The tool that will help fight climate change is made in Singapore


Besides the platform, NUS professor Koh Lian Pin also pushes for nature-based solutions to issues like warmer temperatures and sea level rise

Conservation scientist Professor Koh Lian Pin flew Singapore’s flag proudly in New York this September. 

At the World Economic Forum - Champions for Nature event, the director of National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions (CNCS) launched the Carbon Prospecting Dashboard. 

Users of the open-access platform – the brainchild of the centre and homegrown firm ST Engineering – can calculate the estimated yield of carbon credits and their financial return-on-investment, based on various factors such as project duration and costs.

The made-in-Singapore programme is one of the many projects Prof Koh, 46, has led since he returned home in 2020 to found the CNCS after 16 years studying, doing research and teaching overseas. 

Since establishing the centre, he and his team have been forging partnerships across Southeast Asia to study and quantify how natural ecosystems help people, such as how much carbon dioxide a particular forest absorbs, to support their restoration and conservation, among other work.

“Unlike technologies that may not be ready for upscaling, nature-based solutions are, at the moment, our most feasible and cost-effective means to quickly avoid further emissions,” he explains.

A recent CNCS study found that 58 per cent of forests currently under threat in Southeast Asia could be protected through carbon credit projects. Through such projects, investors will pay the owners of the forests to prevent them from being cut down.


This would avert 835 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent yearly – equal to nearly half of Indonesia’s emissions in 2018 – and support the dietary needs of over 323,000 people by providing habitats for birds, bats, bees and other wild pollinators. 

In Indonesia, the CNCS is collaborating with a forestry company to develop better ways to measure and monitor peatlands’ ability to soak up and store carbon. 

This is part of its larger research project to do the same for other ecosystems in the region, including tropical rainforests, mangroves and freshwater swamps. Such information is crucial to improving carbon credit and other sustainability-focused schemes. 


Such nature-based climate solutions, as Prof Koh notes, have been available for decades, but more countries are now turning to them as the fight against climate change becomes increasingly urgent. 


The CNCS engages with the public and private sectors to understand and address their climate change-related obstacles and knowledge gaps via research and development. 

“Our second mission is to build capacity in Singapore and the region by communicating our science around climate change and nature-based solutions to decision-makers, so that they can make more informed choices,” says Prof Koh. 

From butterflies to drones

Although Prof Koh is now a leading light in his field, he almost ended on a different career path. 

When he was a PhD student at Princeton University in the US, in 2005, a professor asked him a question that changed his life. 

“I was studying butterflies at the time and presenting a research proposal to a committee, but one of the members sensed that my heart was not really in the work,” he recalls. 

“The member asked me what I truly wanted to do for the rest of my career. I found myself sharing that, growing up in Singapore, I enjoyed the fruits of our development but appreciated the nature we sacrificed for our economic success. What I was curious and passionate about was finding ways to reconcile economic development and environmental protection.”

After that fateful presentation, he left butterflies behind and started researching the intersections between economic development and environmental protection, with life throwing in a few twists and turns along the way. 


In 2011, he was an assistant professor at Swiss public university ETH Zurich when a thought-provoking chat with a visiting friend, primate biologist Serge Wich, led them to a conservation breakthrough.

Then, Prof Koh was studying the environmental impact of oil palm tree cultivation in Southeast Asia, and Prof Wich shared that deforestation due to such expansion was hurting orang utans in Indonesia. 

“Later, when we were talking about my new hobby of flying remote-controlled toy planes, it hit us: Why not attach a digital camera to a toy plane to map and monitor deforestation?” explains Prof Koh. 

Their prototype drone is much cheaper than commercially-available ones. 

During a four-day field test in Indonesia in early 2012, it completed over 30 missions and collected thousands of high-quality aerial photographs and video clips of forests and wildlife. 

Prof Koh says: “That was probably the first time that an amateur drone was used in conservation research in tropical rainforests.”

The two scientists published their work online, coining the term “conservation drone”. After an overwhelming response from colleagues and the media, they co-founded the non-profit group to show others how to build and deploy the technology, with Prof Koh taking a sabbatical from academic work from 2012 to 2014 to focus on the organisation.

While he returned to academia at the University of Adelaide in Australia, his foray into non-profit work stayed with him. 

After several years, he wondered if he could be more than a professor. He had partnered Conservation International (CI) several times by then, including to study how nature benefits society in Southeast Asia, and an opportunity at the non-profit presented itself. 

He says: “After some discussions, I left my tenured position to be CI’s vice president of science partnerships and innovation.

“It was a big change in my job scope, but I thought it was an important leap to make. I wanted to understand how a large non-government organisation works and partners with academia and the public and private sectors. Everything I learned, from research and my experiences in and CI, I brought to the CNCS.”

Making the case for nature

In just a few years, the CNCS has published a white paper on investing in nature-based climate solutions in Southeast Asia; a report on Asean’s challenges and opportunities in implementing such solutions, and many other scientific papers and research briefs.


It is also crafting a regional decision-making framework to help policymakers maximise infrastructure’s potential to mitigate and protect against climate change, and compiling a database of Southeast Asia’s coastal ecosystems capable of storing carbon dioxide. 

The centre advises Climate Impact X, the carbon credit trading platform established by DBS Bank, Standard Chartered, Singapore Exchange and Temasek, too.

Besides his work at the CNCS, Prof Koh is an advocate for nature-based climate solutions in other ways, including as a Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore. He is also the director of NUS’s Tropical Marine Science Institute. 

“The institute is addressing climate change as a global emergency, and empowering Singapore to build resilience against rising sea levels and other climate change-related consequences,” he notes.

He urges youths, who are passionate about sustainability, to equip themselves with the depth and breadth of knowledge needed to create impactful and lasting change. 

“You need to study problems deeply enough to understand the root causes and assess the viability of proposed solutions. 
“At the same time, you need to be able to see the bigger picture, and appreciate other issues that societies are grappling with, such as the balancing of conservation and land use needs. That is the key to optimal solutions that maximise benefits and minimise costs to societies,” he advises, adding that everyone is more aware of the power of nature today.

“We have a much better understanding of the value of nature now, and the importance of harnessing nature as part of our solutions against climate change. When it comes to nature-based climate solutions, we are moving very quickly in the right direction.”
We The Earth is a partnership between The Straits Times and Rolex and its Perpetual Planet initiative. Conservation scientist Koh Lian Pin is a stellar example of the many individuals who are doing their part to solve the issues earth faces.