Meet the “mountain man” driving Singapore’s climate change efforts towards the summit
In this series, NUS News explores how NUS is accelerating sustainability research and education in response to climate change challenges, and harnessing the knowledge and creativity of our people to pave the way to a greener future for all.
Growing up in the early 80s, Professor Koh Lian Pin enjoyed the best of both worlds: natural wonders and urban comforts.
Home was a cosy HDB flat in Teck Whye, and weekends were spent in the great outdoors. Around his grandparents’ rural kampongs, he rode bicycles through dirt trails and caught critters like spiders and butterflies.
“I was very much exposed to nature from a very young age, which led me to have an affinity with it,” said the 46-year-old researcher in sustainability and environmental science.
But Singapore’s rapid urbanisation also meant he felt increasingly torn between both spheres. While he bemoaned how nature paid the price for progress as buildings replaced trees, he also acknowledged the ways in which he benefitted from such developments.
It was a difficult conundrum. “I always grappled with the reconciling and balancing of economic development with environmental protection,” he shared.
The search for solutions led him abroad in 2004, working at various institutions across the world since then.
He was a Swiss National Science Foundation Professor at ETH Zurich, before becoming the Chair of Applied Ecology and Conservation at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Later, he joined non-profit environmental organisation Conservation International Foundation in the United States, as vice-president of science partnerships and innovation.
Three continents and 16 years later, the prominent conservation scientist returned to Singapore in 2020 under the National Research Foundation’s Returning Singaporean Scientists scheme.
Besides missing friends, family and his favourite plate of char kway teow (fried rice noodles), the homecoming was also motivated by a desire to make a difference to environmental conservation efforts back home and in the region.
Balance between development and sustainability
As director of the NUS Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions, Prof Koh is seeking to strike the perfect balance between sustainability and development.
Set up in 2020, the Centre explores deploying nature – including forests and mangroves – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change impacts.
“In Singapore, it’s about balancing our priorities and understanding the trade-offs,” said Prof Koh, who was a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader in 2013. “We don’t have enough land to protect all the forests we want and also build enough housing for our people.
“As a scientist, this tension underpins my desire to always use science to inform our discussions in society, and our decisions that we make to reconcile our society’s priorities.”
Apart from helming the Centre, he also directs the NUS Tropical Marine Science Institute and serves as a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), among other roles.
His various capacities complement his role as an NMP, as they are all platforms for stakeholders, students and youths to share their concerns on environmental issues. “I try to take into account what their concerns are and raise these issues in Parliament in a sensible way,” said Prof Koh, who champions sustainability issues.
Fighting climate change with an unusual tool
While technology is recognised as the tool of choice in the fight against climate change, he believes there is a largely overlooked tool – nature.
For instance, forests act as vast reservoirs of carbon, while mangroves provide the added benefit of being natural barriers against rising sea levels.
Harnessing the Earth’s elements also offers an added advantage over man-made technology – accessible, large-scale solutions that are instantly impactful. It could be something as simple as putting a stop to cutting trees, which releases carbon into the atmosphere.
“That is an important tap of emissions that we can turn off immediately,” stressed Prof Koh, adding that commercially viable carbon capture and storage technologies may not be available for another decade or more.
“We cannot wait for that. For the purpose of avoiding further emissions and capturing carbon, nature-based solutions can do both immediately.”
His team began identifying high priority areas in Southeast Asia to deploy such nature-based solutions, resulting in the creation of a carbon prospecting map in 2021 that focused on the region’s tropics.
Like a treasure map, it reveals swathes of forests and mangroves where carbon is most richly stored, as well as potential areas to invest in reforestation efforts. Ultimately, the goal is to expand this regional map across all tropics worldwide.
From the Alps to Bukit Timah
As the award-winning scientist continues to scale summits in his high-profile career, the self-confessed “mountain person” also enjoys alpine hiking as a hobby, and has explored some of the world’s most majestic mountains.
“I really enjoyed Switzerland. During the weekends, my wife and I used to hike in the Alps. When we lived in Washington State, we had the Cascade mountains. Now, there’s Bukit Timah,” he said with a laugh.
For now, he has swapped his hiking boots for two wheels, cycling from Marina Bay Sands to Changi Village and back every weekend.
As this conservation crusader helps Singapore shift into high gear in the ongoing fight against climate change, he said the city-state should look beyond its shores to make a real difference – by deploying conservation efforts and resources around the region and by sharing research and education capabilities.
“We can do a lot of good and create a lot of impact in the countries and natural environments around us,” he said. “By working together with likeminded partners, we can deploy solutions that will benefit the world, and be part of something bigger than ourselves.”
This is the second instalment of the Greening the Future series on sustainability and climate change.
Read NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye's commentary on the role that universities play in driving climate change action.