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Singapore's Climate Change Policy
Is Singapore part of the problem, or can it be part of the solution?

he reality that human activity is changing the Earth's climate is now accepted by all but a small minority of climate change deniers. While painfully slow and in many cases hypocritically feeble, there is now in-principle agreement among governments in most large developed countries that they must reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the most significant of which are emissions of carbon dioxide. What can and should a small country such as Singapore do?

Singapore's National Climate Change Strategy

After giving increasing attention to the issue from 2005, Singapore's government released the 'National Climate Change Strategy' (NCCS) in 2008. In the NCCS and a host of other speeches and statements published by key agencies, notably the National Environmental Authority (NEA) and the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), Singapore calls for responsible action to tackle the threat of climate change, including efforts at mitigation. Effective mitigation means cutting emissions, and the 'lowest common denominator' assessment is that global emissions need to be cut by fifty percent from 1990 levels by 2050, with absolute cuts from 2020 onwards, if the world is to have a fifty-fifty chance of avoiding 'catastrophic' climate change.

What, then, is Singapore doing in terms of mitigation? The NCCS summarises a number of existing and new policy initiatives that are all worthwhile. What stands out, however, is that at no point does it suggest that Singapore will or should reduce its emissions. I have not found a single policy target or statement by MEWR or the NEA that targets absolute cuts in Singapore's emissions. This is consistent with Singapore's position in international climate change negotiations as a 'Non-Annex 1' country, which puts it in the developing country category along with countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Kenya. At present, developing countries do not have any obligation to reduce emissions, and with the exception of anomalies like Singapore, most have per capita emissions that are vastly lower than those of the 'Annex 1' countries.

Rather than cutting emissions, one underlying aim of Singapore's strategy seems to be increasing the cost-competitiveness of the Singapore economy, as most initiatives relate to tweaking, rather modestly, the price-based incentives of firms and households to be more energy efficient. Other government policies aim to promote new sources of GDP growth by developing 'clean energy' industries and encouraging business under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol. Collectively, the government's statements dwell on what they present as achievements, and at first glance give the impression that Singapore is doing all that it can, and all that it should.

Carbon Intensity and Carbon Emissions

While Singapore undoubtedly has many real environmental accomplishments to its credit, climate change mitigation is not one of them. The rosy picture of Singapore's efforts is based in large part on having achieved its carbon intensity target. This is not the target we should care about if we are interested in mitigating climate change. The carbon intensity of the economy refers to carbon dioxide emissions per dollar of GDP, and Singapore reduced these by 25% from 1990 levels even before its target date of 2012.

The problem is that, over the same period, actual emissions have nearly doubled. Any target that is consistent with nearly doubling emissions is, to put it mildly, not one that helps mitigate climate change. It is like rich man claiming virtue because he spends a smaller proportion of his income on food than a poor person, conveniently overlooking the discrepancy in how much is actually eaten - or, in this case, how much carbon dioxide is emitted.

Coming up with a number for Singapore's total carbon dioxide emissions is not straightforward. For 2006, three different sources - all authoritative - come up with different figures for total emissions from the burning of fossil fuels:

  • Singapore's own MEWR puts the figure at 41,552 kilo tonnes;
  • The International Energy Agency reports 43,130 kilo tonnes;
  • The Energy Information Administration (EIA), part the U.S. Department of Energy, reports 141,100 kilo tonnes.

What seems to be going on is that the EIA includes international bunker fuels sold for both marine and air transport, while it looks like MEWR excludes both. Under the terms of the international treaties to which Singapore is a party, it is entitled to exclude international bunker fuels. But of course the emissions created when these fuels are burned do not disappear so easily from the atmosphere. There is room for debate as to how responsibility for such emissions should be divided internationally. Ignoring them does nothing to resolve the problem.

Whichever set of figures we take, it is clear that Singapore's emissions have either nearly doubled since 1990 (MEWR) or more than doubled (EIA). What are the major sources of emissions, and are they likely to rise or fall in future?

Electricity generation accounts for about half of Singapore's emissions (48% in 2005). The NCCS provides data that show that an increasing proportion of Singapore's electricity has been generated by natural gas, which is about 40% less polluting in terms of carbon dioxide per unit of electricity produced than oil fuel. From 19% of all electricity generation in 2000, natural gas generation accounted for 79% of all electricity generated in 2007. The carbon dioxide savings from this conversion are thus significant. But it should be obvious that this conversion is a one-time event - at 79% of total production, it cannot go much higher, and in fact last year one of Singapore's generating companies received in-principle approval for a new coal-fired power station. Under current policy guidelines, generation companies have no inherent incentive to switch to lower-emissions producing fuels, and their business model depends on household and firms increasing their consumption of electricity. Given that consumers of electricity in Singapore can be assumed to have always had some incentive to minimise their electricity bills, and government policy to encourage energy efficiency is in fact longstanding, it is hard to see why the modest additional steps to help them be more efficient outlined in the NCCS should have much of an impact.

Another major source of emissions in Singapore is transport which makes up for 19% of total emissions. Since 1990, government policy allowed for an increase in the total vehicle population of 3% per year, which is consistent with more than doubling the total number of motor vehicles in the period since then. From 2009, the annual growth quota has been reduced to 1.5%, which is a step in the right direction. However, incentives to switch to lower-emissions vehicles remain extremely modest, and as a result the total number of 'green vehicles' stands at around 1,500 out of a national fleet of nearly 900,000.

Other sources of emissions are actually encouraged by government policy - not explicitly, but through the pursuit of an economic growth model that has been wedded to increasing carbon emissions. The growth of Changi airport, for example, has been aggressively pursued, with passenger numbers rising from 8.1 million in 1981 to 15.6 million in 1990 and 32.4 million in 2005. Whether or not the jet fuel sales are counted in Singapore's national greenhouse gas inventory, the emissions from air transport are clearly going into the atmosphere. Oil refining and related petrochemicals development is another industry long encouraged by government policy, and one that continues to be courted. Oil refining is a significant producer of greenhouse gases dominating Singapore's industrial sector emissions. In 1994 (the last year for which I could find official data), the oil refinery and petrochemical industries accounted for 26 percent of total national emissions.

Do Singapore's Emissions Matter?

Singapore's emissions are only a small fraction of the global total - 0.2% of global emissions to use the official figure, somewhat more if we include bunker fuels. One could cynically say that since Singapore's contribution is so small, it doesn't matter what it does. However, Singapore's emissions arguably do matter, and not just because of their contribution, even if small, to rising concentrations in the atmosphere. First, Singapore's emissions are very high on a per capita basis, much higher than those of many 'Annex 1' countries that are committed to emissions cuts. Stubbornly presenting itself as a developing country robs Singapore of any credibility in international negotiations, and prevents it playing a constructive role. With its wealth of lobbying expertise and diplomatic clout, Singapore could make a positive difference, but not if insists on special pleading to avoid cuts itself.

A second reason why Singapore's emissions matter is because Singapore's wealth and success have made it an attractive model for many countries in the region. While Singapore has done extremely well in raising per capita income, if the rest of Asia follows the current Singapore growth model in terms of per capita emissions, the world has no chance of averting disastrous climate change.

It is certainly true that Singapore may contribute towards mitigating climate change in other ways, through the development and dissemination of new technologies, as claimed in official statements. Such efforts deserve credit, but it is not clear why Singapore's moral obligation to cut its high per capita emissions should be waived as a quid pro quo - after all, Singapore's promotion of clean energy industries and technologies is pursued on a commercial basis, with the promise of generating jobs and profits in the long term.

Can Singapore cut its emissions?

The official position appears to be that because of Singapore's 'special circumstances' - its small size, its urban landscape and industrialized economy - it cannot cut its emissions. The claim deserves scrutiny, and its truth is not at all clear cut if we consider the four key underlying factors that affect whether Singapore's emissions rise or fall:

  1. Population
    All other things being equal, as population rises, emissions rise. Singapore's population has risen significantly, and government policy is to encourage this. Does Singapore's population need to rise? The government's own position on this question has fluctuated sharply over the years, and the question deserves scrutiny, independent evaluation and debate.

  2. Economic Growth
    Emissions are a product of economic activity and, all else being equal, tend to increase with economic growth. Singapore's position appears to take the view that Singapore cannot afford to sacrifice any opportunity to maximize GDP growth. In Singapore dollar terms, its per capita GDP was $67,500 in 2007 (US$52,000 in purchasing power parity terms). It is a rich country. It is, therefore, in a position to have a national debate among its citizens about whether concerns such as the distribution of GDP and the quality of growth should weigh above the crude aggregate growth rate.

  3. The Energy Intensity of the Economy
    This refers to traditional energy efficiency - the amount of energy consumed in the course of daily life and economic production. While efficiency has long been promoted by the Singapore government for cost-effectiveness reasons, it is not hard to imagine ways in which efficiency could go beyond the modest, almost entirely voluntary schemes now in place. To raise just a few examples:
    • Housing standards could be made much more stringent to discourage the use of air-conditioning. I have lived in Singapore for eight years with no air-conditioning. I am lucky to have lived in buildings built by a generation of architects who understood the need for built-in shade and airflow. The glass-walled boxes that have sprouted all over Singapore in the last five years may have 'efficient' air-conditioning, but the basis of comparison should be against the kind of building that does not need air-conditioning at all!
    • Policy could drastically reduce incentives for the destruction of existing housing stock. While we do not know what the total carbon emissions for the construction industry are, we do know that cement production is a highly greenhouse gas-polluting industry. The level of re-building (116 'en bloc' sales were reported in 2007), suggests huge scope to reduce the environmental impact of housing the population.
    • Transport infrastructure could do far more to encourage people to cycle and take public transport. It is virtually a truism that the more you build and widen roads (which Singapore continues to do), the more they fill up with cars. As long as a journey in a private car or taxi beats public transport in terms of time (most routes that I use take three times as long by public transport), a dollar or two at the ERP gantry is more than outweighed by the time saved. As for cycling, at present only the dedicated and brave risk cycling to work in the absence of cycle lanes, lack of places to park a bicycle and absence of mandatory shower facilities at workplaces.
    • COE and tax rates on large cars could be calibrated to create real incentives to own a fuel-efficient car. In recent years, the differential in the COE prices has at times favoured large cars.

    The basic point here is that there is scope for debate and creativity when it comes to thinking of new ways that Singapore could use less energy.

  4. The Carbon Dioxide Intensity of Energy
    Not all energy sources are equal in terms of their greenhouse gas emissions. Given Singapore's shift to gas-fuelled power generation, options for further decreases in carbon dioxide intensity will largely involve moving to non-fossil fuel alternatives. Singaporean officials have publicly dismissed the potential for significant conversion to non-fossil fuel energy sources, including solar energy. Again, this claim is wide open to scrutiny and independent study. It would be fruitful to see a debate based on data and clearly-stated theoretical models and assumptions, rather than simply accepting what appears to be a rather defeatist claim that renewable energy options cannot work in Singapore in the foreseeable future.

    The Bottom Line

    Averting the worst of projected future climate change will require deep cuts in global emissions in the next ten years. While Singapore's contribution to global emissions is very small in absolute terms, it is a wealthy country with high per capita emissions and a trajectory of increasing emissions. Taken together with its refusal to commit to coordinated cuts in international negotiations, it is hard to argue that Singapore is playing the responsible and constructive role that it espouses.

    None of this should be taken as implying that Singapore is in any way a major player responsible for the fate of the world's climate - clearly, the United States, despite having recently been overtaken by China as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, must bear primary responsibility, because of its historic contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and extremely high per capita emissions. Nor should this essay be read as singling out Singapore for special blame. Many countries are guilty of policy contradictions and obstructionism on a far worse scale. However, climate change is a global problem and there should be some obligation on all of us to ask whether we are doing what we can to help mitigate it.

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