Sustainable Futures with Erik Solheim

Reading Time: 3 minutes

By Duncan Phang (22A13B) and Lim Yong Le (22S03M)

“Hello Singapore!” echoed across the Performing Arts Centre, greeting a rapturous audience of Rafflesians who enthusiastically cheered in response. Was this a BTS concert? No, it was actually the RI Sustainable Futures Talk featuring Mr. Erik Solheim, former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme and former Minister of the Environment in the Norwegian government. His talk received an equally effusive response, evidenced by the barrage of questions from students eager to glean insights from his vast experience in working to improve the global environment. 

Mr. Solheim began his speech by describing his admiration for Singapore, repeatedly stating that we were “very, very lucky to be born in a beautiful nation like Singapore”.  Born in 1955, Mr. Solheim had the opportunity to personally observe Singapore’s meteoric growth over the years as it transformed from an undeveloped third world economy to one that has one of the highest standards of living in the world. He even went on to declare that save for Korea, no other country had developed to the extent that Singapore had since his birth.

Mr. Solheim further remarked on our founding father, the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, whom he holds in high regard. Mr. Solheim opined how many other countries in South-East Asia were similarly fortuitous in their geographical location like Singapore, but only our country was able to truly prosper under Lee’s leadership. He then noted how Lee once wanted to make Singapore the “Sri Lanka of Southeast Asia”, but fifty years down the road, our growth has far outstripped the once-remarkable nation.

Yet, the affluence afforded by the unsustainable rapid economic development of many first-world countries comes at a great cost. In the past, countries prioritised economic growth over all else, often heedlessly destroying the environment in the process, as they believed that it was a necessary sacrifice. However, this dated belief is one that continues to plague governments across the world. In Mr. Solheim’s own words, the real question to be considered is, “How can we merge ecology with economy?” 

He strongly believes that instead of forgoing one for the other, countries can enact policies that enable both nature and the economy to flourish. “It is not a zero-sum game”, he continued, and talked about the sustainable future that the world must work towards, where protecting the environment and economic progress are striven for in tandem. 

Rather than merely discussing lofty ideals, Mr. Solheim continued to deliver his vision for a greener future, suggesting modern solutions with a primary focus on cleaner, carbon-neutral upgrades to existing technology.

One of such solutions raised was the usage of electric vehicles, which offered significantly lower carbon outputs than existing fossil fuel-based vehicles. While the popularity of electric vehicles has risen around the globe over the past few years with greater activism and falling costs, Mr. Solheim remarked that while most technology in this sphere has been developed in the Western world, China has been by far the fastest to adopt these trends. As a matter of fact, 99% of all electric buses operate in China alone!

Despite the great strides made by China towards sustainability, Mr. Solheim lamented that hypocrisy across the world still paralyses efforts to safeguard the environment. He continued by stating how many leaders, “even Obama”, were quick to jump on the anti-China narrative rather than acknowledge their own shortcomings. This short-sighted deflection of blame may temporarily buy the favour of voters, but poses a serious obstacle to progress towards an environmentally-friendly future.

Wrapping up with an insightful question-and-answer session, Mr. Solheim confidently engaged in discourse with the hosts. One question hit particularly close to home: “how does Norway balance between meeting its economic oil trading goals and becoming a greener nation?” Not one to mince his words, the former environment minister chuckled, simply stating “Norway is failing”. 

All good things must come to an end, and this talk was no exception. Despite the valiant efforts of both the hosts and Mr. Solheim, many questions remained unanswered. However, there were no disappointed faces to be seen as everyone in the Performing Arts Centre gathered for a group wefie, enlightened by the brief, yet meaningful talk.

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