Singapore trails on climate policy when it could be Asia’s leader

Photo: Emilian Robert Vicol / Pixabay

Singapore has become a straggler among wealthy nations in terms of its efforts to cut carbon emissions growth. Though the government has become a regional leader on some environmental policies, a new analysis shows its carbon emissions have grown faster than almost any country in the world.


A new analysis of carbon emissions shows Singapore has fallen behind other wealthy countries in taking steps to mitigate climate change. The Financial Times reports that the island city-state did the least to curb its carbon emissions of any wealthy country between 2008 and 2017. 

Singapore’s carbon dioxide emissions growth rate was the third highest in the world, topped only by Burundi and Niger. Despite other steps towards sustainability, the country still relies almost entirely on fossil fuels, using natural gas to meet over 95% of its energy needs in 2019. The countries that did the most to cut carbon emissions growth for the 10-year period included Sudan, China, Nigeria and the UK. The top-ranked countries in Southeast Asia were Indonesia and Vietnam—possibly a surprise, given their dogged commitment to coal.

But without looking at emissions growth, Singapore’s carbon footprint is extremely low for its level of development. The country’s carbon emissions per dollar of economic output are among the lowest in the world. Despite its potential to lead the pack of wealthy countries, Singapore’s attempts to check its growing emissions have been woefully inadequate.

Singapore’s situation is unique, as a high-income nation that is also affected by legacies of colonialism and is an outlier in its region in terms of development. It’s also extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, from rising sea levels to extreme weather, which should make its leaders inclined to lead on climate mitigation. 

Source: Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy

Government cites major constraints in battle to cut emissions

The government appears aware of its failure to get progressive about emissions, saying that the country has limited options.

“Our carbon emissions set real cross-cutting constraints on our development and the daily lives of Singaporeans,” said Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean in early March, citing limited access to renewable energy, land and labor, compared to other nations.

Singapore does have goals to boost renewables, including a target of 2 GW of solar capacity by 2030. The government has also implemented a very limited carbon tax (US$3.7 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent), built an extended rail network and pushed increased energy efficiency. 

At the same time, Singapore has allowed its land to go from being net carbon negative in 2012 to being a net carbon emitter by 2014, primarily due to deforestation. The island city-state will likely always come up against land constraints, but the government could make up for the climate impact of this deforestation by fast tracking climate-friendly policies.

Singapore’s most recent emissions plan, released in April 2020, has the country reaching peak emissions in 2030—at around 137% of 2010 levels—and then cutting them by 50% by 2050. The government says it’s going for net zero emissions “as soon as viable.” 

“We will press ahead with the measures which are within our control,” said Teo. “But how soon we can achieve net zero depends not only on what we do, but what is done internationally, in areas such as evolving and maturing key technologies, as well as international collaboration on key areas such as carbon markets, as well as the import and export of green electricity.”

Singapore is among the “greenest” in Asia, climate policy aside

Singapore’s overall environmental policies suggest the government may respond to pressure to cut emissions and get off fossil fuels.

The data analyzed by the Financial Times was part of the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), released by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy. The index aims to quantify how countries are performing with respect to environmental policy targets. 

Overall, the 2020 index showed that wealthier countries are, unsurprisingly, able to do more to adopt strong environmental policies. In many cases, this may be because these countries spent the last two centuries or more capitalizing on carbon intensive technology and development, which gives them the wealth and flexibility to adopt cleaner alternatives and sustainable solutions.

Singapore, however, doesn’t appear to fit that model. The country’s context—its history, size, regional constraints, politics, or other factors—has led to a government that manages to adopt strong green policies in many areas, but falls flat in terms of mitigating climate change.

The Financial Times analysis specifically charts the change in countries’ EPI scores around climate. The bulk of a country’s climate EPI score is based on annual rate of carbon dioxide emissions growth (55%). 

The EPI identifies “laggards”, as it calls them, in the realm of environmental policy. This doesn’t include Singapore: the country ranked fourth highest in Asia on the EPI in 2020 after Japan, South Korea and Israel. The next highest scores in Southeast Asia were Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand.

When the 2020 EPI was released, Dan Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, said that “Our analysis suggests that countries with broad-based sustainability efforts and particular emphasis on decarbonizing their economies come out at the top of the pack.”

It would seem that Singapore is the exception, having done little to “decarbonize” its economy, for a country with its relative wealth—and a vested interest in slowing the pace of climate change. 

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