The Buzz over Climate Change: Help! My House Is Sinking!

By Lauren Ong


We’ve been talking about recycling, environmental friendliness and zero waste management for some time. We’ve complained about wasted food, bad air and energy-guzzling appliances. We know that pollution is bad for health, plastics are hard to break down and that we will run out of space to dump rubbish. Still, we continue to slowly destroy the planet.

Last August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong brought the effects of climate change home when he talked about carbon dioxide emissions that lead to global warming and rising sea levels.

What was an esoteric subject came down to whether Singapore will disappear under the sea over time. But what can a small country do when confronted with a planetary problem? It will require changes in personal habits and a heightened regard for nature as well as policy changes and new strategies, which are hopefully, enacted by other countries too.

In 2015, some 196 countries promised to cap the increase in global average temperature to under 2 degree Celsius above pre-Industrial times. This was a key plank of the Paris Agreement helmed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Singapore pledged to reduce its emissions intensity by 36 per cent by 2030. To reach the target, countries will have to find ways to use energy more efficiently to decrease the amount of greenhouse gases produced from their activities.


But last year, United States President Donald Trump announced that his country, the second greatest contributor to GHG or green house gas emissions in the world (14.3 per cent) behind China (19.5 per cent), would withdraw its participation in the agreement, stating that “the Paris accord would undermine (the U.S) economy”. Critics countered that the withdrawal would, instead, undermine confidence in international climate efforts.

The US can’t pull out unilaterally. It can only do so on November 4 in 2020.

So how much of a climate culprit is Singapore? The island contributes about 0.11 per cent of global carbon emissions. Of this, about 45.95 per cent is accounted for by the industry sector, followed by power (38.49 per cent) and transport (13.56 per cent) in 2014, according to a report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Something therefore, can be done about pressuring industries to be more energy efficient - or pay a price.


Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and man-made gases.


To keep up with the terms of the Paris agreement, Singapore introduced the carbon tax in 2018. From last year, 2019, industrial facilities will be taxed if their work produce a certain level of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions. The baseline is 25,000 tonnes of CO2, and the tax is pegged at $5 per tonne. This rate will be reviewed by 2023, and possibly raised to between $10 and $15 per tonne.

On the waste front, the government has put in place measures to raise awareness and push forth a zero waste ecosystem. The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources has a designated 2019 as a “Year Towards Zero Waste” and a “Zero Waste Masterplan” was also announced in August last year.

Some of the main steps detailed in the master plan include:

1. Extending Semaku’s lifespan by cutting down 30 per cent of waste sent to the landfill each day. This would require encouraging people to recycle more, research and development, new regulations and infrastructure

2. Improving overall recycling rates from 60 per cent (2018) to 70 per cent by 2030

3. Better management of food, electronic and packaging waste

a. Mandatory packaging reporting implemented in 2020

b. Extended producer responsibility for electronic waste by 2021

c. Mandatory food waste segregation treatment by 2024

d. Extended producer responsibility for packaging before 2025

4. More investment in research and development to combat climate change and increasing waste

The Resource Sustainability Act approved by Parliament in September 2019, is intended to reduce waste from food, electronics and packaging.

Besides high-level moves and strategies to reduce carbon emissions from power generation by relying more on solar energy, for example, the community appears to have galvanised into acting for the environment. And some companies have taken the initiative to push forth more sustainable ways in their industries. Ricoh Asia Pacific Pte Ltd for example organises an annual Eco Action Day that seeks to drive awareness and action for the environment, urging organisations, schools and individuals to take pledges to do their part for the environment. Grassroot groups like the South West Community Development Council are also distributing starter kits to community clubs to promote energy-efficient practices.

Singapore’s first climate rally, held on 21 Sept 2019. PHOTO: LIANG LEI

There is more awareness, especially among young people to preserve the flora and fauna even as new housing estates and new roads need to be built. According to projections by Statistica, Singapore’s population will increase from 5.67 million in 2019 to 5.7 million in 2020, going as high as 5.83 million in 2024.

But as the nation boosts its development efforts in anticipation of the increasing population, the city-state’s environment ineluctably takes a toll. A study by researchers from the National University of Singapore and Northern Territory University found that Singapore has already lost up to 73 per cent of its plants and animals over the last 200 years. More specifically, 4,866 plants, 627 butterflies, 234 fish, 111 reptiles and 91 mammals.

But why does biodiversity matter? An assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that loss of biodiversity contributes to climate change. For example, carbon dioxide is emitted when forests are destroyed. Indeed, in 2014, Singapore’s land turned from a carbon sink to a carbon emitter, in part due to the loss of forest areas.

Still don’t care about what’s in the air?

If there’s a first-hand experience of the impact of environmentally-unfriendly practices, it must be when this unwelcome visitor wafts in via the Southwest monsoon. In 2015, the Pollutant Standards Index readings rocketed to a hazardous level of 300, resulting in the closure of schools. We usually blame this unwelcome phenomenon on “other’’ people who burn down forests in Kalimantan and Sumatra. We fret about how transboundary haze agreements don’t seem to hold much water. We demand that the culprits be sanctioned or fined. We’re the victims, covered by N95 masks and, ironically, adding to carbon dioxide emissions by keeping safe in air-conditioned cocoons.

If anything, the haze is a clear sign of how vulnerable Singapore is to the actions of neighbours.

Rising temperatures also mean that there could be longer dry spells for forests to burn, burn and burn - without any human initiation. Australia’s unprecedented bushfire is an example. Last year, 2019, was the hottest year Australia experienced in the records, averaging temperatures 1.52 Celsius above the 1961-1990 average. The hottest day on record was Dec 17 last year, with a nationally averaged temperature of 40.9 Celsius.

Extreme heat coupled with dryness, the lethal combination played an integral impetus in igniting one of Australia’s most devastating bushfires. And as temperatures continue to rise and the dry spell prolongs, the fires are not expected to subside any sooner. So far, 7.3 million hectares of land have been burned and that’s more than the 2019 Amazon rainforest fires which burned more than 7 million hectares. If something ignites, it will be hard to put out. Climate change is not something we should pour cold water over.

A rising tide can lift all boats, and drown your homes

People sat up when the PM spoke about climate change. With maps and drawings, he talked about how to protect the island from an invading sea. Singapore is just 15m above sea level, with 30 per cent under 5m. Between 1975 and 2009, sea levels in the Straits of Singapore have been rising at a rate of 1.2mm to 1.7mm per year. Current projections estimate sea level to rise by about one metre by 2100, although recent IPCC reports warn of a further rise. Even if the country doesn’t drown, the low-lying areas are prone to flooding.


To mitigate the potential impacts of this, some work has already been done. For instance, MRT stations have been built with elevated entrances three metres above sea level. Newer developments will be built on even higher platforms at least four metres above sea level. A $400 million upgrade has also been set aside for Singapore’s drainage system. Likewise, $10 million in funds will be going into the National Sea Level Research Programme over the next five years.

Localised changes aside, there must be coastal defences, the PM said, adding that some $100 billion would need to be spent over 100 years. He highlighted the use of polders as a potential measure to protect the eastern coastline. This involves building a sea wall further out in the sea, and pumping out the water behind it to create dry land. The Netherlands, with one quarter of its land below sea level, have been doing so to good effect.

A polder system in the Netherlands. SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons

Polders are man-made water management systems, said Piet Dircke, a global leader for water management at Arcadis, reported Today.

According to Mr Dircke, three things are needed to create a polder:

1. A dyke around the land area

2. Pumps to get rid of the excess rainfall and drain seawater

3. Storage space to retain the excess rainwater before it is removed

PM Lee Hsien Loong presented a concept of using polders to shore up a stretch of Singapore’s coastline during his National Day Rally 2019 speech. SOURCE: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE

Save the trees or build a road?

The tussle between nature lovers and builders was brought into sharp focus when two projects were announced:

a. The eighth MRT line, spanning 29 km, and whether it should go under the Central Catchment Area and MacRitchie Reservoir or skirt around them. Going underground would mean what it will go under the reserve, posing a greater threat to wildlife and nature areas. Going around it would cost S$2 billion more and could potentially bring about higher noise and dust levels for nearby residents. Nature and environmental groups have raised concerns about the issue, saying that the direct route would come with environmental costs, affecting the reserve’s large diversity of native flora and fauna. On Dec 4 last year, the Transport ministry decided was to take the direct route.

It said that after in-depth studies of the two options, and consulting various stakeholders, “in the longer term, it is a more environmentally-friendly option as the direct alignment has lower energy consumption”.

b. The Forest Town project in Tengah, which covers 700 hectares of land and will house 42, 000 homes upon full development in around 2022. It faced resistance from environmentalists as the construction of the “Forest Town” would paradoxically mean clearing the Tengah forests, which many consider an important vegetation node that facilitates wildlife movement from the Western Catchment to the Central Nature Reserves. The government said an environmental impact assessment found the forests to be mostly of “low conservation significance”. It declined to make the report public.

Not just for a sun tan

Changes are being made to power generation, which used to be a big carbon dioxide emitter before Singapore switched from fuel oil to natural gas in 2014. Solar power is the latest in thing. As of August last year, about 2,000 HDB blocks were covered in solar PV panels, with most of them on rooftops to further increase solar capacity. Another 2,370 HDB blocks will have them to.

Another alternative source of energy are the Waste-To-Energy (WTE) plants, which have been generating 3 per cent of Singapore’s total electricity demand since the 1970s. Waste that is not recycled are incinerated at these plants, and in the process, produces energy. The NEA has been studying this option to optimise its efficiency.

Green funding

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in green finance, where funds are directed towards various projects with environmental benefits, such as those developing cleaner technologies or following strict environmental policies. According to Bloomberg, there was US$92 trillion worth of “sustainable assets” globally in 2018, while green investments have also risen 34 per cent to US$30.7 trillion from 2016 to 2018.

DBS and the United Nations found in a study that a quarter of all ASEAN green finance flows come from the private market and it is expected to increase in the future. Locally, the Monetary Authority of Singapore started a US$2 billion Green Investments Programme last November to invest in firms that incorporate sustainability measures in their operations. This comes amidst a push by MAS to make Singapore a global green finance hub.

Day-to-day changes

“Use your own straw’’ and “bring your own bag’’ are actions that have been initiated by the private sector. From July 1 this year, over 270 food and beverage outlets, including PastaMania and Nandos, stopped providing plastic straws. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), addressing plastic use in business is important as 80 per cent of plastics in the ocean are believed to be accounted for by land sources. Estimates also show that by 2050, there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish in terms of weight. Currently, plastic makes up about a third of Singapore’s domestic waste and the reduction of plastic use can also decrease plastic incineration.

Supermarkets like NTUC Fairprice have also started charging shoppers who ask for plastic bags for their groceries at many of its outlets.

A survey commissioned by WWF found that 90 per cent of people in Singapore recognised that environmental problems are contributed by single-use plastics. Those surveyed also believed that the F&B (76 per cent) and food retail (71 per cent) are the greatest contributors to disposable plastic use in Singapore.

The actions haven’t exactly caught fire. Likewise, Singapore’s recycling efforts. Even though HDB blocks built from 2014 onwards have Centralised Chutes for Recyclables, the latest statistics by the National Environment Agency showed that plastic recycling rates have decreased from 9 per cent in 2014 to 6 per cent in 2017.

Singapore’s efforts in promoting energy efficient appliances have had better results, probably because of regulations.

The Minimum Energy Performance Standards was implemented late 2018 to remove highly energy-inefficient appliances off the market. The Mandatory Energy Labelling Scheme (stickers with ticks) started in 2008 (MELPS) allow consumers to better compare energy efficiency across electrical appliances.

Since then, the average energy efficiency of refrigerators for instance, have improved by nearly 26 per cent from 2011 to 2016.

Voices, especially young voices, are getting louder, exemplified by teenager Greta Gremberg who has been berating authority figures at international forums. The youth see a bleak future for themselves and beyond if steps are not taken quickly. In Singapore, about 88 per cent of young people aged between 18 and 24 years old are willing to do their part for the environment, according to a survey by Mediacorp.

The first Climate Change rally in September demanded that “our government take bold systematic action to mitigate the climate crisis” and described the country’s current pledge to peak carbon emissions by 2030 as an “unambitious target that does not compel any substantial changes to business-as-usual policies”. The event was organised by The Singapore Climate Rally, a non-profit organisation, helmed by Environmental Studies student Komal Lad from the National University of Singapore. The rally at Hong Lim Park, drew a crowd of some 2,000 people, according to its organisers.

The group wants “bolder action”: advocating a commitment to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050 through investments in renewable energy, re-skilling workers in heavily-polluting subset industries and increasing the carbon tax.

According to the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent scientific analysis helmed by the Climate Analytics and New Climate Institute, founded by the European Climate Foundation, Singapore has a “very weak climate target” which is rated as “highly insufficient”.

The analysis notes that Singapore’s aims are modest and the country is likely to “over-achieve it without implementing any additional policies”.

The CAT believes that the carbon tax is inadequate and might prove insufficient in compensating for rising energy demand from the industry and building sectors, which would mean a rise in emissions.

The same research study by National University of Singapore and Northern Territory University stated that the future for the country’s remaining biodiversity “looks bleak” as 77 per cent of the island’s species are considered ‘threatened’ according to the World Conservation Union regional listing criteria and that the remaining reserves would house 50 per cent of species and a high number of plants.

Political parties here have jumped on the bandwagon. The Workers’ Party wants the government to set a goal for the share of renewables’ contribution to total energy production in the longer-term and to publish data on the emissions trends of large emitters.

The government will be pressed to come up with more and more radical solutions to meet expectations of the people for more biodiversity, clean air and energy, while at the same time deal with the impact on commercial bottom lines, business considerations and infrastructural development. The MRT network, for example, is set to increase from 200km in 2017 to 360km by 2030. This is good news for believers of a less polluting car-lite society, but the question that remains is how much of Singapore’s green spaces will have to make way for more tunnelling. Read Lauren's take on climate change here.

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