Singapore’s government chief sustainability officer on the progress of green government efforts

By Rachel Teng

Newly appointed GCSO, Mr Lim Tuang Liang, speaks to reporters for the first time since his appointment. He shares how the government’s biggest and emerging emitters plan to lower their footprints, and what makes a good CSO.

Image: Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment. 

In 2020, Fortune 500 companies saw more appointments of chief sustainability officers (CSOs) than in the previous three years combined. But in 2023, the world witnessed a new milestone, with the public sector rising up to the trend: the appointment of the world-first Government Chief Sustainability Officer, Mr Lim Tuang Liang. 

 

Lim, who was previously the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment’s (MSE) Chief Science and Technology Officer, will now drive both external and internal facing government sustainability efforts, such as the nationwide Singapore Green Plan 2030, the government’s GreenGov.SG initiative, and the Sustainability Partnerships Office, which aims to strengthen partnerships across private, public, and society. 

 

“I see my role as a conductor. The policy planners compose the music, individual agencies play their sections (implementing), and as the conductor, I oversee the different parts to ensure coordination and harmony to bring out the best in every part,” Lim says, sitting down with reporters for the first time since his appointment in January. 

 

The GreenGov.SG movement – a dedicated initiative to green up government practices internally – is a cornerstone of the Singapore Green Plan, demonstrating the public sector’s prowess and commitment to leading by example in the Garden City’s sustainability efforts. 

 

GovInsider catches up with Lim on the progress of GreenGov.SG. 

 

Defining the role of a GCSO 

 

According to Lim, a good CSO has to be all of the following: 

 
  1. An expert in the field of sustainability: to be able to advise leadership on the constantly changing world of ESG.
  2. A strategist: to be able to integrate sustainability into the larger company’s strategy and goals.
  3. A communicator and influencer: to not only influence leadership, but to spread culture and awareness across the organisation.
  4. An Innovator: to be willing to challenge the status quo, because the status quo is just not good enough. 
 

When it comes to overseeing the efforts of other government agencies, Lim believes there is less of a need to “challenge” agencies to go further. 

 

“Each agency has a set of missions, and not all of them are sustainability-related. And within the bounds of budget or talent resources, they are in the best position to calibrate how far they can go,” he says. 

 

The GCSO’s role and team’s role is to keep track of progress, and potentially intervene when it is not as fast as intended. Then, the need arises for very frank conversations about the challenges the agencies face. 

 

“Sometimes, the challenges are not within the capabilities or scope of a single agency. That’s where I, as a GCSO, come in, because I can hear the challenges of different agencies and bring them together to solve problems,” says Lim. 

 

For instance, the Singapore Civil Defence Force shared that no solar panels can be installed closer than 2.5 m to the edge of buildings for fire safety purposes. While that is a lot of real estate limiting the nation’s solar power capabilities, it was with this understanding that the team redesigned solar panels with multiple considerations in mind, he adds. 

 

Inaugural government sustainability reports to be released by 2024 

 

By the end of the 2023 financial year, the Singapore government will publish its inaugural GreenGov.SG report, measuring the public sector’s current progress in terms of emissions, and outline its plans on environmental sustainability. 

 

The following year, all statutory boards will have to publish their own sustainability reports as well, detailing their Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions – which Lim deems an “important first step”. 

 

“The scope of sustainability is so wide because of the different natures of each agency’s work, different levels of performance, and limited resources. Only through measurements and data will we be able to prioritise each agency’s own investments and organisational efforts,” says Lim. 

 

Agencies that have seen corporate and community buy-in have been especially successful. NParks, for instance, is three years ahead of its Green Plan targets, because of the groundswell in momentum for the One Million Trees movement, Lim points out.

 

Green ICT procurement 

 

In a report by Climate Neutral group, data centres alone consume an estimated 2 per cent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions – equivalent to the entire airline industry’s emissions. This figure is projected to rise to 5 to 7 per cent post pandemic. 

 

When asked about the rising emissions from the tech sector, Lim says that Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) is adopting a very holistic approach. 

 

“GovTech is the agency helping us define the standards for green procurement from the ICT perspective, such as data centre power usage effectiveness (PUE) calculations. And this is important because ICT constitutes a significant proportion of what we are purchasing,” he says. 

 

An often overlooked part of green procurement is the matter of excessive packaging. While there may be less opportunities to cut down on retail packaging, government agencies and companies can easily look into doing so at the corporate level, says Lim. DBS, for instance, has developed a Restorative Procurement framework, partnering with suppliers to deliver company laptops in bulk to reduce packaging waste. 

 

Lim hopes to develop a single standard for ICT procurement that will be applicable to the private sector and the rest of the supply chain. “The ICT industry has not yet clearly defined what ‘green’ is as far as procurement is concerned, and that creates a lot of challenges to the sector. So we want to allow vendors to comply with one set of rules moving forward,” he says. 

 

Government’s biggest emitters 

 

Interestingly, some of the biggest emitters within the government actually lie within the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment itself, Lim notes. 

 

“The Public Utilities Board (PUB) uses a lot of energy for wastewater treatment and desalination. The National Environment Agency (NEA) oversees the incineration plant, which again is a significant emitter in the overall government account. These are the two agencies which are working hard to look at solutions to reduce their emissions,” he says. 

 

PUB has started to build floating solar systems over the Tengah Reservoir to meet some of the agency’s energy requirements for wastewater treatment. They are working closely with environmental groups to conduct environmental impact assessments of these solar installments on the local ecosystem, and may eventually expand the project to other reservoirs. 

 

PUB is also working with private sector tech companies to extract carbon dioxide from seawater and permanently lock it in building materials such as concrete and paints. These partnerships  allow Singapore to optimise waste generated from one process, and repurpose it for other industrial processes.