Best of our wild blogs: 12 Oct 13

“Forget not our Living Forest” – botanist Joseph Lai unveils an entourage of enthralling forest denizens! Thu 17 Oct 2013: 6.30pm @ NUS LT25
from Raffles Museum News

A Short Love Note to Science
from Diary of a Boy wandering through Our Little Urban Eden

Project update 12: All creatures great and small
from Rimba

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Can Singapore 'electrify' the world?

It should lead by being first nation to switch to all-electric fleet of vehicles
Kishore Mahbubani, Straits Times 12 Oct 13;

SINGAPORE’S great weakness is that it is an absurdly small nation. Paradoxically, one great strength of Singapore is that it is an absurdly small nation. Hence, Singapore can try things out on a national scale that few other nations can dream about.

Let me suggest one such bold national project. Let Singapore become the first country in the world to have an all-electric fleet of vehicles: cars, trucks, taxis, buses, etc. Singapore can create a new chapter in world history by becoming the first country in the world not to have petrol-fuelled engines on the road. And why should Singapore do this? There will be at least three massive benefits from doing so.

Healthier population

FIRST, Singaporeans will breathe much cleaner air. Without petrol and diesel engines, there will be much less carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, particulate matter and other pollutants in the air. As a result, I have no doubt that the health of Singaporeans will improve. There will be fewer instances of asthmatic attacks, and incidents of cancer may also go down. Singapore will also become the quietest city in the world.

Economists have not yet established simple and easy ways of measuring such “positive externalities” that will flow from an all-electric fleet in Singapore. Yet, there is no doubt that the environment will improve massively. Singaporeans will become a happier nation and Singapore will become an ever more attractive destination for the best global talent. (Oops, maybe I shouldn’t say this!)

Second, Singapore would be positioning itself for the day when a global carbon tax or emissions trading system is introduced.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released its latest climate change report. The evidence is now irrefutable. Human activity, especially in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, is warming the planet.

Many countries will suffer the negative effects of rising sea levels and bouts of extreme weather. Singapore will be one of the biggest losers if the worst-case scenario unfolds. While Singapore is too small to make a large difference to climate change mitigation efforts, an all-electric fleet would help us deal with a global carbon tax, thus boosting national competitiveness.

Delay climate change

BY CREATING an all-electric transportation system, Singapore can help to delay climate change. How? Singapore’s behaviour alone will not make a massive difference. But bear in mind that the Asian middle-class population is about to explode, from about 500 million now to 1.75 billion by 2020. If these new middle-class citizens begin buying petrol-burning cars, the planet will be literally, not metaphorically, fried. Clearly, some powerful examples will be needed to demonstrate that the world would be better off not buying petrol-burning cars. By going all-electric, Singapore will act as a key catalytic agent to help to prevent global warming.

The manufacture of electric cars emits more carbon than that of traditional vehicles because of the energy-intensive methods used to mine, smelt and process the iron, lithium and rare earth elements that go into the batteries and other components of electric cars. But studies have shown that electric vehicles make up for this by having much lower carbon emissions when they are in use.

Most of Singapore’s electricity is generated from natural gas, a relatively clean fossil fuel. Using electric cars will result in an effective 66 per cent reduction of carbon emissions in comparison with petrol- and diesel-powered cars.

Cars as status symbols

THE third benefit of creating an all-electric fleet is that it will help to reduce the obsession with cars as a status symbol, as electric cars will simply be seen as functional vehicles to get from point A to point B. For the few Singaporeans who insist on having status symbols like Maseratis, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, I would like to strongly recommend the Tesla, the environmentally friendly status symbol. By moving to an all-electric fleet, we shift the status competition in Singapore away from having the most powerful and fastest cars to having the most environmentally friendly ones. So who should lead the charge to convert Singapore’s car fleet into an all-electric one? I think I know what is going on in the mind of any Singaporean who is reading this sentence. Every Singaporean will expect the Government to take the lead. Unfortunately, this is the wrong answer. If the Government tries a top-down strategy, there will be a lot of resistance. The only way such a massive change can take place smoothly is for it to be a bottom-up initiative.

New developmental approach

INDEED, as Singapore approaches the 50th anniversary of its independence and Singaporeans ponder on the next 50 years, the country should consider a major change of approach to the future development of the country. Singapore has been extraordinarily successful in our first 50 years because of a remarkable number of government-initiated policies. Let me just cite Singapore Airlines, Changi Airport, PSA, and the Singapore Newater story as a few examples. None of these were citizen initiatives.

However, for the next 50 years, we will need a balance of government-led and citizen-led initiatives. Making Singapore the first electric vehicle nation should be the first citizen-led initiative in the nation’s history.

Anyone who thinks that a single citizen cannot make a significant difference should look at the record of Tesla Motors and its chief executive Elon Musk. Mr Musk is giving a personal guarantee (including with his personal money) that the Tesla will retain as much second-hand value as the equivalent Mercedes.

Even more astoundingly, he has begun building charging stations so that you can drive from Los Angeles to New York in a Tesla. If you can drive across a large country like the United States in an electric vehicle, it is surely possible to do so in Singapore. No charging station in Singapore will be more than a few kilometres away. In fact, charging stations could even be installed in private parking lots and driveways.

The Government can help by creating an infrastructure that supports electric vehicles. It could also provide tax and other benefits. Currently, because of the high cost of electric vehicle batteries, such cars cost more, thus placing the vehicle in a higher tax bracket than cheaper but less environmentally friendly cars.

Even the recently introduced Carbon Emissions-Based Vehicle Scheme does not offset the higher costs. Sadly, Tesla had to close its dealership in Singapore without selling a single fully electric car after less than a year because it was not able to receive “green tax benefits” from the Government.

But the benefits that would flow from the creation of an all-electric fleet would be far greater than the tax revenues that the Government stands to lose in giving out tax benefits.

In short, it is a “no-brainer” for Singapore to become the first country in the world with an all-electric vehicle fleet. No other country can do it as easily as Singapore.

The benefits in all dimensions – environmental, health, social – will far outweigh any costs. Indeed, I cannot think of any real cost to making the change. So the big question is: Which citizen of Singapore will stand up and take the lead? If the movement succeeds, it will “electrify” both Singapore and the world. The hour has come. Let the right man or woman stand up and lead the movement.

The writer is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He drives a hybrid vehicle.

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Farmers welcome enhanced $10m boost to improve ops

Audrey Tan Straits Times 12 Oct 13;

FARMERS in Singapore are rejoicing that they no longer have to plough a lonely furrow, now that the Government has pumped in an additional $10 million into the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority's (AVA) Food Fund to improve farm operations.

Farmers such as Mr Malcolm Ong, 50, welcomed the initiative to reduce the Republic's reliance on food imports and boost productivity in the farming industry.

"Manpower is our biggest hurdle as it is not readily available," said the fish farmer.

"By finding ways to mechanise labour-intensive areas like net washing and changing, we can be more productive."

Mr Ong estimates that an automated system to do the task would cost about $200,000.

Typically, washing and changing one net manually would take four people - or half his staff size - about half a day, the owner of Metropolitan Fishery Group said.

Other farms have similar ambitions of automating labour processes to boost productivity.

Mr Wong Kok Fah, director of Kok Fah Technology Farm, which grows leafy vegetables, said his farm had successfully applied for funds in the earlier two rounds of applications to "improve farm facilities and machines to automate our manual processes".

Now that the fund is in its third tranche since its launch in 2009, Mr Wong said that plans are in place to improve "techniques, machines and facilities" at his farm.

"This will increase possibilities of bringing in new techniques and systems to increase production and efficiency," he added.

"With the improvement, we can work towards increasing food production in Singapore."

Enhancements to the fund were announced on Thursday during AVA's inaugural food industry convention at Orchard Hotel.

These include simplified eligibility criteria that no longer require farms to submit latest income statements or productivity improvement plans to apply under the Basic Farm Capability Upgrading and Technical Boosters categories, and an extended list of equipment.

But farmers feel that more can be done to enhance food security.

Owner of Bollywood Veggies Mrs Ivy Ms Singh-Lim said the $10 million was "a pittance" considering the importance of food security as Singapore imports more than "90 per cent" of its food supply.

"The recent strike at the pig farm in Batam tells us we have to be serious about issues of food security," she said.

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Consider using ‘carrots’ to combat haze

Woo Sian Boon Today Online 12 Oct 13;

SINGAPORE — Beyond the focus on assigning blame and beefing up laws to prosecute errant companies and landowners who contribute to the haze, could “carrots” be used to incentivise stakeholders do the right thing?

This approach was brought up by several participants at an informal haze dialogue yesterday organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), which was attended by representatives from non-government organisations, academic institutions and companies from the private sector.

Assistant Professor Jason Cohen from the National University of Singapore, who specialises in climate change models, also suggested the need for more awareness among firms on the negative long-term effects of slash-and-burn practices. He cited countries such as China, Japan and the United States, which have banned such practices after evidence showed that this led to land degradation in the long run.

Others pointed out the drawbacks of the “stick” approach, such as the difficulty in pinning down errant companies due to poor satellite mapping information and long supply chains.

A member of the Haze Elimination Action Team, Ms Sumi Dhanarajan, also questioned whether prosecuting large companies was enough to push to them to take action against contributing to the haze. “For example, by targeting the companies higher up the value chain, how big an impact would that have upon reducing the haze?” she asked.

SIIA Deputy Director Chua Chin Wei acknowledged that ground engagement is difficult with the increasing number of small plantation holders in Indonesia.

“There are possibly about close two million small holders, typically holding less than 50ha of land ... we recognise that this responsibility has to lie with Indonesia. The question then of course, is to see how Singapore can play a constructive role,” he said.

Earlier this week, ASEAN leaders had approved a joint haze monitoring system developed by Singapore, which will help in the tracking down of culprits behind the haze.

SIIA Chairman Simon Tay noted that the Singapore government’s response to the haze “has been very different” compared to previous years. “That’s why also even on the ASEAN level, they’ve been pushing much harder,” he said.

Still, the participants questioned if Singapore was doing enough to help Indonesia combat the haze, whether in monetary terms or by initiatives on the ground. Woo Sian Boon

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Malaysia: 'Don't always view deforestation negatively'

New Straits Times 12 Oct 13;

KUCHING: Some people were very unhappy when deforestation took place as they worried that their villages would be destroyed, said Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud.

He said instead of feeling nervous and frustrated, they should take it positively as it was part of Sarawak's development process.

"Let us remind everyone that our state is moving forward towards greater development and success," Taib said, after witnessing the power purchase agreement signing ceremony between Sarawak Energy Berhad and a foreign company yesterday.

He said three years ago, part of the forest in Samalaju had been cleared for development of a heavy industry, adding the area today had transformed into an industrial park which attracted foreign investments.

"Because of rapid development, the state government is preparing a new township for Samalaju which is expected to be completed within two years."

Taib said the town would have hotels, better infrastructure and security to meet the expectations of local and foreign investors.

He said accommodation for workers was included in the plan, adding that at present, some workers had to travel long distances to get to work because of insufficient accommodation facilities.

"This is one of the biggest problems we are facing now.

"So, the government is putting more effort to ensure the comfort and convenience of workers."

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Shift to a new climate likely by mid-century - study

Alister Doyle PlanetArk 10 Oct 13;

Billions of people could be living in regions where temperatures are hotter than their historical ranges by mid-century, creating a "new normal" that could force profound changes on nature and society, scientists said on Wednesday.

Temperatures in an average year would be hotter by 2047, give or take 14 years, than those in the warmest year from 1860-2005 if the greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, with the tropics the first affected area, a new index indicated.

"The results shocked us. Regardless of the scenario, changes will be coming soon," lead author Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii said. "Within my generation whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past."

The data suggested the cities to be hit earliest included Manokwari in Indonesia, which could shift to a new climate from 2020 and Kingston, Jamaica, from 2023 under the fastest scenario of change.

At the other extreme, Moscow would depart from historical variability only in 2063 and Anchorage in 2071.

In all, the scientists found that between 1 and 5 billion people would be living in regions outside such limits of historical variability, underscoring the impact already under way from a build-up of man-made greenhouse gases.

"Unprecedented climates will occur earliest in the tropics and among low-income countries," according to the study in the journal Nature that urged cuts in greenhouse gases to limit damage to human society and wildlife.

The tropics are most vulnerable to shifting to a new state because the climate was naturally in a narrow band, they said. The Arctic is now suffering the fastest absolute temperature rises, but temperatures have naturally swung widely in history.

However, commentators noted the study did not fully address how people may become better adapted at dealing with the warming, potentially negating some of its effects.

Skeptics who question the need for urgent action have become emboldened by the fact that temperatures rose more slowly over the past 15 years despite increasing greenhouse gas emissions, especially in emerging nations led by China.

However, leading climate scientists said last month they were more convinced than ever that humans were the main culprits for global warming, and predicted the impact from greenhouse gas emissions could linger for centuries.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the hiatus in warming was a natural variation that would not last, and the Earth was set for more floods, droughts and rising sea levels from melting ice sheets that could swamp low-lying islands.

Efforts to curb emissions could delay the average expected date for the shift to a new normal climate to 2069, according to the scientists based in Hawaii and Japan.

Other experts welcomed the study as a novel perspective on climate change - most past studies examine the climate at a fixed date such as 2050 or 2100 rather than predict the timing of a shift to a new state.

"This shows the point at which what is now an extreme year becomes the norm," Chris Huntingford of the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in England told Reuters of a commentary in Nature he wrote with Lina Mercado of Exeter University.

Huntingford noted that the study focused on a shift in mean temperatures - meaning that freak cold years in future could still be chillier than the hottest years in the historical record examined, led by 2005 and 1998.

Huntingford said the study did not fully examine the possibility that people and nature may be better at adapting to warming than expected. "It remains one of big open questions," he said.

A heatwave in 2003 in Europe, the hottest in 500 years, killed up to 70,000 people but better preparations now would reduce the toll if it were to happen again, many scientists say.

The study examined temperatures back to 1860, for which reliable records are available. The U.N. panel of climate scientists said in its report that the period 1983-2012 was likely to have been the warmest in the past 1,400 years.

For the Nature study, click here:

IMF, World Bank heads lend clout to climate change efforts
Reporting by Valerie Volcovici, editing by Ros Krasny PlanetArk 9 Oct 13;

IMF, World Bank heads lend clout to climate change efforts Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Visitors are silhouetted against the logo of the International Monetary Fund at the main venue for the IMF and World Bank annual meeting in Tokyo October 10, 2012.
Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

At a panel on the opening day of their 2013 autumn meeting, Lagarde and World Bank Group President Jim Young Kim said climate change was a priority for their lending institutions, the first time the two had addressed the issue together in public.

Lagarde said measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can add much needed revenue to national economies and steer countries toward the development of cleaner renewable energy.

"There are two things that they should focus on. One is get the (carbon) pricing right and we can help them with that," Lagarge said, referring to measures such as applying carbon taxes and establishing emissions trading schemes.

"The second thing we can do is gradually phase out and remove the subsidies that apply to energies, and particularly fossil energies," Lagarde said.

The subsidization of fossil fuels currently amounts to upwards of $485 billion, she said.

The IMF published a report in March making the case for energy subsidy reform.

The paper said that subsidies were expensive for governments, and that rather than helping consumers, they detracted from increased investment in infrastructure, education and health care which would help the poor more directly.

The IMF also plans to publish a report by mid-2014 providing U.S. policymakers with guidance on how to design a carbon tax within the context of broader fiscal reform and fiscal consolidation objectives.

Lagarde and Kim have put a brighter spotlight on climate issues at their respective institutions than their predecessors, stepping up efforts to reducing pollution in the absence of a global agreement on climate change.

"We think a global agreement is critical but there are things we can do right now before we have an agreement that would make a difference," Kim said.

Kim said the World Bank is focused on three major areas: ensuring sustainable energy for all countries, supporting low-carbon urban planning, and shaping "climate smart" agricultural programs.

"If we focus on those three areas, along with the effort the IMF is making on removing fuel subsidies, that's a robust response to this climate change problem," Kim said.

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Biofuel development should not compromise food security, says CFS

Committee on World Food Security also stresses policy and investment support for smallholder farmers and producers
FAO 11 Oct 13;

11 October 2013, Rome - Following a week of intense discussions, the Committee on World Food Security stressed the link between biofuels and food security, saying that the "progressive realization of the right to adequate food for all" should be a priority concern in biofuel development.

The world's most important intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder platform for food security and nutrition said biofuel development "should not compromise food security, and should especially consider women and smallholders."

The 7-11 October meeting drew nearly 750 people, including over 130 government delegations, 100 civil society and 50 private sector organizations. Following the talks, the CFS also agreed on the importance of integrating smallholder agriculture into national policies, strategies, and research aimed at boosting investment and sustainable development.

Family farmers, fishers and others whose livelihoods depend on smallholder agriculture in developing countries account for most of the 840 million chronically hungry people in the world, according to the recent UN hunger report, the State of Food Insecurity in the World.

Opportunities and risks

On the subject of biofuels and food security, informed by a report from the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition, the CFS noted that biofuel development encompassed "both opportunities and risks in economic, social and environmental aspects," depending on the context and practices. "In some cases, current biofuel production creates competition between biofuel crops and food crops," it added.

The CFS encouraged FAO and other stakeholders to look at ways to help countries strengthen their capacities to assess their situation with regards to biofuels, taking into account food security concerns at global, regional and national levels, and legitimate land tenure rights.

"Governments and other appropriate stakeholders are encouraged to review biofuels policies - where applicable and if necessary - according to balanced science-based assessments of the opportunities and risks they may present for food security," the Committee said.

It called on biofuel research and development partners to improve the efficiency of biofuels regarding both resources and processes, and to devise solutions adapted to the needs of all stakeholders, including those in least-developed countries, as well as women and smallholders who are most in need of access to modern energy services.

The CFS' recommendation called on R the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in The Context of National Food Security (VGGT); the Voluntary Guidelines to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security; the Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP) Sustainability Indicators for Bioenergy and FAO Bioenergy and Food Security (BEFS) Approach.

Investment in smallholders

On the issue of investment in smallholder agriculture, also informed by an HLPE report, the CFS adopted a policy recommendation calling on governments, together with smallholder organizations, civil society, the private sector, research institutions and international development partners, to work together to "build a country-owned vision" designed to boost investments in smallholder agriculture.

The CFS recommended countries consider how agricultural, urban and rural sector policies, strategies and budgets could best enable smallholder access to productive assets, local, national and regional markets, appropriate training, research, technology and farm support services - especially for women.

The importance of smallholder agriculture will be highlighted in 2014 during the International Year of Family Farming.

The CFS also tackled a wide range of other issues designed to support efforts to eradicate chronic hunger and extreme poverty, including responsible agricultural investments and food security in protracted crisis situations. These discussions were slated to continue during regional consultations in the months to come.

At the end of the week, Gerda Verburg of the Netherlands was elected as the CFS Chair for a two-year term. Verburg suceeds Yaya Olaniran of Nigeria.

UN stance on biofuels 'legitimises food violations', claim campaigners
Civil society groups accuse Committee on World Food Security agreement of favouring industry at expense of small farmers
Claire Provost 14 Oct 13;

Farmers work in a Jatropha nursery field in Dimbokro, Ivory Coast. The Jatropha produces a seed oil that can be made into biodiesel. Photograph: Kambou Sia/AFP
Campaigners have condemned new UN recommendations on biofuels, claiming that they defend the interests of the industry rather than those of small farmers in poor countries.

Civil society groups refused to endorse the recommendations, agreed on Friday after a week of negotiations at the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in Rome, saying the result was skewed by countries supporting the biofuels industry and that governments with misgivings were ignored.

"Small-scale food producers have spoken powerfully … about the reality they are confronted with every day: that biofuels crops compete with their food production, for the land they till, and for the water that sustains them," said civil society groups. They argued that the recommendations "legitimise violations of the right to food".

The UN document acknowledged that food and energy security issues were linked, and that biofuels could compete with food crops and influence international commodity prices. It said biofuels should not compromise food security and that concerted international and national actions were important to "encourage that biofuel development and policies are in line with the objective to eradicate hunger".

However, the recommendations do not call for specific policy actions on biofuels and food security. Instead, they say governments should review biofuels policies "where applicable and if necessary" and "seek co-ordination" with food security strategies.

Civil society groups said the result was only a "minimal reflection" of concerns raised. Thierry Kesteloot, of Oxfam, said: "We regret that the whole process ended up in a decision that will not deliver tangible results … During most of the negotiations, the evidence and science were replaced by vested interests. And, while we all wait for the potential of new biofuel generations to arrive, people go hungry and land is grabbed."

In an open letter published before the talks, 80 civil society organisations called on the CFS to recognise that the promotion of biofuels is undermining the right to food, and adopt concrete recommendations to stop this. In particular, campaigners urged governments to eliminate direct and indirect subsidies for biofuels, including targets, mandates and quotas.

Industry groups issued their own statement arguing that discussions had largely excluded and disregarded the views of the private sector, and that a high-level panel of experts on food security and nutrition lacked "transparency, openness and scientific integrity" in its investigation into biofuels and food security.

In June, a report from the high-level panel concluded that biofuels have increased competition over natural resources. "Biofuels policies have been successful in developing biofuels; they now have to orient this success towards food security, which requires taking into account its various dimensions and to recognise and integrate all the potential impacts of national policies, internally and abroad," it said.

The CFS, the key UN forum for the review and co-ordination of policies on world food security, is the first UN body to take up the contentious issue of biofuels. Reformed after the 2008 food price crisis in an effort to create more space for civil society and private sector groups to negotiate alongside governments, the CFS is often hailed as the most inclusive global governance forum.

Last week's talks drew nearly 750 people, including more than 120 government representatives, almost 100 civil society groups, and nearly 50 private sector organisations.

CFS secretary Kostas Stamoulis said last week that the body's diversity is both its main asset and its biggest challenge. As a result, he warned, getting agreement on controversial issues like biofuels was bound to be difficult.

"The challenge is how to get a consensus that is still meaningful, because if you dilute it too much then it gives the stakeholders no guidance on what it is they have to do," said Stamoulis.

CFS agreements are not binding and there is no mechanism to enforce decisions, though its statements are seen as signals of the international mood and can set precedents for future discussions.

The CFS also adopted recommendations on the importance of integrating small farmers into national policies, strategy and research, calling for "country-owned visions" on how to boost investments. Small farmers, fishers, and landworkers in developing countries account for most of the 840 million people thought to be chronically undernourished, according to the 2013 State of Food Insecurity in the World report, released by the UN this month.

Negotiators at the CFS are working on a set of principles for responsible agricultural investment, to be endorsed at the 2014 session, along with an "agenda for action" for tackling food insecurity in protracted crises.

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