S’pore in tough environmental balancing act

Martin Abbugao

Singapore prides itself on being a clean and green city but a booming economy and a high-consumption lifestyle have made it one of the world’s biggest carbon polluters per person.

As a major United Nations summit is being held in Mexico to find ways of curbing the carbon emissions blamed for global warming, Singapore’s environmental balancing act poses challenging questions for the rest of Asia and the world.

Singapore’s green credentials are in many ways very strong and it is establishing itself as a regional renewable energy hub.

Yet, if all Asians emulated Singaporeans’ modern and often luxurious lifestyles, greenhouse gas emissions would spike alarmingly.

“If everyone in the world enjoyed the same level of consumption as the average Singaporean, we would need three planets to meet the demands placed on our resources,” World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) spokesman Chris Chaplin said.

Singapore was last month listed by the British global risk advisory firm Maplecroft as the world’s seventh largest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter relative to its population size.

Ahead of it were only the United Arab Emirates, Australia, the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia.

Maplecroft’s index was calculated by evaluating annual CO2 emissions from energy use, emissions per capita and cumulative emissions of a country over more than a century — 1900 to 2006.

“The lack of ‘clean’ energy sources coupled with the growth in Singapore’s economy and the increasing use of cars as well as electronic appliances such as air-conditioners contribute to Singapore’s emissions,” Maplecroft said in a statement to AFP.

Despite a punishing auto levy and road charges, the number of motor vehicles on its roads reached 925,518 in 2009, up more than 27 percent in five years, with private cars making up 60 percent of the total, official figures show.

In a separate list, the WWF ranked Singapore 21st in the world in terms of ecological footprint, or the demand for resources per person, ahead of such countries as Germany, France and Britain.

WWF’s calculation covered not only emissions — the biggest component of humanity’s carbon footprint — but also demand placed by people on arable land, fishing grounds, forest and grazing land worldwide.

Singapore authorities insist, however, that that the country has had no choice but to rely on imported fossil fuel to power its rapid industrialisation.

The trade-reliant economy, valued at 200 billion US dollars in 2009, is tipped to expand by a massive 15 percent this year.

With a land area smaller than that of New York City, Singapore has no space among its five million citizens for wind farms, while it is devoid of hydro and geothermal power sources.

“We are dependent on fossil fuels because our small size severely limits our ability to switch to alternative energies,” the National Environment Agency (NEA) said in a statement to AFP.

It said Maplecroft’s index neither reflected Singapore’s efforts to reduce its carbon emissions nor took into account its unique circumstances.

“As a small city-state, the use of per capita emissions inflates our carbon emissions,” it said, noting that overall, Singapore accounts for less than 0.2 percent of global emissions.

Nevertheless, the government said it was committed to the fight against climate change and was taking steps to reduce the growth of its emissions, including switching from oil to natural gas to produce electricity.

Singapore is investing heavily in clean energy technologies — it has allocated 770 million dollars to develop innovative energy solutions — and is building a liquefied natural gas terminal that will be ready by 2013.

This will allow access to gas sources beyond neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is also pushing its people to do more recycling, doubling its already expansive rail network by 2020 and testing electric vehicles for commercial use.

In another positive move, Singapore has offered itself as a “living laboratory” where global energy firms can develop and test new technologies before mass production.

Norway’s Renewable Energy Corp (REC) opened one of the world’s biggest solar technology manufacturing facilities in Singapore in November, a project costing nearly two billion dollars.

Vestas, a Danish manufacturer of wind turbines, already has a global research and development centre in the city-state.