Debunking Singapore’s government claims on climate change action – is a target of 16 percent reduction good enough?

3 Dec

As the Singapore mainstream media announced the government’s decision to reduce its carbon emission by 16 percent below ‘business as usual’ levels by 2020,  the public is conned into believing that the PAP is doing something to combat or alleviate the effects of climate change. Here are seven  contradictions that informs the reader on what is exactly missing in mainstream reports. This is the other side of the story that the Straits Times and TODAY fail to tell you.

First, this commitment is contingent on other states reaching a legally-binding agreement at Copenhagen. Given that the chairman of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has stated that the conference is unlikely to see any legally binding targets being set, it is questionable if the Singapore government would go ahead with the target.

Second, the government has yet to announce how these targets would be achieved. Given the urgency of the climate change issue and a lack of any official proposed polices, it is doubtful if the government can seriously implement any measures on time to meet its target even if it decides to do so.

Third, the reduction of 16 percent by 2020 based on current levels is considered low. According to Simon Tay of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs in a TODAY report, Singapore belongs to the Non-Annex One Countries of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The recommendations for countries in that category are a reduction of carbon emissions between 15 to 30 percent. 16 percent as a target is a low expectation which barely scrape the bottom. This view was seconded by World Wildlife Fund Singapore Director, Amy Ho.

Four,  while it is true that Singapore emits less than 0.2 percent of the global total of greenhouse gases according to Professor Jayakumar, the state is one of the highest per capita emitter. According to LowCarbonSg, Singapore is considered a  huge emitter of CO2 on a per capita basis. Based on the Energy Information Administration (EIA) calculations, ‘the CO2 emissions per capita for Singapore is much higher than the US, other developed countries and the world average’. Even with statistics from the International Energy Agency (IEA), Singapore still produces more greenhouse gases above world average (see the two charts below, source: lowcarbonsg).

In his speech reproduced by the Straits Times, Jayakumar further asserted that the costs to these measures will be borne by the end-users. He was quoted,

‘So one practical and efficient way to do that would be to use market price signals to reflect the cost of these externalities due to the target that we have set. So if we were to do that, then obviously we will have to look at some of the measures – marketplace measures, fiscal measures, regulations, a combination of these – to achieve this particular target’.

This basically means that any increase in cost to the producers will be borne by the consumers. It also infers that the government is unlikely to defray or help out ordinary and especially poorer Singaporeans whom is likely to pay for these price increases.

Furthermore, it is also government policy not to subsidise end users, even when they transition to using renewables and clean energy. Again, according to LowcarbonSg,

‘… Our basic policy tenet is that energy costs should be borne in full by end users. Individuals and industries should adjust their consumption of energy according to its true cost as reflected in its price. We do not subsidise the cost of energy because it will dampen price signals, and create the incentive to over-consume. … As it stands, renewable energies such as solar are still as some members have noted, much more expensive than traditional fossil fuel-based energy. To be consistent with our basic principles, we should not adopt measures which subsidise specific renewable energy types.’ – Senior Minister of State S. Iswaran, MTI

Given that renewables are cleaner and more sustainable for the environment, it actually makes economic sense to subsidise or promote these industries and technology. This would also wean the society off its dependence on fossil fuels.

Five, despite Lowcarbonsg findings which notes that a majority of our CO2 emissions came from industry; and that only 9% and 19% of the state’s emissions are derived from consumers and households and transport respectively, the government appears to only target individuals but not the industry polluters in its energy policies (see chart below on the sectors that contribute carbon emission in Singapore, source: Lowcarbonsg).

According to another Straits Times Article, ‘Building on existing efforts’ dated 3 December, there are no specific measures being proposed on how the big polluters will be curbed. Instead, Singaporeans are persuaded to use public transport. While individuals certainly need to adapt their lifestyle behaviour and expectations to reduce their personal carbon footprint, this cannot take place unless the public infrastructure is designed such that it is safe and user-friendly for such purposes. This may mean building bicycle pathways or having cheaper and subsidised buses and MRT fares.

Moreover, given that the industries are the major contributors of carbon emissions, more effort should also be directed towards this sector. Otherwise, policies to address carbon emission is likely to fail or at best, remain superficial or half-hearted.

Six, in an online TODAY report, Jayakumar has also ‘stressed that Singapore will not agree to “unreasonable pressures” to reduce emissions solely because of its high Gross Domestic Product per capita, or graduate to Annex One status, which will mean mandatory economy-wide emission cuts’.

Underlying this statement is the government’s rhetoric that it will not commit to reducing carbon emissions if it means blunting its economic competitiveness and growth. This is an illogical argument given economic activities cannot proceed without being nested in their larger eco- environment. The most obvious threat of climate change for Singapore is the possible rise of the sea level. According to the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), if temperatures are to increase at the present rate, sea level would rise up to 1.4 metres which is twice of that predicted two years ago. If this occurs, major cities around the world such as London, New York and Shanghai would be significantly affected. Given that most of Singapore is low-lying and only less than two metres above the sea, any small increase in sea level poses a significant threat and challenge to its security. (Read this NY Times article on a proposed seawall around Singapore back in 2007 to combat rising sea level)

More importantly, placing economics before the environment is simply dumb. How can one talk about any form of economic activities if climate change is to substantially alter and threaten our eco-system? How do we recover our natural environment once it is destroyed?

Seven, the government has claimed that Singapore’s small geographic size limits its ability and choices in using alternative energy sources. This is untrue. Many cities around the world are devising ways to overcome these limitations and there is no particular reason why Singapore cannot follow suit. Solar energy, for example, is likely to become more commercially viable in the future. Another possible source of energy is hydrogen which does not emit any greenhouse gases and is plentiful in the environment. The problem lies with making these technologies viable for the modern consumer. Again, this boils down to the fourth point indicated above. To ensure that the technology catches up with our targets, a substantial initial investment is needed to transform the economy into a green one.

Given all these considerations, Singaporeans need to pressure their government to be actively committed in playing their part when it comes to fighting climate change. Copenhagen or not.


7 Responses to “Debunking Singapore’s government claims on climate change action – is a target of 16 percent reduction good enough?”

  1. Joseph December 4, 2009 at 11:59 am #

    “According to Simon Tay of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs in a TODAY report, Singapore belongs to the Non-Annex One Countries of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The recommendations for countries in that category are a reduction of carbon emissions between 15 to 30 percent.”

    What is the baseline year that the 15 to 30 percent recommendation is based on? Singapore’s ‘pledge’ of 16 percent is based on projected 2020 level, which means total emissions will continue to grow at a reduced rate. Pledging a target based on 1990 levels on the other hand would probably mean a reduction of total emissions level.

  2. agnes_t December 5, 2009 at 3:13 am #

    so.. help me understand better, how does all this work, how exactly will the govt have to cut carbon emission? by having less cars on the roads.. hmm meaning govt will have to tax us more for driving, and how about public transport, increase in fares? higher electricity? and.. since the process of food manufacturing requires energy too, so.. more tax on those companies too and we consumers have to pay more?

    and erm.. these carbon dioxide, its not the same carbon dioxide than we humans breathe out right?

    hmm, how about other pollutants, like toxic waste that is really destroying the environment, how come no mention of all that?

  3. Charles December 5, 2009 at 8:50 am #

    In response to Agnes, combating global warming is about reducing greenhouse gases in which carbon dioxide is a major component of. We would be talking about other kinds of environmental issues with other kinds of environmental pollutants. There is a huge plethora of issues on environmental science which this comment platform can hardly cover.

    Second, it is precisely the government’s responsibility to reduce carbon emissions. How these policies are made should be based on public consultation and expertise. Some of your examples such as taxes and reducing numbers of cars on the roads can form part of the solution (though not all). In fact, increases in company or industry taxes can be used to offset some of the price increases that the lower-income group are exposed to.

  4. RW December 5, 2009 at 12:10 pm #

    thank you for your well researched and thought out article.
    it’s seldom that such articles come by!

    I just want to point out that by end users, it will mean all electricity users. And that includes industries as well, doesn’t it? I don’t think it will be fair to say the increase is targetted at households. If anything, it probably will be a blanket increase.

    My other qns is why EIA and IEA differ by so much especially in the case of Singapore?
    Plus, while you highlight that Singapore’s IEA numbers are above the world average, you fail to acknowledge it is considered low compared to the other developed countries. i thought since u compared Sg with developed countries when using EIA statistics, you shld do the same with IEA stats and give Sg credit when it’s due.

    FInally, i agree that the govt should subsidize the start-up costs of building the plants. But i am not too sure whether the govt should subsidize the generation costs (from an environment point of view). Carbon emissions can be reduced via two ways- less carbon per electricity generated (green tech) and lower demand due to higher costs (tariff).

    if govt leaves clean energy generation at the higher cost with no subsidies, won’t you agree it helps reduce carbon emissions too? of course, you can argue from a social equity point of view and I’ll concede that. But my main pt is we will ‘harm’ the environment if we give subsidies.

    Again, i’ll like to say i like the article and my comments are merely to play devil’s advocate. After all, frank debate about issues will ultimately help us all understand the issue better. 🙂

  5. Charles December 5, 2009 at 4:34 pm #

    Hi RW,

    Thanks for the comment. Actually my point about renewables is this: since they do not contribute to global warming, we should promote these technologies. As with all forms of new technologies, they incur heavy initial investments. Since the government doesn’t think they would do it (because it might create price distortion), how do we therefore transition to these new technologies?

    There is much at stake by heavily depending on fossil fuels. Not least, the question of peak oil or the global supply of oil has a tremendous impact on us. Wouldn’t you agree that the best solution is to switch while we still have the time?

    You mentioned ‘if govt leaves clean energy generation at the higher cost with no subsidies, won’t you agree it helps reduce carbon emissions too?’. Not sure what you meant since switching to renewables such as solar would reduce our carbon footprint. That should be encouraged since it has minimal impact on the environment.

    There are many ways we can combat climate change and the government can choose from a basket of policy mixes. The question is often how, at what cost, and whether it would be supported by the general public.

    As for the EIA and IEA differences, they were actually explained in LowcarbonSg.

  6. eternalhap December 5, 2009 at 10:55 pm #

    Seven, the government has claimed that Singapore’s small geographic size limits its ability and choices in using alternative energy sources.

    Not just in using alternative energy sources, but also in its ability to mitigate climate change. S’pore’s economic mass may be huge, but in terms of geography and population, it is still tiny. Hence even if all 4 million of us switch off our lights for Earth Hour, the world will hardly register a drop in carbon emissions.

    Basically, S’pore and the rest of the world are trapped in a Prisoners’ Dilemma. The whole world will be much better off if every country agrees to cut carbon emissions below ‘business as usual’ levels. But when one country cuts carbon emissions unilaterally, the benefits will still be attained by those which do not. Hence the rational choice for each country is to free ride on one another, and in the end, none will have the incentive to reduce carbon emissions.

    So S’pore, as a tiny country, hopes to free ride. That’s why the govt is not as enthusiastic as you would like on climate change action.

    I’m not a pessimist, but given the circumstances, S’pore really can’t do much in fighting climate change.

  7. Cliff December 16, 2009 at 1:54 pm #


    In response to RW’s question about the difference in figures between EIA and IEA, I remember reading somewhere that a large part of Singapore’s CO2 emissions actually come from harbour activity as the trading ships move in and out of the marine bunkers and ports.

    This can prove to be problematic, because it’s difficult to determine where all carbon emissions from such activities should be allotted to; to Singapore herself, or the various countries dealing in trade with Singapore? EIA seems to think the Former, while IEA the latter. Hence, the discrepancy in the levels of emissions that they post in the graph above.

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