Across the Board: Sustainability still key, even as COVID-19 hogs headlines

The 30 sq km Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City, which Keppel played a key role in, is a strong example of sustainable development

Over the past few months, COVID-19 has dominated international headlines and swung public attention from another equally pressing challenge of our times – climate change. Among large cap Singapore-listed companies, Keppel Corporation stands out for its commitment to sustainability, with its mission to provide solutions for sustainable urbanisation. NUS News spoke to Mr Loh Chin Hua, CEO of Keppel Corporation and a Member of the NUS Board of Trustees, on climate change, and whether the sustainability agenda has been overshadowed by COVID-19.

  • Do you think COVID-19 has displaced climate change as the most severe challenge facing the world today?

Throughout history, societies have faced different challenges – armed conflict, environmental degradation, pandemics, natural disasters and the like. Some hit us abruptly, with explosive impact. COVID-19 is one such example, disrupting millions of lives within months of its first appearance. Others, like climate change, build up over a longer period, but its impact can be potentially even more lasting and catastrophic.

I believe climate change remains one of the most serious challenges confronting humanity today. If anything, COVID-19 has highlighted the interconnectedness and vulnerability of the global eco-system, and the need to build stronger resilience. There is no quick fix to climate change, no circuit breaker that can be quickly applied to contain its spread. Combating climate change requires sustained international effort and long-term commitments. Climate change is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. But I am glad to see that in recent years, the tide has turned, and there is growing awareness of the need for urgent climate action.

  • Is the international community doing enough to combat climate change?

I would not depict this as a simple dichotomy of enough vs. not enough. Governments have to manage many trade-offs, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution that applies to every country. But it is encouraging that climate action has clearly risen in importance on the international agenda. At the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit last September, 70 countries committed to deliver more ambitious national climate plans in 2020. Singapore has also progressively strengthened its environmental commitments over the years. Earlier this year, the Government announced that Singapore will enhance its 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), to peak emissions at 65 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent around 2030. Singapore aims to halve emissions from its peak to 33 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050, with a view to achieving net-zero emissions as soon as viable in the second half of the century.

Many companies and organisations are also committing to do more for the environment, including setting more ambitious targets to reduce GHG emissions, water and waste, or incorporating an internal carbon price to evaluate investment decisions. NUS is also playing a leading role on this front, including the adoption of a Green Finance Framework to support projects with clear environmental benefits and the upcoming establishment of a new Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions.

  • Some companies have been under the spotlight for greenwashing. How can we encourage companies and organisations to truly embrace sustainable development?

I would look at this another way. The fact that some companies are trying very hard to showcase what they are doing for the environment reflects the shift in mainstream opinion and the public’s expectations of corporates. Green is becoming the new black. But at the risk of stating the obvious, sustainable development must be sustainable. It cannot be seen mainly through the lens of PR or marketing, or as costs to the company. Companies must understand the long-term benefits of sustainable development. This would include looking at the life-cycle costs of the assets they own or operate, and also the opportunities associated with providing solutions for a greener, better world, such as building windfarms or providing technology for carbon sequestration and capture. It is also about earning your licence to operate in a world increasingly focused on climate change. Investors are also paying increasing attention to the E in ESG (environment, social and governance) issues in capital allocation. Even when it comes to recruitment, many talented, young people today are attracted to companies committed to environmental sustainability. The imperative for companies is thus very clear.

  • How can companies embed sustainability into their organisational strategy?

There is no one single formula for doing this. I think it is important to set a clear tone from the top and ensure that ESG considerations percolate through the organisation and guide its decision-making. Setting clear, measurable and time-bound targets, and linking executive remuneration to sustainability goals would help to drive execution. The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs also provide a useful framework for thinking about how all organisations, large and small, can contribute to building a better future.

  • Can you share more on the opportunities provided by sustainable development?

The term “sustainable development” was popularised internationally by the work of the Brundtland Commission in the 1980s. But Singapore has been contributing to different aspects of sustainable development even before then, for example through our Garden City concept in the 1960s and the cleaning of the Singapore River in the 1970s. Many Singapore companies, such as Keppel, have been providing solutions that contribute to sustainable development, whether it is water treatment, waste management solutions, or green buildings and data centres.  

To cite a specific example, the largest sustainable urbanisation project undertaken by Singapore overseas to date is the 30 sq km Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City. This is a government-to-government project, which brings together the governments and private sectors of Singapore and China to develop a sustainable city, which can be a practical, replicable and scalable model for other cities. Since the groundbreaking in 2008, the formerly barren, saline and alkaline land on the coast of Tianjin has been transformed into a beautiful green and smart city. In the wake of Tianjin Eco-City, several other China-Singapore collaboration projects have also included sustainable development as a key theme.

  • Are you hopeful that we would be able to combat climate change?

This is not just a question of hope, but survival. Climate change poses an existential risk to many communities, especially small island states and coastal cities. The United Nations has warned of the devastating impact of rising sea levels caused by climate change, and the millions of people around the world who may be displaced.

But the short answer is “Yes”, I believe we can mitigate the impact of climate change, if we take decisive action immediately. I am hopeful – not just because of the emerging international consensus on climate action, but because of the passion and enthusiasm that I see among many young people, including many NUS students, who are deeply concerned about environmental issues and committed to building a more sustainable future. Together, we can make a difference!

About the interviewee

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Mr Loh Chin Hua is CEO and Executive Director of Keppel Corporation. He is also Chairman of several companies within the Keppel Group. Before joining Keppel in 2002, he was the Managing Director at Prudential Investment Inc, leading its Asian real estate fund management business. Mr Loh began his career with the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), where he held key appointments in its Singapore, San Francisco and London offices. Mr Loh was appointed to the NUS Board of Trustees on 1 April 2016. 

Across the Board is a series of interviews and editorials featuring distinguished members of the NUS Board of Trustees, sharing their unique perspectives on relevant and pressing issues of the future with the NUS community. This is the second installment of the series. 

Click here to read NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye’s analysis of the role of universities in shaping a better, post-COVID world.

Source: The National University of Singapore