31 March 2016
Singapore's Planeteers
Gan Ann

High stakes for Singapore and the planet at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP 21).

It was 10 degrees Celsius outside on that Paris winter night in December 2015, more than 24 hours after the negotiations were scheduled to end. The delegates had gathered for the final plenary meeting of COP 21, where we would either witness the adoption of the Paris Agreement, or the next spectacular failure of the international negotiation process to tackle climate change.

As the saying goes, “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it.”

I had the privilege to be part of the Singapore delegation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2011 to 2015, and I got to witness the slow and sometimes painful process towards a global climate agreement. When I joined the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS) after almost four years in the Foreign Service, I did not know what to expect, apart from a vague notion that I was going to be like my childhood hero, Captain Planet. I was going to save the world from the biggest threat of our generation – climate change.

As a small island state, Singapore faces the brunt of climate change even though we are one of the smallest contributors to it. After the failure of the climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, we knew the stakes for COP 21 were high. We could either go home with an agreement that would pave the way towards protecting the global environment, or we could go home with nothing and the world would descend into a “Wild West” situation where each country acted only to protect its national interests, often at the expense of the global good.

Singapore's Planeteers 02

The Singapore delegation to the climate change negotiations was made up of officers across agencies such as the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Ministry of Trade and Industry; and NCCS, with each agency in charge of negotiating specific issues under the agreement. Over the years, the Singapore delegation had also carved out a unique role at the negotiations as helpful bridge-builders. Other delegations recognised our middle-ground positions and diplomatic ability to facilitate compromises – many from our delegation, even junior officers, were invited to facilitate or chair different negotiations.

As many of the negotiations took place concurrently in different rooms scattered around the conference venues, staying coordinated was extremely important, and here we displayed our strength as a delegation even though we were from different agencies. We often got questions from delegates from other countries about what was happening in other rooms and how that would affect negotiations in our room as “the Singapore team always knows what is going on”. Of course, to us a good wifi connection was vital to keeping up our reputation. But more than that, our delegation shared a camaraderie and unity equalled by few, which extended to food deliveries to the poor souls whose negotiations ground on into the night (you know how important food is to Singaporeans).

Bilateral meetings between political leaders ran on into the early hours of the morning. I would sit at the back of the room, taking copious notes on the key interests of each country. There were countless small group meetings with fellow negotiators to try and hammer out the best options for that would be surfaced to the political leaders, who carried out the final negotiations. There were discrete talks in the corridors to dig out what the absolute “red lines” were. There was the constant feeding of information to the political leaders to ensure balance was maintained as they worked out the final agreement.

Throughout the gruelling weeks, our goal was clear – to reach a global agreement in which every country would play its part to curb climate change. COP 21 would be the culmination of years of work by thousands of people around the world. While it wouldn’t be the final solution to all our climate worries, it was a huge step in the right direction for the planet.

Would we succeed?

It was 10 degrees Celsius outside on that Paris winter night, more than 24 hours after the negotiations were scheduled to end. As Laurent Fabius, the President of COP 21, announced the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the room rose to its feet and erupted in rapturous applause. Tears of joy, weariness and relief flowed from the eyes of delegates who had not had a proper night’s rest in weeks. Delegates took wefies to commemorate this historic moment. I stood there for a minute soaking it all in before whipping out my phone to join everyone else in capturing this “Insta-worthy” moment.

Singapore's Planeteers 03

A member of Singapore’s delegation to COP 21, Ms Gan Ann is now a Senior Assistant Director with the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

NCCS' National Climate Change Competition (NCCC) is back! Produce an original three-minute video on the theme "Singapore 2030: A Climate-friendly City" and get to win attractive cash prizes! NCCC 2016 is open to students in primary and secondary schools, junior colleges, Institutes of Technical Education, polytechnics and universities. Register at www.nccc.gov.sg by 9 May 2016!

Featured Gallery