Published on Apr 24, 2015 9:00 AM
By Jessica Robinson And Nathan Fabian
Paris is preparing to host the most important summit on climate change in a generation, where all countries in the world have agreed to pledge action. The aim is to launch a new global effort to reduce the human imprint on the climate.
Global momentum is gathering. We want a more livable and sustainable world for everyone – with an economy that is cleaner, healthier, quieter, safer and more energy-secure, and that supports a better way of producing, consuming and living.
One key area where we need examples of green, sustainable living is in cities. We are living in an age when the world is adding 1.4 million people a week to urban areas, where half its population already lives. This rapid global urbanisation, especially in developing nations, threatens to poison the air people breathe and the water they drink.
Singapore has something to teach us. Environmentally, it has performed well. In 2011, Singapore was rated as Asia’s top-performing city in the Green City Index, created by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Siemens. This year, for the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index, it was rated the top Asian city under the “planet” category.
Singapore has had many successes, achieving some of the highest rates of waste collection and recycling and lowest rates of water leakages. It performs strongly in terms of the allocation of green space and sanitation. And it has an exemplary mass transit system – the need for private vehicles has clogged too many of the world’s cities with pollution and congestion.
Of course, Singapore can do more. For example, it has very low levels of renewable energy generation. Recent policies – including an energy reduction strategy and a climate change plan, and in particular the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015 – can change this.
However, one of the biggest hurdles to building more livable cities is the lack of strong investors to finance the increasingly profitable opportunities to build more productive, efficient, low-carbon infrastructure for transport, energy and buildings.
As Singapore pulls together the plan that it will submit to the United Nations climate talks taking place later this year, it might want to consider how it uses its national assets to achieve climate goals, in particular through the investment activities of its sovereign wealth funds.
As a recent report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate showed, there are multiple benefits to be gained from investing in low-carbon infrastructure. That is, before accounting for the vital importance of reducing climate risks, such as more intense storm surges and sea level rises, which pose such serious threats across the world, not least to coastal cities and island states such as Singapore and its neighbours.
Furthermore, the growing costs of carbon emissions mean that renewable energy and efficient buildings are now a better bet than many high-carbon assets. The latest crash in oil prices only serves to remind us of the dangerous volatility of fossil-fuel commodity markets.
Singapore’s two sovereign wealth funds, like the city-state itself, are already high-performing and well-run. By size, they are in the world’s top 12 sovereign wealth funds, with a combined half a trillion dollars in assets under management, based on estimates by the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute.
The latest annual report on the management of the Singapore Government’s portfolio showed exemplary returns. In GIC’s case, an annualised return of 12.4 per cent has been achieved in the past five years, much higher than figures posted by many of its peers.
Moreover, Singapore’s funds are already invested in infrastructure in developing countries. Their higher annual returns are a lesson for investors who focus only on liquid assets, such as company shares, in developed countries.
Now, Singapore’s Government can look to its sovereign wealth funds to show greater leadership and go further, by taking four important steps.
First, they should become world leaders in financing infrastructure that raises the efficiency of energy and water use, to build cleaner, low-carbon cities where people need not fear to breathe. They can thus capture the incentives that governments are increasingly directing into the green economy.
Second, the funds should incorporate into their long-term risk assessments factors such as cumulative threats from climate change, natural disasters and environmental degradation, including water and air pollution.
In this way, they can perform a better risk-management function for the city-state, and avoid being caught out by potential losses as accelerating climate action threatens to undermine high-carbon assets.
Third, these funds should use their incredibly powerful voice to convince senior executives on the boards of companies to identify, manage and report on how these businesses are preparing for life in a low-carbon economy.
Fourth, the funds can use their experience as investors to work with Singapore’s policymakers to formulate policies that assign the real costs of high-carbon activities, and so drive the private sector to back low-carbon infrastructure and technologies. And of course this role should be extended beyond Singapore, to include working with policymakers from other countries in Asia, to effect wide-scale change in the region.
As a final note, the role of financial market regulators needs to be given more attention. The Monetary Authority of Singapore can do more to create the right regulatory framework for the country’s investors and the broader financial sector, encouraging better management of the risks associated with climate change and encouraging capital to flow towards green investment needs – domestically, regionally and internationally.
The world manages around US$300 trillion (S$404 trillion) worth of financial assets. There is great potential for funding a wholesale shift to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy, thereby investing in the growth story of the future while generating strong returns.
With its astonishing success and prosperity, Singapore can and must take the lead. Other countries will look to the powerful example it sets in creating better growth and a better climate for its residents.
The city-state has a critical role to play in Asia’s development, building on its strong legacy and emphasising relentlessly the importance of sustainability in the region.