Singapore’s climate change plan needs more ambition

A view of Singaporean skyline reflected in the water

The island nation is looking to update its climate pledge under the Paris Agreement. A bold pledge is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

By Maegan Liew

Each person in Singapore produces more greenhouse gas emissions than their counterpart in Indonesia, China or the United Kingdom. The city-state may be responsible for just 0.11% of total global emissions, but Singapore ranks 27th out of 142 countries in terms of per capita emissions.

At the annual United Nations (UN) climate conference in Madrid last December, or COP25, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli announced that an update to the Republic’s low emissions strategy was imminent.

Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, nations have to update their climate pledges every five years, to align climate action plans with the latest scientific and technological developments. Nations will update plans 9 to 12 months before 2020’s climate change conference in Scotland—or in the first quarter of this year.

Graph detailing ASEAN's biggest greenhouse gas emitters per capita

Singapore’s climate pledge needs to be more ambitious

In 2015, Singapore pledged to reduce its emission intensity, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions for every dollar of gross domestic product (GDP), by 36% from 2005 levels come 2030. The city-state also committed to stabilising and capping its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.  

The Paris Agreement, which succeeds the Kyoto Protocol and takes effect post-2020, seeks to limit global warming to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Scientists estimate that global temperature increases must be kept below the 1.5°C threshold to help humanity avoid the most disastrous impacts of climate change. According to the UN, doing so will avoid economic losses of US$12 trillion, roughly 10% of global GDP, by 2050.

Even with the Paris Agreement, the rise in global temperatures will not be held below 1.5°C. If all countries achieve their present climate pledges, temperatures could still increase by around 3°C.

Singapore should enhance not update its climate pledge

Countries are expected to update their climate pledges by the end of this year but do not necessarily have to submit completely new ones.

Singapore's Marina Bay Sands viewed from the financial district

According to the Washington DC-based think-tank World Resources Institute (WRI), participants in the Paris Agreement can either update their pledges, by providing greater transparency and supplementary information, or enhance their nationally determined contributions, which may take the form of ratcheting up emission reduction pledges or investing in measures to build resilience against the impacts of a shifting climate.

So far, only one country—the Marshall Islands—has submitted a new, second pledge. 68 nations have declared that they will be enhancing their climate defence ambition or action. Singapore, along with 40 other nations, has indicated it intends to update its existing climate pledge.

But Singapore should avoid merely increasing data provisions and information updates on its climate pledge. The low-lying, island city-state is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. A 2019 study produced by Crowther Lab, a Swiss research group, reported that 22% of the world’s major cities will face ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unknown’ climate conditions by 2050, as rising global temperatures bring extreme drought and elevated risks of flooding. Singapore has been identified as one of these cities.

Flooding in Jakarta
Flooding is becoming more frequent and intense across the region.
Photo: Seika

Singapore’s water crisis holds lessons for the climate crisis

Singapore’s climate pledge in 2015 was deemed a “stretch target” that would not be easily met, as efforts towards sustainable development in the country were still in their nascent stages.

The Republic’s 2015 emission reduction plan came under fire for downplaying the potential of renewable energy. Singapore relies on natural gas for up to 95% of its electricity. While natural gas is cleaner than coal, it is still a non-renewable hydrocarbon.

The government effectively dismissed clean energy on account of its lack of natural resources, citing limited space for solar farms, low wind speeds and a lack of geothermal resources.

The Singaporean government has proven adept at tackling existential crises that threaten domestic stability, but it appears less inclined to pull out all the stops to address the impending climate crisis.

For example, in the face of water scarcity, Singapore has shown its ability to overcome severe natural limitations and created economic opportunities out of a potential vulnerability. Today, the water industry contributes 14,400 jobs and adds S$2.5 billion to the Singapore economy every year. Singapore’s integrated water management has earned the city-state international recognition.

There is no reason why the island nation should limit its ambitions in its fight against climate change. As the climate crisis sparks increased global demand for clean technology and expertise there will be extensive economic opportunities in green industries. Early and persisting investment in research and development, as well as the adoption of environmentally friendly technology and solutions, could put Singapore in a strong position to capitalise on the global green revolution.

Just as the water crisis held economic opportunity, the climate crisis could follow the same trajectory if met with increased government commitment and support.

Singapore is making progress but is missing opportunities to go further    

Singapore has installed large-scale floating solar panels in its reservoirs and coastal shorelines. Efforts are also being made towards making 80% of the buildings in the country green by 2030. Come 2040, only 10% of rush-hour commutes in Singapore will be made via private transportation.

Singapore is also the first ASEAN state to impose a carbon pricing scheme. Introduced in 2018, Singapore’s carbon tax, presently set at S$5 (US$3.70) per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions, targets industrial facilities with emissions beyond an acceptable threshold level.

The Singapore government expects that the implementation of a carbon tax will allow the Republic to stabilise its emission levels by 2030.

However, the Lion City could go further. A carbon market would allow the Republic to put a cap on its greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than taxing high emitters, a carbon market would force businesses to trade emission allowances within a stipulated carbon budget.

Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Photo: Ace Kindredzen

The current carbon tax works to disincentivise carbon emissions but cannot guarantee emission reduction nor put a fixed cap on emission levels. A carbon market, although more challenging to implement, would ensure Singapore’s emission targets achievements and fulfilment of its climate pledges.  

Singapore’s current fixed price credit-based system has potential for the development of a carbon market. The present arrangement whereby taxable industrial facilities purchase emission allowances from the regulator, the National Environment Agency (NEA), grants authorities the flexibility to move in the direction of an emissions trading scheme and the imposition of a cap on the total level of emissions in the future.

Climate change poses an existential threat —the fight against it should reflect what is at stake

Protecting Singapore against climate change will be costly. Up to S$100 billion will be poured into measures to cope with rising sea levels caused by climate change.

Prevention is better than cure. Singapore, and countries around the world, must identify their vulnerabilities and undertake the actions required to defend their long-term national interests. But these measures should not become a substitute for ambitious efforts to reduce emissions and prevent temperatures from rising wherever possible.

In his National Day Rally last August, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong referred to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and the country’s climate change defences in the same sentence, calling both defensive efforts “life and death matters” for the Republic. He stressed, “Everything else must bend at the knee to safeguard the existence of our island nation.”

As Singapore looks to submit its updated climate pledge, it would do well to heed Mr Lee’s words. A bold climate pledge that embodies the conviction expressed by the Singaporean prime minister will send a concrete message to the Singapore’s residents and businesses that the government is taking the threat of a warming world seriously and wants to be on the right side of history when future generations dissect the nation’s climate policies.