sort of raised more questions for me anyway. And so while I think that that was a positive step, I also think that there’s always room for improvement with these processes. My point really is that the process needs to be more iterative. We need to take a bit more time to engage in meaningful ways and I think we’re starting to break down those walls.
But like I said, I think there is room for improvement, because equipping people with the rationale and reasons for not achieving the highest level of ambition may make sense from a foreign policy point of view. Because we never want to overpromise and under-deliver. Oftentimes, governments end up doing the reverse, which is under-promising and over-delivering. That is not to say that Singapore does that, but I think that at the very least Singapore wants to make sure that we have some flexibility and to never paint ourselves into a corner. So you always create options for yourself. Especially with climate change, you never want to say this is it, which, to some extent, is what we have done for the target of 65 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. But I’m sure research has been done in anticipation of that announcement to say that we can meet that target. In fact, if you think about it even more carefully, we are at around 51 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. There’s still some way to go from 51 to 65 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, so what the target is actually about is a reduction in the rate of increase—plateauing, as opposed to a drop—whereas in developed countries, a lot of times the expectation is that their emissions will actually fall off a cliff. Singapore is not asking people here to do that. We’re actually reducing the rate of increase.
So is it reasonable? Yeah, it’s completely reasonable, given our economic development status, our desire to continue to be relevant. But you need to explain this properly to people, and I think sincerely is a way that I would try and describe it. You have to explain it sincerely and try not to be like “I know better than you,” or “you don’t know.” So that’s, to me, one of the challenges I think we need to [address] moving forward, to be kinder. Even amongst civil society sometimes you can afford to be not so harsh-toned, you know, because I don’t think anybody wants Singapore to fail, or wants Singapore to sink. So I think it’s really like: Look, let’s set aside animosity and just work together. And I think oftentimes that working together really comes from good lines of communication.
[After the interview, the Singapore Green Plan 2030 (SGP2030) was launched. SPJ followed up with Melissa to get her views on the Plan.]
SPJ: In light of the recent announcements of the Green Plan, what do you think about the rebranding of MSE and the Green Plan in relation to each other?
Melissa: On the SGP2030, I think it’s timely and interesting that there are a total of six Ministries involved in its articulation and implementation. I haven’t quite had the time to go through in detail all of the speeches made by the MSE, Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of National Development, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Trade and Industry at last week’s joint segment on Sustainability, but I think we can certainly expect that we will need to build and enhance partnerships to move forward on the SGP2030 together.
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Image credit: The Straits Times