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We need to start taking care of the earth

Benjamin Horton on 23 Mar 2019

The Straits Times


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As we have seen in the news last year and now this year, the earth's ecosystems are being subjected to unprecedented levels of global change stemming from human activities, including climate change, land use intensification, atmospheric pollution, and species extinctions and invasions.


Pressure on the environment continues to grow and the consequences of human-induced global change on the earth's ecosystems are intensifying. This has created an urgent need for science to generate the knowledge for understanding the causes and consequences of these changes, and to help build sustainable and realistic solutions.


The future of humanity will depend on whether we can live sustainably.


Fortunately, in the last 15 years, attitudes across the world towards the environment have shifted.


Where once there was ignorance, inattention and disbelief about environmental problems, there is now concern, a modicum of political will and a growing understanding of the causes of environmental problems and their solutions.


Asia has been lagging behind in this shift but it is rapidly catching up: China and India have begun to pay serious attention to renewable energy and to cleaning up pollution, and Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar are considering major environmental policy changes.


Here in Singapore, this year's Budget included policies to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. These should be applauded, but Singapore must do more. Policymakers, scientists and the thinking public now have a will to find solutions - be they engineering, financial or institutional - that can be brought to bear on environmental problems.


Such solutions are particularly urgent in South-east Asia. The greatest diversity of land and marine species is found in the region, and many of the region's ecosystems are fragile and under challenge from social and economic forces. Policymakers may be aware of these challenges, but there are few places they can turn to for insight and advice.




Last week, the United Nations Environment Programme released the sixth edition of the Global Environment Outlook (2019), titled Healthy Planet, Healthy People. The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) is often referred to as UN Environment's flagship environmental assessment.


There were six key messages in the report:


1. A healthy planet supports healthy people


The report emphasises how a healthy planet is important for the health and well-being of all people. It directly supports the lives and livelihoods of 70 per cent of the earth's population living in poverty, and provides the basis for the production of the goods and services that are necessary for the global economy, which had a global gross domestic product value of US$75 trillion (S$101 trillion) in 2017.


2. An unhealthy planet leads to unhealthy people


The planet is becoming increasingly unhealthy through the negative impacts of biodiversity loss - including pollinators, coral reefs and mangroves - climate change and air pollution, water pollution, ocean pollution and depletion, and land use change.


An unhealthy planet has huge social costs for human health and well-being as well as for livelihoods worldwide. In 2016, 24.2 million people were internally displaced in 118 countries as a result of sudden-onset disasters. Such disasters affected not just the poor countries, but also rich countries like the United States and Japan. Between 1995 and 2015, around 700,000 people have reportedly died and 1.7 billion people were affected by extreme weather events.


3. Drivers and pressures leading to an unhealthy planet need to be addressed


These result from a continuing failure to internalise environmental and health impacts in economic growth processes, technologies and city design. The pressures arise from intensifying climate change impacts and inequality, which contributes to demographic changes and other drivers and pressures. The environmental footprint of rich people is significantly higher than that of poorer people. For example, the monthly emissions per capita in rich countries are mostly higher than the yearly emissions per capita in poorer countries. The wealthiest countries were reported to consume 10 times the materials per person compared to the poorest countries.


4. More detailed knowledge required for refined and pre-emptive policy


The existing knowledge is sufficient to mobilise action now. However, new knowledge including data from earth observation, in-situ data, citizen science, information from the ground and indigenous and local knowledge is necessary in national policy and accounting more broadly.


5. Environmental policy is necessary but inadequate by itself


Current national policies are not on track to address the key environmental challenges effectively and equitably.


6. Healthy people, a healthy planet and a healthy economy can be mutually supportive


Healthy diets and lifestyles, healthy cities with good waste management and the use of green infrastructure in built-up areas as well as healthy mobility can increase labour productivity, reduce the need for land for agriculture and reduce the costs associated with urban congestion and transport-related pollution. If gender equality is promoted, including the right to inherit and own land, then food security and many health issues relating especially to women and children could be better addressed.




The decisions we make today and in the coming years will affect life on earth. I am commonly asked what an individual can do. We must make sacrifices and break our habits. Every political, business and lifestyle decision needs to be made with an understanding of how it affects the environment. For example, you could pose a very simple question: "Will this action add to or reduce greenhouse gas emissions?" If it will increase them, then do not do it or offset it.


Consider how you get around: Do you really need that fossil-fuelled car? What do you buy and with whom do you shop, who supplies your energy and does it come from renewable sources? What do you eat? If your diet is animal-based, then reduce your intake. Buy only what you need, buy second-hand and limit how often you wash clothing. Reduce waste and boycott environmentally abusive companies, live responsibly and encourage family and friends to do likewise.


There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate and environmental change. The science tells us we have to do more.


 • Professor Benjamin Horton is the chair of the Asian School of the Environment at Nanyang Technological University and a principal investigator at the Earth Observatory of Singapore.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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