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NUS CNCS: Asia Pacific carbon projects can generate US$25 bil each year for 30 years

Jovi Ho
Jovi Ho11/3/2021 01:19 PM GMT+08  • 8 min read
NUS CNCS: Asia Pacific carbon projects can generate US$25 bil each year for 30 years
The Asia Pacific has the highest concentration of the most profitable carbon projects.
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Faced with land constraints, Singapore can only do so much to implement nature-based solutions to fight climate change. Instead, the republic should invest in the region and serve as a knowledge hub for sustainability, says conservation scientist Professor Koh Lian Pin.

Koh is director of the Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions (CNCS) at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

In January, he took on an additional portfolio as policymaker, and currently serves as a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP).

Singapore’s neighbours may hold the key to a greener world. Koh says Indonesia and Malaysia are among the top five countries in the world where the most carbon emissions can be avoided, simply by protecting their forests.

Prof Koh: By protecting threatened forests across the tropics, we can avoid the loss of almost two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year. This is greater than the emissions of Indonesia and Singapore combined (Photo: Koh Lian Pin / NUS CNCS)

There are financial motivations as well, as these forests provide high-quality nature-based carbon offsets for the region. These will come to the fore with the launch of Climate Impact X (CIX), Singapore’s global carbon exchange and marketplace, later this year.

The Asia Pacific has the highest concentration of the most profitable carbon projects, Koh adds, which can generate returns close to US$25 billion ($33.6 billion) in net present value each year for the next three decades.

“Indonesia alone can generate about US$10 billion per year, every year, for the next 30 years,” he says.

Annual financial returns from forest protection (Photo: NUS CNCS)

At the CNCS, Koh and his fellow scientists work closely with both the public and private sectors to address the most urgent science and knowledge gaps. “[We] improve the evidence base that helps inform our policies and business decisions on climate strategies and actions,” says Koh.

On Sept 30, Temasek pledged $3 million to the NUS CNCS to implement a five-year research programme. The new NUS-Temasek Blue Carbon Project builds on nearly a decade of NUS research in measuring blue carbon, particularly in mangroves and sea grasses. Mangroves are one of the coastal ecosystems that have been identified to sequester and store more carbon per unit area than terrestrial forests.

Speaking at Temasek’s Ecosperity Week 2021, Koh stressed that nature-based solutions — like protecting existing forests — are a scalable solution. “We know that global carbon emissions are currently at about 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year. Our research shows that by protecting threatened forests across the tropics, we can avoid the loss of almost two billion tonnes of CO2 per year. This is greater than the emissions of Indonesia and Singapore combined.”

See: Tap retail investors to finance green infrastructure: Temasek's Ho Ching

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By simply leaving forests untouched, the world can do more by doing less. Could this be more effective than spending millions on new equipment to placate our green guilt?

In an interview with The Edge Singapore, Koh points to the recent launch of the world’s biggest carbon capture plant, which cost U$15 million and took 18 months to construct.

Collector containers at the Orca direct air capture and storage facility in Hellisheidi, Iceland (Photo: Bloomberg)

Located in Iceland, the machine — named Orca — can trap and sequester 4,000 metric tonnes of CO2 per year. That gas is mixed with water and the mixture is pumped into the volcanic basalt bedrock of Iceland to form calcium carbonate, otherwise known as limestone. Iceland is built upon relatively younger basalt — which is more porous — offering more space for carbon to fill.

It sounds impressive, until the penny drops: In a year, Orca will offset just three seconds’ worth of global emissions.

“That is a hugely expensive machine, both financially and in terms of energy demand,” says Koh. “It is still very much a demonstration — a pilot project — and there are huge questions and uncertainties about scalability, whether we can actually scale it up to a level that will make any real difference.”

“Whether we invest in technological solutions or not, we still need to turn off the tap of emissions; from land use change, deforestation and forest degradation,” he adds.

Singapore’s green strategy

Koh brings 16 years of international research experience in sustainability and environmental science, having worked previously as a Swiss National Science Foundation Professor at ETH Zürich — a public research university in the city of Zürich, Switzerland — as well as in Australia and the US.

Koh, who has a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton University, returned to Singapore last year under the National Research Foundation’s Returning Singaporean Scientists scheme for a homecoming of sorts — he joined the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS, where he did his bachelor’s and master’s in biological sciences.

When he was tapped to join Parliament late last year, Koh consulted with Dr Geh Min — former president of the Nature Society (Singapore) and NMP from 2005 to 2006 — who convinced him to accept the role.

See: Businesses will benefit from sustainability disclosures, says vice-chair of climate-related task force

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“My main motivation for accepting the nomination is to serve as a bridge between the government and the environmental community in Singapore,” he says.

In July, the government walked back plans to raze Dover Forest for housing projects after conservation scientists highlighted the value of the 33ha site.

Instead, public housing will only be launched in half the plot, for now. “That shows the government is taking the concerns and the opinions of the public very seriously, while also having to juggle different priorities,” says Koh.

Such cases of competing uses of land in Singapore extends to our green strategy, says Koh. One example is the newly launched solar floating farm at Tengeh Reservoir. “We have many other priorities; there’s only so much we can do in terms of implementing nature-based solutions in Singapore.”

See: Companies need 'granular pathways' for sustainability but who's paving them?

See also: Sembcorp and PUB officially open floating solar farm at Tengeh Reservoir

For all the buzz over the Sembcorp Tengeh Floating Solar Farm, the facility has its limitations too. Besides being land intensive, the other constraint is Singapore’s persistent cloud cover, says Koh.

“The number of conducive daylight hours for maximum solar energy production can be quite limited, especially during certain parts of the year,” says Koh.

One thing we have yet to learn is the potential environmental impact on the reservoir itself, he adds. “There’s always a trade-off. We need to have a good idea of what that means for the plants, animals and microbes living below the water, or in the water.”

The pluralistic approach

Now armed with months of experience in Parliament, how would Koh reshape Singapore’s environment if offered unlimited resources? “Interesting question. I would actually continue down the road that Singapore is on, which is a pluralistic approach.”

“One is to continue to identify priority areas that we should be investing in, to produce high-quality carbon offsets, as well as to protect and regrow the forest,” says Koh.

See: MAS weighs sustainability expectations with coming regulation

See also: ESG talent shortage hindering sustainable investing in Asia: HSBC

“Secondly, [I would] invest in capacity building at the regional level. I think Singapore has the educational and research infrastructure to be a knowledge hub and knowledge partner for the region. We have the responsibility to make sure that we build capacity across the region, so that our neighbours can help realise the potential of these nature-based solutions across Southeast Asia,” he adds.

“Thirdly, I would invest quite a bit on facilitating and empowering public [and] private sectors to work more closely together. What we have done with the Emerging Stronger Taskforce and the many Alliances for Action is a great model we can replicate for other challenges we are facing,” says Koh.

“The private sector can implement these viable products through these discussions and the public sector can support them with policy frameworks and an enabling environment around those solutions,” he adds.

“I hope that these public-private partnerships can continue to flourish as we address other emerging challenges.”

Photos: NUS CNCS, Bloomberg, Sembcorp Industries

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