[Sustainability Series] An Interview with Melissa Low: Part Two


In the second part of our interview series on sustainability, we continue our conversation with Melissa Low, a research fellow at the Energy Studies Institute (ESI) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), this time focusing on the broader global context and Singapore’s role in it. In light of recent global milestones in climate policy, Melissa shares with us about how they influenced her work in Singapore, as well as her well wishes for Singapore’s climate policy. The first article focusing on domestic issues and development can be found here.


SPJ: You earlier mentioned the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and we know that you’ve been involved in the Conference of Parties (COP) for over a decade. How do you think your global exposure through the UNFCCC impacts your views on climate change issues in Singapore?

Melissa: That’s a great question. The first COP that I attended was COP15, which was held in Copenhagen in 2009. At the time, I was a third-year student doing my undergraduate degree in geography at NUS and I participated in the conference as an observer with other Singaporean youth. That was my first foray into climate change negotiations. I clearly didn’t know what was going on when I went there. 

My sense is that the negotiations are pretty complex, and so in the last 10 years I’ve endeavored to try and break it down for a general audience. That was important for me at the time, and I felt that that wasn’t provided for. Later on, I got a job here at ESI, and that’s just been my job since, working on climate change policy. Through this job, I was able to develop that interest, and attending the international negotiations and seeing firsthand how it has an effect on domestic climate and energy policy inspired me to come up with projects to study this further. 

The assumption here is that if there were no global agreement on climate change, it would be complete anarchy, and everybody would just do whatever they want. But climate change is a global problem, and the UN, the G20, G8, they’ve all recognized that it is a problem. A global problem needs to be fixed globally, and so, Singapore participates. That was something that I was really keen on, because my sense was that as international developments progressed, Singapore also started to develop its climate change expertise and portfolio—I think around the same time in 2010, the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS) was also set up. I could clearly see that we were taking this very seriously, because NCCS was there under the Prime Minister’s Office. Then they started an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Climate Change (IMCCC), and so on and so forth. I suppose I would like to think that as my career started, Singapore started looking at climate change from an institutional point of view.

Tracking these negotiations has been a core part of my work here. It informs, even today some of the inventory work that we are involved in, because the rules of how you put together a greenhouse gas inventory depend on what’s internationally agreed, and it’s extremely complex and technical. When you put together a report, it can’t just all be Excel spreadsheets, right? Somebody needs to go in and understand what the changes in emissions mean. What is it attributable to? What are some of the policy recommendations that one can make? Keeping in mind that there are expectations on Singapore as well. Other countries have expectations of us based on our relative developmental trajectory, and where we are economically too. 

So these are some of the issues that sort of have surfaced only because of this link with international negotiations. I mean, I think Singapore cannot afford to be insular, because we are so plugged in, and we believe in multilateral rules-based processes. So that has been a core part of my work.


SPJ: What role can or does Singapore play in influencing international climate policy?

Melissa: Good question. I think we are at an inflection point. I guess, if you were to ask me, who is a negotiator? What defines a negotiator? A lot of it has to do with diplomacy and a lot of it has to do with the soft skills that one brings to the table. It relates to how Singapore has managed to participate, or has participated in the global negotiations on climate change for a long time. 

So Singapore has generally played a facilitating role in the negotiations. There’s this really great piece that Ambassador Burhan Gafoor, Singapore’s former chief negotiator for climate change, did with the National Environment Agency. They used to have this magazine called Envision and he was interviewed about what it means to be chief negotiator. He reveals quite a lot of interesting information about the kind of specific role Singapore plays. From what I understand, we obviously do all our homework. Before we go to these meetings, we know what meetings we have, which rooms—I mean, small things, but you know, when you have to be and where, at whatever time, we’re always prepared. You can articulate your views clearly and succinctly. And don’t forget all the negotiations are done in English generally, other than plenary sessions (the high level meet sessions) where discussions are translated into six UN languages. But you have to have a good command of the English language because all the smaller room discussions, by default, are in English.

Singapore is also a member of two “country groupings”: the Group of 77 and China, and the Alliance of Small Island States. I think these two bodies also allow us to sort of get our interests covered. But at the same time, you also still need to look out for yourself, because our interests may not be the same. There is a saying: there is no such thing as permanent friends, only permanent interests. So it’s very much driven by Singapore’s foreign policy, and you need to think about what certain things agreed at these international meetings mean for you. There’s generally a suspicion that countries may use climate change as a way to disguise protectionist measures. It happens sometimes. Carbon border tax adjustments and unilateral aviation fuels tax, like those the EU has implemented or proposed over the years, is very concerning to open economies like Singapore. So usually, what I understand is that the delegation from Singapore that goes to these meetings will need to understand very clearly what our role is and what our objectives are.

Several years ago, one of the delegates said—and it’s stuck with me until today—everybody leaves the negotiations a little bit unhappy, because if everybody leaves happy, something has gone horribly wrong. When it comes to climate change, if everyone’s happy—the US is happy, China is happy, India is happy—it means the planet is going to collapse at some point. So everybody goes back a bit unhappy but you can live with the outcomes, right? You just need to go back and explain to your bosses that this has happened. There have been trade-offs: this country got their word in, maybe a bit more finance was given to developing countries, etc., but where they win is that maybe they don’t have to report so much. Something like that. So they give money up to 2030, but they don’t commit to the 2030 amount of green financing. So there’s always compromise, specific language introduced to the text. As a small country, it’s important that we pay attention to all these compromises because if you’re not sharp, you might end up as collateral damage when the big players fight. I think helping the international process move forward is of interest to us. But I think primarily it’s important to pay attention to what our core interests are as well while keeping in mind there is a global interest to address climate change. You cannot shortchange your own country when it comes to these things and whatever we commit to, we have done the research on. 

My sense is that it’s as much as we can achieve given the current set of industries we have here in Singapore. It’s legacy too, I mean, it’s not that this current government is the one that invited all the large emitters, right? Keeping them here is also important because it keeps these jobs and ancillary ones in banking, legal, finance, and so on and so forth available. All in some way or another depend on the maritime sector, on fuel oil bunkering. So it’s very tricky. And I think there are many countries out there who also realize that Singapore is in this sort of position. There are countries who are like us also. Where they differ [from us] is maybe that they produce the oil themselves, whereas we import it, refine it and then export it. But sometimes these interests align because at least at the international level, when you talk about oil, fossil fuel-related issues, they bunch all the same countries together. Anybody who sort of has fossil fuels in their economies featuring quite strongly, you somehow end up in the same side of the room. Not to say that you are bad, but those are your core interests at that point in time. 

In the end, you have to be accountable to the people who have decided to come and invest in your country, and so on and so forth. I know it sounds very depressing, but it is part of the job, so to speak. When you represent the country, even if you are a very strong environmentalist at heart, oftentimes you may not be in a position to raise the views that are really in your heart. You also need to be tactful, because there are other interests at stake. When I say “interests” it’s very broad—even environmental interests are included in that.

But I can tell you frankly that Singapore is very concerned with other things too. If we are too slack with the outcomes [of the Paris Agreement], then we also have to pay attention to sea level rise because we know that the world is not going to meet the two degrees threshold—it is going to go beyond, which is currently what the trajectory is. Even if we stopped emissions completely today, whatever is in the atmosphere is going to continue to warm. Greenhouse effect, essentially. So it’s inevitable [that] sea levels will rise. As a low lying country, we will need to reinforce our shores. One thing Singapore has done for ourselves is to make sure that we are able to finance our own mitigation and adaptation policies. Depending on others may not be a choice for many countries. They just don’t have the budget internally for it. But it also opens yourself up to a lot more vulnerabilities. So if you depend on another country to adapt your drainage system, then if the money doesn’t come in, then what? Does it not get done? It’ll flood all the time. So we have made those difficult-at-times choices to actually make sure that those monies come from our own coffers, our own taxes, and to make sure that we plan ahead. 


SPJ: To round up the interview, we have a final question: what would your New Year’s wish or resolution for Singapore in the area of environmental sustainability be?

Melissa: I think my answer will be a blend of both a wish for myself and also a wish for how I would change or how I would improve. I think climate education is very important. I mean, the bulk of my work in the last two to three years really has been doing workshops to educate or to raise awareness about the Paris Agreement, and how it translates into domestic climate and energy policy.  The first year that I ran the climate change negotiations workshop, I had 35 people two hours a week on Monday evenings over six weeks. I designed a whole six-week program to teach people about the stuff that I just shared with you—how to think, and to provoke them a little bit. I feel this is something that I would have loved for somebody to have told me or shared with me so that I can make informed choices and informed interventions when I could. But I guess maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that I didn’t have that benefit. So I sort of stepped in and felt, okay, I will do it myself. The second year in 2019, I roped in another institute: the Asia Pacific Center for Environmental Law. Together with my good friend and colleague, Eric Bea, we designed a workshop which was quite similar to and built on the previous one, but it was for educators. 

Having climate change education in Singapore is great, and we need to equip teachers [to teach about climate change], I think that goes without saying. And it shouldn’t just be the teachers’ job, it should include parents. Parents should also at least be equipped to talk to their kids about environmental conservation in simpler ways. So if you want to change and introduce a climate change syllabus, my wish would be that we pay attention to curriculum and to teacher development. You can develop a great set of slides and you can develop a handbook. But if you can’t encourage teachers to actually come and familiarize with the language and feel happy about it—they should want to do it, not have it forced down their throats. 

You know this is so clichéd, but seriously, everybody needs to be involved in this process. So like I said, parents, to me, are a very important group that we often leave out of the picture when it comes to climate change education. I feel like we need to re-include parents as parents are the first teachers of their kids. There are obviously examples around the world that people have raised as potential models, Japan, etc., I mean you’ve heard it all before. But I think Singapore needs to develop its own narrative and its own strategy to try and educate. The main reason why I’m sharing this is because I do get a sense that there’s increased interest. But my peers in education, they’re stretched. So they invite a guest lecturer. They may send out invitations and all that, but wouldn’t it be better if that one teacher who invites a guest lecturer is equipped to talk about these things? Then they can really educate a lot of batches over the years. So that’s my wish and resolution—to actually improve the dissemination of climate information and solutions. Yeah, [it’s] not easy. But I think what you guys are doing is great, because, in part, I think the policy journal’s objectives are to really shed light on issues that are of interest to people. In a way that is education. It’s also outreach.



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Image credit: The Straits Times