Standing before a black-and-white picture of two children splashing gleefully through muddy floods, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about climate change and the upcoming threat of sea level rise in Singapore. The problems faced by the island nation were nothing new, he said. Monsoon flooding in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, had largely been solved. But now, a new threat was lurking in the distant, end-of-century future.
As a low-lying island in Southeast Asia, the country is at risk for some of the worst impacts foretold in report upon report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Temperatures are rising twice as fast in Singapore as in the rest of the world, and climbing sea levels threaten to flood up to a metre of the island by 2100.
“Everything else must bend at the knee to safeguard the existence of our island nation,” the prime minister declared during his National Day Rally speech, comparing the importance of climate defence to that of the Singapore Armed Forces. Among his plans to secure the island, Lee announced that the government would invest at least S$100 billion (US$73.6 billion) over 100 years to build coastal defenses, improve existing infrastructure, and increase research on effects and adaptation.
“It makes no sense to me that we are told to switch off our lights when not in use, but no one has ever told Jurong Island to switch off their lights.”
In a world where many politicians—including the President of the United States—still appear to be in resolute denial of the climate crisis, Lee’s acknowledgement of the issue drew some praise. But others, from local community organisers to scientists in the IPCC, have pointed to the elephant in the room: the emissions that come from industry in Singapore, which account for 60% of the island’s emissions, compared to 6% emissions from households.
“It makes no sense to me that we are told to switch off our lights when not in use,” said Ho Xiang Tian of the environmental group LepakInSG, speaking to a crowd dressed in emergency-red at Singapore’s first Climate Rally on 20 September 2019. “But no one has ever told Jurong Island to switch off their lights.”
Lee Hsien Loong’s 100-year plan might already need an update.
Jurong Island, the petrochemical hub
To the southwest of the main Singapore island is a smaller island of about 32km2, formed by connecting seven offshore islands via land reclamation. It’s protected not only by private security, but also the army and the coast guard. Known as Jurong Island, it’s the heart of the country’s petrochemical industry, through and through: in 2014, massive underground rock caverns were opened for the storage of up to 1.47 million m3 of liquid hydrocarbons.
Some of the world’s largest polluters call Jurong Island home. ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, and PetroChina—all of which are listed in the top half of the 20 companies responsible for a third of global carbon emissions—have a presence on the island. ExxonMobil and Shell both have their largest petrochemical refineries on Jurong Island; the seventh and 14th largest refineries in the world respectively.
For climate activists like the team at SG Climate Rally, this is a major problem. Ajay Nair, one of the organisers of SG Climate Rally, says that divestment is not only necessary, but inevitable.
“If we don’t move away from fossil fuels now, then we move away from fossil fuels later,” he says. “Or we don’t move away from fossil fuels as a global community, and we experience catastrophic global warming and the collapse of civilisation.”
The full impact of the refineries operating on Jurong Island aren’t listed as part of Singapore’s carbon emissions, since their products are moved and used elsewhere.
In 2015, a study in Nature stated that 82% of fossil fuel reserves would need to remain underground to prevent reaching the 2˚C warming threshold. With four years gone and a new IPCC target of 1.5˚C, that number has undoubtedly changed for the worse.
Singapore has been accused by groups like Climate Action Tracker of having taken insufficient action on climate change. The group rates Singapore’s plan as “inadequate”, meaning that if all countries followed its approach, warming would exceed 3–4ºC.
Singapore’s National Climate Change Secretariat responded defensively to an article citing this rating, emphasising several times that Singapore lacks alternative energy plans and accounts for only 0.11% of global emissions, while accounting for 2.2% of world trade.
0.11% doesn’t sound like very much at all. But this number only accounts for the country’s domestic emissions. The full impact of the refineries operating on Jurong Island aren’t listed as part of Singapore’s carbon emissions, since their products are moved and used elsewhere.
Refined petroleum makes up 13.4% of Singapore’s total exports. These products are made using crude oil, which Singapore imported at a rate of approximately 900,000 barrels a day (the 12th highest in the world) in 2015. Oil, of course, is one of the main pollutants driving the climate crisis today, but there are many steps that contribute to its footprint. Like any energy source, oil needs to be extracted, refined, and distributed before it’s ultimately used—and every single step causes emissions. Despite being a tiny country, Singapore plays an outsized role in the oil supply chain: it ranks as the leading oil trading hub in Asia, and the third worldwide.
As an island country reliant on trade, and particularly oil and petrochemical refining, Singapore is in an odd position. When climate strikers in Western countries refer to low-lying islands that will see the worst effects of climate change, they’re talking about Singapore. But when they talk about rich governments that have prioritised fossil fuel interests over effective climate action, they’re also talking about Singapore, which has actively grown its petrochemical industry into one of the biggest in the world since the 1970s.
The pressure has been turning up on what environmentalists call “Big Oil”. Campaigns have sprouted around the world—including at the National University of Singapore and Yale-NUS—lobbying for divestment from fossil fuels and polluters. And they aren’t stopping there: climate activists don’t just want tertiary institutions to divest; they want governments to move away from fossil fuels too.
It isn’t their only demand, but it’s one of the most radical. How would Singapore replace Big Oil? For a country whose economic growth has been built upon the lucrative petrochemical industry, it’s hard to know who within the supply chain would make the first move that’ll push transformation.
Melissa Low, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Energy Studies Institute, always tells her students: “If you want full divestment from fossil fuels, if you want Jurong Island to cease to exist, then you would reasonably need to find an alternative industry for which Singapore can build its reputation, economic tariffs, its adjacent and very much interlinked financial […] sector, legal sector, maritime logistic sector. You would need to find another industry that would be able to support all of that and the jobs accompanying it.”
The government is loathe to let go of this golden goose, even if it does have the intention of addressing climate change.
Even if Singapore is only a pitstop between production and consumption, it’s made a great deal of money from it: in 2016, the energy and chemicals sector employed over 25,000 people and accounted for $68.7 billion in economic output. Singapore ranks as the leading oil trading hub in Asia, and the third worldwide. Some oil tankers anchored in Singapore and Malaysia suggest that shipping fuel is being hoarded for future profit. It’s even involved in the creation of oil rigs for the US—one, currently being built in Singapore, will eventually be moved to the Gulf of Mexico. Even without being directly involved in burning fossil fuels, much of Singapore’s economy is still predicated on the assumption that their use will continue, and that the targets laid out in the Paris climate accord will never be reached.
The government is thus, perhaps understandably, loathe to let go of this golden goose, even if it does have the intention of addressing climate change. In 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong summarised this balancing act at the opening of a new ExxonMobil facility.
“We must reduce our emissions, both of greenhouse gases as well as other more local pollutants,” he said. “But at the same time, I want to assure all the energy and petrochemicals companies here that the Singapore government stands fully behind them and will continue to help them to succeed.”
Low notes that the approach has been effective. “[Jurong Island] seemed to make sense for Singapore at the time that decisions were made,” she says, referring to the Economic Development Board’s push for the petrochemical hub in the 1990s.
Today, big fossil fuel companies are entrenched in Singapore’s economy. She understands where divestment activists are coming from, but asks them to consider the issue economically: “Would we be better off if these companies went elsewhere?”
Singapore’s position is also made more tenable with the public’s attention often directed elsewhere. Janice Lee, an assistant professor at NTU who studies agriculture, trade, and conservation in Asia, likens it to the way that people understand the problem of unsustainable palm oil production, directly linked to the yearly ecological disaster now dismally known and accepted in the region as “haze season”.
“I think a lot of attention is being paid to the producer, because that’s when you can see the impact,” she says, referring in this case to those responsible for slash-and-burn techniques in Indonesia. “I think that we don’t see so much the financiers, we don’t see so much the traders, because those are the ones who are just moving things around.”
The financiers and traders—that’s Singapore. Historically, the country’s environmental impacts have been invisiblised because very little of the oil refined is actually used on the island itself. Therefore, the message has always been to make the refineries themselves as “green” as possible, rather than to stop or limit their operations.
For Nair, the real question to be asking about divestment is, “What’s the alternative?”
Historically, the country’s environmental impacts have been invisiblised because very little of the oil refined is actually used on the island itself.
Divestment may seem radical, but it’s a question that will need to be reckoned with sooner or later. Just this November, over 11,000 scientists released a World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency that emphasised moving toward a “carbon-free economy” to mitigate the worst impacts.
For activists demanding an end to fossil fuels, or at the very least, their decline, the goal to remain a haven for their activities is contradictory, and even dangerous. Groups like 350 Singapore and LepakinSG have submitted questions and proposals to the new National Climate Change Secretariat, outlining possible paths to net zero emissions by 2050. Across these proposals, ending the use of fossil fuels goes hand-in-hand with other suggestions, like strengthening renewables through the ASEAN power grid, improving public and non-polluting transit, and elevating the carbon tax, which is currently at S$5 (US$3.68) per metric ton.
Divestment isn’t the only action suggested to curb the effects of climate change, but moving away from fossil fuels will certainly require a strong reimagining of many parts of society as we know it. Among other things, the World Scientists’ Warning included the imperative to move away from “GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence” as a main goal over inequality reduction and maintaining sustainability.
Then there’s trade…
Apart from Big Oil on (and under) Jurong Island, there’s another way in which Singapore plays a part in global emissions: it has the second busiest port in the world, with nearly 100,000 ships passing through each year, accounting for a quarter of goods traded worldwide.
Cargo ships worldwide emit nearly 940 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, 3% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions—on par with the entire country of Germany. Like the refineries on Jurong Island, their figures don’t count towards Singapore’s domestic emissions, either; because many of these ships travel over international waters, their emissions are lost in the data, unaccounted for by any country.
Nihit Goyal, a PhD candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says that the current method of accounting for domestic emissions is the most effective approach at this present moment. However, he admits that the practice of counting only domestic emissions can limit approaches to policy-making.
“Trade becomes invisible. One can’t very clearly say that, for everything consumed in Singapore, this is the emissions footprint, whereas for everything produced in Singapore, this is the emissions footprint,” he says.
“I think that would be ideal because then […] from a policy perspective, you could think of different approaches that might work for countries that are producing more than they’re consuming, or for countries that are consuming more than they’re producing.”
Until such large-scale emissions are addressed via structural change, individual acts of turning off lights and turning up the temperature on air-conditioning units might have depressingly little impact on the situation. In fact, researchers at NUS’ Energy Studies Institute have found that, over the period of 2000–2010, direct emissions from households in Singapore had actually decreased. Rather than hypothesising a change in environmental attitudes, the researchers surmised that this decrease could be attributed to increased energy efficiency, mainly by switching from oil to natural gas in power generation.
But in addition to direct emissions, they also calculated embodied emissions, which take into account all carbon emissions along the supply chain from producer to consumer. They found that, when calculated over the entire supply chain, emissions had gone up, due in part to increased use of transport and consumption of goods that had a higher carbon footprint in other parts of the supply chain.
Natural gas is a powerful example of emissions along the supply chain, and how the focus on the consumer obscures the total impact: although natural gas releases 50–60% less carbon dioxide, the supply chain—from pre-production to extraction and transportation—releases serious quantities of methane, a vastly more potent greenhouse gas.
It might be unrealistic to expect Singapore to give up on trade. Unable to be fully self-sufficient in terms of basic necessities such as food, the country doesn’t have much of a choice when it comes to relying on imports, not just in the interest of growth but of survival. But in an age where trade—especially trade through shipping—is synonymous with emissions, this, too, complicates Singapore’s role in the global fossil fuel complex.
In his speech, Lee Hsien Loong invoked a long-term plan to adapt, preferring it over an immediate plan to mitigate. “If we only have 10 years to solve the problem, we won’t have the time or the resources to do it,” he said of building coastal defenses. “But because this is a 50- to 100-year problem, we can implement a 50- to 100-year solution to this problem.”
Running parallel to these predictions, though, is data put out by the government and trade experts. They forecast a huge boon in trading in Singapore. The Ministry of Defence predicts that shipping volumes will increase by 29% by 2025. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency has predicted that the demand for oil in Southeast Asia will grow by 60% by 2040—a demand which, presumably, would also lead to increasing business for Singapore’s ports.
Only one of these sets of numbers can be true—and only one of them ensures a livable future.
Meerabelle Jesuthasan is a freelancer from Singapore, France, and Malaysia, currently based in the US where she is an education intern at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. She also runs a public oral history project, When We Go Out, focused on Philadelphia's lesbian community in the 1970s and '80s.