Challenges of clean energy imports, hydrogen among topics discussed by The Straits Times Earth Day roundtable

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SINGAPORE – Earth Day , the Republic is moving to wean itself off fossil fuels to avoid harsher climate impact, but many questions remain in the green transition.

For example: Will countries be willing to sell their renewable energy if they are falling behind their climate change targets? How feasible is hydrogen as an energy resource?

These were among questions addressed by panellists at The Straits Times’ Earth Day roundtable discussion that was aired on Friday (April 22), which is Earth Day.

Moderated by Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of The Straits Times, the panel featured Dr Victor Nian, an adviser at independent think-tank Centre for Strategic Energy and Resources, and Ms Swati Mandloi, an assistant market transformation manager at environmental group WWF-Singapore who is also from the Singapore Youth for Climate Action, a group that raises awareness on climate change.

ST’s climate change editor David Fogarty and environment correspondent Audrey Tan were also panellists at the discussion.

Here were some of the questions answered during the event.

Q: Will countries still be willing to sell green energy if they fall behind their green targets?

Dr Nian: Certain places are blessed with more renewable energy than others.

For example, the Mekong River has a lot of hydro resources (generating energy with water), whereas Indonesia and Malaysia may be rich in bioenergy (generating energy with organic materials such as wood). In countries with large pieces of land, solar energy can be tapped.

But because of this unequal distribution of renewable energy resources, the question is how do we collectively benefit from the decentralised distributed resources, for example, as a region?

So we are talking about this trans-Asean power grid, which hopefully would bring all the green electricity together, and we share the benefit.

The countries which are blessed with renewable energy are exporting renewable energy, for good reason. They are trying to decarbonise, but economic development is also a priority.

How to balance the two? I don’t think there is a golden answer to that question. But if you look at what a country can do within its territory, and then look at the region and where the global energy outlook is pointing to, then the region has to work together.

Q: How feasible is the use of green hydrogen?

Hydrogen is considered a clean fuel as it produces no carbon dioxide when burnt, unlike fossil fuels. Green hydrogen refers to the fuel that is produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity. Electrolysers are key pieces of equipment that split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Mr Fogarty: I think it is almost here. There has been so much interest in the past couple of years and lots of investment going in, particularly in Europe, where a growing number of countries now have national hydrogen strategies.

Singapore is looking at this as well, but certainly Germany is one of the big investors. They are pouring billions of euros into this.

The key thing though is the electrolysers. The costs of those are coming down all the time, and now you have major investors wanting to set up renewable energy zones creating green hydrogen. I think by 2030, we will see a lot more green hydrogen coming into the mix.

Q: As a young person looking at all that is happening, are you more optimistic about our ability to tackle climate challenges, or are you now getting more and more worried about the future?

Ms Mandloi: I think the term we like to use is “cautiously optimistic”.

We see there is reason for hope. We see an incredible movement in young people, and different stakeholders advocating for this issue. There is so much more to be done, and we see people in action.

But the caution comes from global trends, like the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. We do see that the threats are extremely real, and they are only going to increase in the coming years.

So it is really important that we, as a society and as young people, measure our optimism and pessimism carefully to make sure that where we are going towards is somewhere we can actually create the transformation.

At the same time, we must also be mindful of the fact that the processes will take time and that complexity still exists. We need to sort of slowly work towards (our goals) and then, ultimately, create that sort of systemic, sustainable change that we all strive for.

Q: There is this saying, “Never waste a good crisis”. What are the opportunities for a country like Singapore going forward?

Ms Tan: I think the biggest opportunity for Singapore will be to show the world that you can have a net-zero target and have an action plan to back it up.

We have seen so many net-zero targets from countries and companies, but not many of them have action plans. Over the past 1½ years, you can really see a huge change in the way climate challenges have been treated in Singapore, even though we are facing Covid-19, even though we are facing a global energy crisis.

For example, energy comprises 40 per cent of our total emissions. If we can bring it down to net zero by 2050, which a recent report said was realistic for us to do so, that would really reduce a lot of our emissions and put us in a closer position to achieve our national net-zero target.

The other lion’s share of national emissions comes from industry, and we recently heard during the Budget that our carbon tax is going to go up to a level that took many people by surprise.

So I think all these really show that Singapore is committed to tackling climate change. While we were late in the game in announcing our net-zero target to be achieved by or around the mid-century, we have all our ducks in a row now.

So I think that it is an opportunity to show the world that Singapore, despite its constraints, despite its dependence on imports for energy, water and food, it still can overcome these constraints through technology, through financial flows, through greater societal understanding of the changes that are needed.

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