GE2020: A look at how climate change feature in party manifestos

·8-min read
A tourist (left) takes a "selfie" on a bridge overlooking the Singapore skyline choked with smog on September 29, 2015
A tourist (left) takes a "selfie" on a bridge overlooking the Singapore skyline choked with smog on September 29, 2015.

by Christalle Tay

Climate change is an issue thought to resonate with younger voters.

And political parties in Singapore recognise this. “Political parties have talked about climate change more than in any previous election, no doubt in part due to the rising wave of climate activism here in Singapore and globally,” said climate activist Bertrand Seah, 26.

Organiser of SG Climate Rally Estella Ho, 24, attributed this to the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech – it was what she called a “watershed moment for climate action here”. PM Lee Hsien Loong dedicated a significant portion of his speech to climate action, an unprecedented gesture that signalled it had become a national agenda.

Political parties that dedicate time to climate action, the consequences of which are gradual, may be associated with foresight. “It’ll bother me if the party doesn’t address anything about sustainability. That’s worrying... We need planners who have foresight for Singapore,” said first-time voter Trivia Yeo, 23, who works part-time as a language translator.

When the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) launched its policy paper on climate change on 8 February, party chairman Paul Tambyah said in a livestream, “You can be pretty sure that climate change is an issue which is going to come up in the election.”

So, how much did climate change really feature in the manifestos of the political parties that did touch on the subject?

People’s Action Party (PAP)

The PAP unveiled its manifesto on 27 June, with a clear focus on saving jobs and the economy, and keeping safe in the pandemic. It was one that differed from previous manifestos, noted PM Lee, who is also the party’s chief, at the launch. A manifesto for a “normal election” would have focused on long-term plans including climate action.

It had one page on climate change, promising more greenery, more renewable energy and the reduction of greenhouse emissions – though the party did not specify by how much. Other promises include those already announced: coastal and flood protection, and the 30 by 30 strategy, which aims to increase homegrown produce to satisfy at least 30 per cent of local demand by 2030.

Seah, alluding to a position paper published by Young PAP on 5 March, noted the brevity of the PAP’s manifesto. “It seems that they are intent on resting on the track record of the incumbent government to show that it can be trusted with climate policies going forward. They don’t seem to have taken much from the policy paper done by the youth wing, which had some interesting ideas.”

Ho also noted the absence of Young PAP’s recommendations in the party manifesto. “If climate policy is not being driven by the party itself... its constant applauding of ‘youth efforts’ becomes little more than empty words.”

Ho is also part of Greenwatch, a non-partisan campaign which has been grading political parties based on their manifestos and campaigns for climate change.

Greenwatch’s PAP scorecard, published on 24 March, scored the party the lowest across all categories for its support for the fossil fuel industry, citing the acceptance of investments from oil companies Shell and ExxonMobil.

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)

The SDP was the earliest to unveil its manifesto in parts, launching updates to its healthcare and education policies. Its policy on climate change, released this February, sets out a firm stance against “an oil-centric economy”, which the party says it will divest from by focusing on scaling up the production of renewable energy.

Among others, the 39-page paper also suggested stricter enforcement on firms causing air pollution, curbing population escalation, construction of green buildings, and waste reduction.

The SDP had also proposed that Singapore make the switch to Electric Vehicles (EVs) by 2050, before Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat one-upped it in Budget 2020 by announcing the switch to be made by 2040. However, while government measures are aimed at car owners, SDP’s paper said the switch should start with taxi and bus companies.

“We commend the SDP for being the only party to have published a dedicated and extensive policy paper on the climate crisis,” said Greenwatch organiser Luke Levy.

However, it also noted that the SDP’s paper often fell short when it came to providing details. It cited SDP’s promise to “significantly upgrade” Singapore’s pledge under the Paris Agreement — no specific target was given.

Workers’ Party (WP)

The WP’s manifesto, released on 28 June, had about a page on climate change, which segmented its proposals into two areas: the mitigation of climate change and curbing the use of plastics.

To mitigate climate change, the WP proposed that at least 10 per cent of Singapore’s energy would come from renewable sources by 2025. It asked that more research and development be done on integrating renewable sources into the power grid, and that there should be no building of new gas-fired power plants unless the demand cannot be met from renewable sources.

To reduce plastic use, it called for the introduction of a single-use plastic charge and a ban on styrofoam where suitable, and on the manufacture and sale of rinse-off cosmetic and personal care products containing microplastics, to be phased in over five years. There should also be a nationwide public education campaign on single use plastics and sustainable alternatives, and more information given on the carbon footprint for products, the party said.

But Ho said, “The WP needs to go beyond single-use plastics and have a firm position on the future of Singapore’s petrochemical industry.

“As the only opposition party in Parliament, the Workers’ Party needs to make clear its position on the future of fossil fuels in Singapore. Otherwise, their silence may be interpreted as an endorsement of the incumbent’s policies.”

Seah had also hoped for more from WP, an expectation he said was based on the party’s track record of asking “good questions” in the last parliamentary term.

Greenwatch’s scorecard also rewarded WP more points in the nature and transport categories for speaking in Parliament about conservation, public transport affordability and EV infrastructure in multiple instances.

WP has also pointed to its own record of speaking on climate change in Parliament, in a party statement a month after the SG Climate Rally. In the statement, it stood with the Rally and outlined its contributions to climate change discussions in Parliament, including asking for the publication of more climate-related data.

Singapore People’s Party (SPP)

The SPP also had one page on climate change in its manifesto released on 28 June, where it proposed that SGX-listed companies should be legally mandated to publicly disclose their carbon emissions portfolio and investments in carbon-intensive operation and resources. This will be a “roadmap to divest from them”, it said.

Other proposals on climate change include calling for mandatory and publicly available Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and the inclusion of all waste under the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme, which will start in 2021 for e-waste. The scheme ensures the producers take responsibility for the collection and treatment of their products when they are disposed of.

“In the lead up to GE2020, several political parties were very willing to listen to the Greenwatch team’s recommendations on climate policies and took our feedback seriously,” said Ho, referring mainly to SPP and SDP.

Reform Party (RP)

The Reform Party launched a green manifesto on 2 July. Though it recognised the economic crisis faced by Singapore, the party said this was its chance to build Singapore back “greener”.

Most notably, it had called for Singapore to reduce its absolute emissions to “as close as possible to net zero” by 2050, and had proposed a legal framework to realise the goal, which it called a Response to Climate Change Act.

These were “strong points”, stated Greenwatch’s analysis of the manifesto. But Greenwatch noted that many points seem to be taken directly — with no further elaboration — from the policy brief it had sent to political parties.

The manifesto included points on increasing research on renewable energy, waste composting, adopting EVs and reducing reliance on personal car ownership.

Not all political parties have carved out a place for climate change issues. Manifestos by the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), and People’s Power Party did not include proposals on climate change.

Will climate change matter at the polls?

For first-time voters who spoke to Yahoo News Singapore, a focus on post-pandemic economic recovery is more important than addressing climate change.

Special needs educator Winnie Chau, 23, and fresh graduate Fong Si Ying, 23, do not expect politicians to speak much about climate change, despite their concerns about it.

Policies on climate change would be a bonus, said Chau. “However, because of the COVID crisis, I wouldn’t be upset if they didn’t (do much on climate change), since the economic recession is one of the top priorities now.”

Fong, who regularly recycles and uses reusable shopping bags, agreed, “If they do address climate change, it would be a much-welcomed surprise.”

For Mr Andrew Lee, 25, a fresh graduate who is looking for a job amid the recession, the economy is a more pressing issue. “Currently, there are other issues that are more important and pertinent to solve.”

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