From The Straits Times    |

As we continue to face the realities of climate change, the built environment has become a key area of focus for sustainability efforts. In this three-part series with sustainability advocates Esther An and Joy Gai, who are both at the forefront of the climate movement, we discuss how we can work to transform the built environment, and make our cities and communities more sustainable.

According to statistics released by the World Green Building Council, a global network leading the sustainable transformation of the built environment, the building and construction sector is responsible globally for 36 per cent of energy consumption, 38 per cent of carbon emissions, and 50 per cent of resource consumption. This means that making buildings more sustainable, energy-efficient, and carbon-neutral is critical in the fight against climate change.

To find out more about the current state of the industry and how we can do better, we sat down with Esther An, chief sustainability officer at City Developments Limited (CDL) and Joy Gai, who is the Programmes Head for World Green Building Council’s Asia Pacific Region, as well as a life coach at sustainability movement Joy of Sustainability (JOS).

Joy Gai (left) and Esther An (right)

Meet the advocates

Esther An

Chief Sustainability Officer at City Developments Limited (CDL)

Known as one of the pioneers in the sustainability movement in Singapore, Esther has been leading the climate change movement for more than two decades now. As the chief sustainability officer (CSO) of CDL, one of the largest real estate companies in Singapore with residential, commercial and hospitality assets globally, the avid advocate often attends both local and international conferences, working to expand awareness of green construction and sustainability principles.

Joy Gai

Programmes Head for World Green Building Council’s Asia Pacific Region and founder of Joy of Sustainability (JOS)

As part of the World Green Building Council, Joy works on delivering projects that would help drive the uptake of net zero carbon buildings across the globe. The former engineer is also a passionate sustainability teacher and certified life coach. In practising positive psychology, she believes that sustainability starts from a sustainable mindset.

Joy Gai, Programmes Head for WGBC’s Asia Pacific Region and founder of Joy of Sustainability (JOS)

We’ve been seeing the launch of various new green buildings here recently, whether it’s residential buildings or commercial projects. What is their actual impact when it comes to aiding sustainability efforts?

Esther An (EA): Green buildings are no longer a “good-to-have” situation anymore – they are a must. As developers and builders, we must look at how to design and build greener, and it’s not just about getting the green mark anymore.

I’d like to highlight the 80-80-80 by 2030 goal, which are targets in the Singapore Green Building Masterplan. The first target is to green 80 per cent of buildings by 2030, the next is to have 80 per cent of new buildings be super low energy, and the third is to see an 80 per cent improvement in energy efficiency.

The building sector is under a lot of pressure to support the energy reset to help realise this goal. Right now, almost half of all buildings in Singapore are green, which means there’s still another 30 per cent to achieve in the next seven years.

Joy Gai (JG): I can definitely say we’re headed in the right direction with the increasing number of green buildings, but there is a lot we need to stretch even further when it comes to this industry. Globally, we are aiming for the decarbonisation of the whole world by 2050.

CDL’s Tree House condominium, which achieved the Guinness World Record in 2014 for the largest vertical garden

On the topic of old buildings, tell us a little more about transforming existing ones to go green – is it more of a challenge as compared to completely building a new structure?

JG: Existing buildings are definitely a lot more challenging to retrofit as we have very limited room to play with, but retrofitting existing buildings without tearing down the entire building can actually save a lot of carbon emissions, which also saves energy and carbon.

That’s why we often encourage people to retrofit existing buildings first, before they make a decision to demolish and then rebuild.

EA: Globally, not just in Singapore, older buildings are the biggest challenge. For new buildings, we can start from the drawing board with new technology that could help us to achieve super low energy. For older buildings, everything is fixed, and you can’t just shift parts or change the floor plan.

We have to see how we can give old buildings a new lease of life, how we can redesign the flow of things, and how we can replace or regenerate bigger ticket items. After identifying the gaps and areas to improve, then comes another issue – putting in the investment to make things happen. Reconstruction is not cheap at all.

Esther An, Chief Sustainability Officer at City Developments Limited (CDL)

In Singapore, it was announced last year that the carbon tax would be raised progressively from $5 per tonne to between $50 to $80 per tonne by 2030. How do you see the raise in carbon tax affecting conversations about climate change, and will it empower more companies to get on board?

EA: We are currently still paying $5 per tonne for carbon tax. From next year onwards, it’s five times more – you pay $25 per tonne. Two years later, it’ll be $45 per tonne, so nine times more. By 2030, which is only seven years away, the carbon tax will be up to even $80 per tonne. 

If you look at the increase, it’s not just incremental, it’s actually quite a big jump. For companies with global presence, they are hit even worse, because other regions, such as Europe and the US, their carbon tax is much higher than Singapore. This shows how urgent it is to go net zero. 

JG: From the World Green Building Council’s standpoint, the increase of the carbon tax is an end result. We also want to see the rationale behind this move and how we interpret this and translate into physical actions to tackle this change. 

The increase of carbon tax shows us that carbon is a scarce resource because it’s precious and comes with high risk. That’s why it drives the market price to be higher and more valuable. This means that we need to look into how we minimise carbon usage very carefully. 

I also want to stress that the carbon tax covers a wide range of industries. But the construction industry contributes to 37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which makes it a very significant industry for us to look into so that we have a greater impact to mitigate global warming.