Climate change negotiations: Tiny Singapore called upon to be honest broker

ALBERT WAI Today Online 27 Nov 15;

The international community is seeking to create a post-2020 climate change regime to replace the Kyoto Protocol — the existing international framework for fighting global warming — at the climate change conference in Paris kicking off next week. In an email interview with TODAY’s Albert Wai, Singapore’s Chief Negotiator for Climate Change Ambassador Kwok Fook Seng touches on Singapore’s main concerns for the Paris conference, its overall role in the negotiations, and how the Republic has engaged international partners to address climate change.

What are the main outstanding issues for the Paris Conference of Parties? What issues will come right down to the wire?

The key outstanding issue we expect to go right down to the wire is differentiation (how countries are divided in the Kyoto Protocol as Annex One developed countries and Non-Annex One developing countries, with the former expected to take on greater responsibilities), particularly how it relates to climate finance. The negotiations on this remain heavily divided along North-South lines.

To date, more than 170 pledges have been made in conjunction with the prospective Paris agreement. The majority of these are by developing countries who, in good faith, pledge ambitious climate action. In many cases, these countries are seeking financial support in terms of the means to implement their new commitments. They note that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) obligates industrialised nations to assist them in this respect.

Developed countries, however, argue that economic circumstances have changed. They point out that a number of developing countries are among the large emitters today and that they are economically well off. Developed countries thus resist committing to provide predictable long-term climate finance in the post-2020 period when this agreement will go into force. Developing countries hold strongly to the view that industrialised nations have polluted the planet for far longer, and while economic conditions of some developing nations may have changed, the historical responsibility of industrialised nations does not go away.

The key is to find a pragmatic solution to these opposing views that gives adequate assurance to both sides. Unless the concerns of developing countries are adequately addressed, they will remain cautious about the obligations in other parts of the agreement that they must assume after 2020. A solution in the area of climate finance will go a long way to building trust for the rest of the agreement.

What outcomes does Singapore hope to see in the post-2020 agreement? And what scenarios do we want to avoid?

Singapore recognises that climate change is a global, transboundary problem. Any durable solution therefore has to be universal, involving all countries in the world, acting in unison within a rules-based multilateral framework.

The Paris agreement should put in place a robust mechanism for all countries to cooperate. No one will have any excuse not to act. This is the only way to succeed, over time, in our goal to limit temperature rise to as far below 2°C as possible.

Reaching a multilateral agreement by consensus is never easy, and trying to construct a balance among all the competing interests remains a challenge. We must avoid another Copenhagen situation where a perceived lack of transparency and inclusiveness led to a negotiated outcome being unacceptable. The only way to succeed is with the buy-in of all countries.

Climate negotiators are truly passionate in their work, and many view this as the last chance to secure certainty on every last issue they seek to resolve. This is why we are still seeing new ideas being introduced at the late stages of negotiations.

The truth is, we are building a durable framework under which we can tackle all relevant issues over time. The difference is whether we take a short-term maximalist view, or a longer-term pragmatic approach. For Singapore, we appreciate the fact that this window of opportunity to get all 195 parties under this Convention on board an agreement is a rare and limited one. We thus hope to see pragmatism and a spirit of cooperation prevail.

There has been some disagreement over whether the new agreement should be legally binding. Will it become a major issue in Paris? What is Singapore’s view on this?

The Paris agreement, as an instrument operating under the UNFCCC, will be a legally binding international agreement for all intents and purposes. The matter under discussion is whether the emission reduction targets need to be legally bound, given that all other rules and procedures will be fully legally binding.

For Singapore, we see the emissions reduction target as a nationally determined commitment that each country communicates formally. Whether this target itself is bound legally or not is not so critical. The meaningful aspect of this agreement is that all parties under this agreement have a legal requirement to submit and maintain a continuing series of such emissions reduction targets over time. Furthermore, each country’s achievement of such targets is subject to a measurement, reporting and verification system that is also legally binding. This is ultimately the mechanism that will lead to universal cooperation to lower global emissions.

Can you say a bit more about Singapore’s role in the climate change negotiations? How do we attempt to play a constructive role in bridging differences between developed and developing countries?

As a small country and a small island city state, Singapore is a strong supporter of the multilateral system embodied by the UNFCCC. Because we are small, we have to take a proactive approach at international negotiations. We also make it a point to speak to all negotiating partners to better understand their concerns, and to also explain our own unique circumstances. This is a time- and labour-intensive effort, but it gives us a good sense of the various competing aspirations and concerns that need to be accommodated in the final deal.

In the climate negotiations, the number of separate issues and concerns are very large, thus making solutions quite a complex matter. By being able to understand and relate to the concerns of more than one side, Singapore is sometimes called upon to be an honest broker between opposite partners in the negotiations. Where possible, we try to help out when approached to do this. After all, a good outcome is a win for the multilateral system, and this is another meaningful way for Singapore to express our support for it.

Singapore has been perceived by some as an advanced country that should do more to help other developing countries — especially some of our Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) brethren. How have we addressed this concern?

Singapore has been quietly helping other developing countries build their human resource capacity. We see no need to make a big deal or to extract returns for our efforts.

As a small country, we do not adopt the conventional approach of establishing donor-recipient relationships, but treat our development partners as equals. Our key focus is on the sharing of know-how and on building capacities in areas where we have relevant expertise; for instance, in sustainable urban development, water and sanitation.

On climate-change issues, we have done much capacity building in a South-South context to more than 170 countries from South-east Asia to the Pacific Islands, and from Africa to Latin America. Drawing from Singapore’s own development journey, we firmly believe this approach is more impactful than direct cash grants. To date, we have trained close to 11,000 officials from developing countries in climate-change programmes alone. There is also a range of related courses in sustainable development on offer. The overall participation rate of officials from fellow AOSIS or SIDS (Small Island Developing States) countries is very high in such courses, with correspondingly positive feedback. Singapore is committed to widening and deepening the scope of these courses; for example, by helping developing countries get ready to implement the Paris agreement in 2020.

How has our post-2020 pledge (cutting carbon dioxide per gross domestic product dollar by 36 per cent by 2030 from the levels in 2005) been received by the international community?

Among the parties to the UNFCCC, there is broad recognition that it is up to each party to nationally determine its pledge for climate actions based on its national circumstances and its domestic context. Parties have largely refrained from passing judgment on each other’s pledges, but to focus on improving the collective effort. The large number of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) tabled has helped move the process in this direction.

Singapore intends to achieve our INDC fully through domestic efforts. We have also committed to stabilising our emissions, with the aim of peaking in around 2030. Not many INDCs include a peaking target. This reflects our commitment to play our part to reduce global emissions.

Singapore’s INDC must be viewed proportionately to the small percentage of 0.11 per cent of global emissions that we account for. Our mitigation contributions should also be viewed within the context of our limited access to alternative/renewable energy sources and the early action we had taken since independence to ensure that our economic growth was not at the expense of the environment.

For instance, we switched early from fuel oil to natural gas for electricity generation to promote sustainable development. Natural gas now accounts for more than 90% of our electricity production. We do not use pollutive coal for power generation in Singapore, and we have no fossil-fuel subsidies. The high cost of private car ownership in Singapore also serves to reduce emissions from private road transport and promotes the use of public transport.

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