Explainer: The Climate Crisis and Singapore

Author: Meerabelle Jesuthasan, Anngee Neo

What is the climate crisis?

Climate change refers to the change in weather patterns as a result of increasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas (GHG) levels. These gases trap sunlight in the atmosphere in a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect, causing more heat to be retained and therefore leading to higher temperatures. In addition, “climate” also refers to things like rainfall and sea levels, which are also impacted by carbon dioxide over a longer period of time. This is why more people have started using “climate change” (which refers to a long-term change in the Earth’s weather patterns) as opposed to “global warming” (which refers to an increase in the Earth’s average surface temperatures). 

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Climate change results from human activity that emits GHGs—sometimes also known as emissions—which are then trapped in the atmosphere. The most commonly known GHG is carbon dioxide, which is released when petrol is burned in a car, for example. Petroleum and coal are the most potent fossil fuels, but other nonrenewable fuels pollute significantly too.

Natural gas, which supplies 95 percent of Singapore’s electricity, releases around 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide than coal when combusted in an efficient gas power plant. But the processes of drilling and extraction for natural gas are susceptible to methane leakage. Scientists calculate that methane’s global warming potential—meaning, how much warming a newly emitted gas might cause—is anywhere between 28 and 84 times higher than carbon dioxide over its lifetime.

Presently, only 20 corporations account for one-third of the world’s GHG emissions.

Climate crisis is a term describing global warming and climate change, and their consequences, with an emphasis on the threat of global warming to the planet, and used to underscore the need for aggressive climate change mitigation.

How significant are Singapore’s contributions to the climate crisis?

There are competing ways of calculating where emissions come from. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an international body which has released objective, scientific views of climate change regularly since 1988. In its global reports, the IPCC typically looks at how much each country emits domestically—what carbon emissions come out of every household, office or factory, for example.

Singapore is responsible for a larger quantity of emissions than might be apparent at first glance. According to IPCC calculations, Singapore’s domestic emissions contribute 0.11 percent of all emissions worldwide. Households account for six percent of Singapore’s emissions, compared to 60 percent from industry. However, these numbers do not account for many of Singapore’s international-facing activities, like shipping and trade, which transport goods across long distances and therefore burn fuel. Singapore imports 90 percent of its food and is the world’s second busiest port, supplying a quantity of aviation and marine fuel which generates almost three times as many GHGs as our domestic emissions alone. If cargo shipping were a country, it would be the sixth-largest GHG emitter in the world. But under IPCC calculations, no country bears individual responsibility for those emissions since they mostly occur over international waters.

As a trader and financier, Singapore’s footprint is embedded in international trade, as is the footprint of most other countries. 

In 2011, a group of climate scientists calculated emissions in a different way, looking at how much carbon went into producing and transporting goods that were produced in developing countries and consumed in Western countries. This method was known as life cycle analysis or embodied emissions analysis. They were shocked to find that emissions embodied in products exported to Western countries cancelled out the reductions that those countries had made in domestic energy consumption. In other words, these countries had simply moved high-emission factories overseas, and the footprint was showing up elsewhere.

To understand life cycle analysis, consider the example of palm oil. When an individual uses toothpaste that contains unsustainable palm oil, they may not directly emit carbon, but that toothpaste is part of a larger supply chain. Further up the supply chain are people burning rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia, and above that are corporations which own the land, and so on. The embodied emissions of this toothpaste, therefore, are higher than the embodied emissions of toothpaste made from sustainable palm oil. As a trader and financier, Singapore’s footprint is embedded in international trade, as is the footprint of most other countries. 

Thus, the claim that Singapore contributes only 0.11 percent of global emissions—and the implication that the country can usefully act only if others move first—ignores how deeply Singapore’s carbon-driven economy is embedded in globalisation. As a major importer, transport hub, and trading market, Singapore is part of the supply chain that contributes to the creation of GHGs. What is not reflected in trade and production on Singapore’s shores nevertheless has an impact overseas that will eventually contribute to the indiscriminate effects of climate change: for instance, DBS is investing in a Vietnamese coal plant. Singapore-based firms and subsidiaries have time and again been accused of haze-causing slash-and-burn in Indonesia, although most have denied it. The country’s land investments even extend to Africa, sometimes with destructive effects on local livelihood.

Apart from trade, some particularities of Singapore’s geography and development have affected its contributions to the climate crisis. First, deforestation of rainforest cover means that between 2012 and 2014, Singapore land went from being a net carbon absorber to a net emitter. This is because trees absorb carbon and release oxygen through photosynthesis. Net emissions from land use only accounted for 0.12 percent of Singapore’s total emissions for 2014, but the loss of this natural carbon sink means that more of the carbon emitted is being trapped.

The claim that Singapore contributes only 0.11 percent of global emissions—and the implication that the country can usefully act only if others move first—ignores how deeply Singapore’s carbon-driven economy is embedded in globalisation.

Overall, Singapore ranks 27th worldwide in per capita emissions (meaning the average emissions per person). The latest data available on absolute emissions (meaning total emissions overall) is from 2014.  

What are the current and future impacts of the climate crisis on Singapore?

Today, the most immediate observable effect is heat. Daily temperatures are on average one degree higher than they were in the 1950s and the average daily temperature could rise to 37℃ by 2100. The health risks of increasing temperatures range from heat stroke to increases in cases of dengue. Moreover, Singapore is heating twice as fast as the rest of the world, a problem compounded by the urban landscape. When researchers at the Meteorological Service compared rural Lim Chu Kang and tourist retail district Orchard Road, they found that the latter was nearly four degrees warmer on the same night. Stacked air conditioner units in HDB blocks also mean that higher units experience higher temperatures.

The effects of this are likely to be influenced by economic inequality. Areas with a greater concentration of buildings, like HDB estates, are likely to be warmer than the greener areas where pricier residences like bungalows are located. As of 2013, among one- or two-room apartments with a mean annual income per person of US$9,300, fewer than 15 per cent have air-conditioning, in contrast to almost 99 percent of condominium apartments. Working conditions will also be affected differently. Many outdoor jobs in Singapore, like construction and tree pruning, are performed by lower-paid migrant labourers. Those who work outdoors or live without air-conditioning will soon be among the most susceptible to heat stroke, which can lead to organ damage and death.

Singapore currently imports 90 percent of its food. Most of the countries we import from, such as Brazil and Malaysia, are vulnerable to the effects of climate change and unregulated deforestation for livestock agriculture and palm oil production.

One of the most worrying future effects is the impact on food security. In 2019, an IPCC report on climate change and land warned that an “unprecedented rate” of land and water resource exploitation is threatening the world’s food supply. Singapore currently imports 90 percent of its food. Most of the countries we import from, such as Brazil and Malaysia, are vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis and unregulated deforestation for livestock agriculture and palm oil production. Flooding will negatively affect rice production, which will likely affect most of Asia. Many of the 1,700 attendees at Singapore’s first-ever 2019 Climate Rally cited concerns over food as a major reason for their presence. In March 2019, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli announced a plan to produce 30 percent of Singapore’s food domestically by 2030, but this may not be enough. 

As Singapore is a low-lying island, another obvious issue is sea level rise, already occurring faster than anticipated. For Singapore, flooding is an immediate concern, and could affect not only residents in flooded areas but also underground utilities, from public transport to telecommunications infrastructure. The prime minister has announced plans to invest billions in climate change adaptation, with a particular focus on transitioning to clean energy, investing in technology to store and capture carbon emissions, and establishing carbon markets. But higher sea levels also coincide with more dangerous storms and increased rainfall. Singapore and Southeast Asia generally are predicted to be among the most vulnerable to extreme weather events as climate change exacerbates.

Finally, the bleakest outcomes are some of the hardest to control through policy alone: conflict and global unrest. As resources become scarce, experts predict escalations in refugee populations, and possible wars. Already, a phenomenon known as eco-fascism is on the rise from the U.S.A to New Zealand. This is a trend in political thinking motivated by xenophobia and nationalism combined with the dangerous belief that the solution to the climate crisis is to stop migrants from coming in (or, in the horrendous cases of the 2019 shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, or El Paso, U.S.A, to kill them). The implications for Singapore specifically are unclear, but it is worth paying attention to the country’s notoriously strict policies. Singapore has not signed the United Nation’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol of the same name. As economic inequalities rise worldwide along with temperatures, the tensions may well reach Singapore’s shores. 

These effects will definitely get worse in the next few years. Locked into the climate crisis is a phenomenon known as the latency period: the time lag between rises in carbon dioxide and their effects. No matter what we do now, even if we cut emissions, we will see more consequences of the climate crisis in the next decades. This is partly because carbon remains in the air for hundreds of years. Consequently, higher temperatures and sea levels are a certainty.

Anngee Neo

Every tenth of a degree of warming will have a huge impact. The difference between a world that is two degrees warmer, as opposed to one which is four degrees warmer, is very stark—a difference that could be counted in the number of lives lost—and so it is worth fighting to keep that number as low as possible.

What is the solution?

In order to prevent warming above 1.5°C, the 2018 IPCC report states that net emissions need to be slashed to 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050. If temperatures rise by 2°C or more, consequences for life on earth become a lot more dire and difficult to predict due to feedback loops.

Net zero emissions does not mean using no energy whatsoever. Emissions can be balanced out to some extent through carbon removal, achievable through carbon capture and storage. In the past, carbon capture has sometimes relied on solutions like planting trees in other countries, leading to the displacement of local people. However, the practice still requires planning and research to understand how much carbon can be feasibly removed. To a very large extent, therefore, emissions must simply be reduced. 

Phasing out fossil fuels as quickly as possible is essential, as they are the single most significant source of emissions. A 2015 peer-reviewed study found that 82 percent of fossil fuel reserves would need to remain underground to prevent the world from reaching the 1.5°C warming threshold. 

The IPCC’s report includes some guidelines for a pathway to limiting warming to 1.5°C: they “require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options (medium confidence).”

As others have pointed out, it is misleading to frame the climate crisis as something that individuals are causing and therefore are able to individually undo (for instance through recycling or reduced food waste). Given that only 20 corporations account for one-third of the world’s GHG emissions, the changes that will have the biggest positive impact are those which change the conduct of those corporations.

What is Singapore already doing?

In terms of adaptation (i.e. equipping Singapore to deal with the effects of the climate crisis) the government’s primary concern is with building coastal defences against rising sea levels. The government recently announced the setup of a coastal and flood protection fund, with an injection of $5 billion. The construction of defences is predicted to cost $100 billion or more over 100 years. Minister Masagos has also announced an intention to build up natural defences such as through mangrove restoration. 

Anngee Neo

In terms of mitigation (i.e. reducing carbon emissions to limit or reduce the damage done by climate change), the planning is less ambitious. Singapore’s current plan to reduce emissions, unveiled along with the 2020 national budget, is not in line with the IPCC’s recommendations to slash net emissions to 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050. Right now, the Singapore government aims to reach peak emissions in 2030 and halve these by 2050. The government does not have a set date by which to achieve net-zero emissions, citing the second half of the 21st century as a general goal.

Singapore has ratified several international agreements including the Paris Agreement and the Copenhagen Agreement. These agreements commit participating countries to certain timed targets in reducing emissions, with greater leeway generally given to developing countries. This is because these countries are expected to increase emissions in order to develop economically (even though some researchers have argued that this metric of economic growth is dangerous for the planet, and should no longer be used at all). Under the Paris Agreement, Singapore is listed as a developing country, which is part of why it has made little efforts to cut overall emissions. In line with these pledges, the government has often declared its success in reducing emission intensity, which refers to emissions per unit of GDP as opposed to total emissions. However, Singapore’s GDP is increasing, and so are its absolute emissions, meaning that it continues to increase the amount of GHGs it releases into the environment.

Currently, the international nonprofit group Climate Action Tracker lists Singapore’s climate plan as highly insufficient, meaning that the country’s commitments “fall outside the fair share range and are not at all consistent with holding warming to below 2°C let alone with the Paris Agreement’s stronger 1.5°C.” Among other things, the group critiques the much-touted carbon tax as being too low to be effective. A carbon tax is a fee imposed on the burning of carbon-based fuels, usually paid by the industry that is extracting these fuels (as opposed to the consumer who uses them). This acts as an economic incentive to reduce carbon emissions.

Currently, the international nonprofit group Climate Action Tracker lists Singapore’s climate plan as highly insufficient, meaning that the country’s commitments “fall outside the fair share range and are not at all consistent with holding warming to below 2°C let alone with the Paris Agreement’s stronger 1.5°C.”

The current carbon tax charges S$5 per tonne of GHG emissions from 2019 to 2023, after which the tax will increase from S$10 to $15 per tonne of GHG emissions by 2030. This is far lower than the US$40-80/tonne recommended by environmental groups such as 350 Singapore. Moreover, only facilities emitting above 25,000 tons a year will be taxable, about 30 to 40 facilities.  Emitters responsible for between 2,000 and 25,000 tonnes a year are required to submit emissions reports, but they will not have to pay a tax. Facilities can apply to be deregistered on a case-by-case basis if their greenhouse emissions “fall below certain thresholds for three consecutive years.”

This policy will allow corporations to plan ahead, but it has been criticised for its leniency. Indeed, the government expects to collect nearly S$1 billion (US$750 million) from the carbon tax in the next five years, which translates to 200 million tons of carbon emissions from the highest-polluting facilities alone. 

Climate Action Tracker also points out that there are no plans to transition from natural gas to clean energy, while DBS has continued to invest in coal power plants. This is discussed in more detail in the section on divestment below.

In addition to government policy, there are also several civic and private initiatives to address the climate crisis. In July 2019, the National Climate Change Secretariat further invited citizens to submit their proposals for a climate plan, leading to the mobilisation of environmental groups like 350 Singapore, LepakInSG, and SG Climate Rally. Their plans include details for divestment (on which see more below), investment into sustainable transportation, development of a green economy, and more. Some groups like Speak for Climate have organised specifically to educate the public to better understand the issues at hand, which can be fraught with scientific jargon. Meanwhile at universities, local and international researchers are working towards developing sustainable cities, climate-smart agriculture, and more.

Politicians are mobilising as well, as the climate crisis shapes up to be a key issue in the upcoming election. Several groups including the Singapore Democratic Party, the Workers’ Party, and the youth wing of the ruling People’s Action Party have released position papers and plans calling for stronger legislation. SG Climate Rally and Speak for Climate have teamed up for an initiative called Greenwatch, which will release climate scorecards and provide voters with information on the different parties’ plans as the elections draw nearer.

What else can be done?

Swiftly transitioning away from fossil fuels is key to reducing emissions. The only truly effective strategy to achieve this, advocated by activists around the world, is divestment. This means selling all financial assets and investments in large oil and gas companies. Singapore should also relook economic policies and measures that facilitate the operation of such companies in its territory.

Anngee Neo

Some of the world’s biggest corporate emitters have refineries in Singapore, particularly on the reclaimed petrochemical hub Jurong Island. These include Chevron, Exxon, BP, Shell, and PetroChina. Notably, Exxon was recently on trial in several U.S. states for lying to investors and pushing climate change denial while being fully aware of its future devastating impacts. These corporations often push seemingly green agendas that, under scrutiny, reveal ulterior motives: for example, Exxon has, in the past, announced that it would support a carbon tax bill in the U.S. which would shield them from these lawsuits in future. Exxon was not ultimately charged, but many similar cases are under way and financial institutions are increasingly pledging to divest from or at least consider the climate impacts of fossil fuel financing. 

When and how can divestment from polluting corporations take place? In their Calls to Action, the organisers of SG Climate Rally proposed starting with institutional investors like sovereign wealth funds, by factoring in long-term climate risk assessments in investment decisions and collaborating with policymakers. To a large extent, this would mean that sovereign wealth funds and other financial institutions should stop providing financial backing to oil, coal, and gas projects, such as those in Vietnam currently funded by DBS. In making regulatory, licensing, tax and other decisions affecting economic activity, the government should be actively seeking to transition away from economic reliance on fossil fuel businesses as rapidly as feasible. As of September 2019, a total of US$11 trillion has been committed to divest from fossil fuels by financial institutions around the world—a 22,000 percent leap from 2014.

Even in purely economic terms, inaction may even lead to problems like stranded assets—investments unlikely to make a viable economic return—in polluting companies if others divest first. Quietly, this has already started to happen, with oil and gas stocks’ weightings at 50-year historic lows in the US stock market index.

Planning is key to ensuring a just transition which won’t leave workers unemployed. In their plan submitted to the NCCS, 350 Singapore suggested redistributing revenues from a carbon tax (raised to US$40-80 per tonne) to citizens, through a progressive carbon dividend. They also recommend setting up a transition fund for industries choosing to transition out of certain sectors, and policies to provide learning opportunities in line with green jobs. 

In order to enable the move away from fossil fuels, there are plans to expand solar energy through floating solar projects, and climate groups are pushing for more alternatives to completely phase out the use of natural gas.

What is the point? Why does Singapore’s stance matter?

The climate crisis, like the coronavirus pandemic, poses a threat to people no matter where they live. Trying to digest numbers and policies is a cerebral exercise, but this is a crisis. It is not a future possibility or something we can avoid. It is happening. In the face of such incontrovertible truths, an emotional reaction is natural, and more and more psychologists are beginning to explore the phenomenon of climate anxiety and climate grief

Make no mistake: every tiny fraction of a degree of warming, no matter how small, will be the difference between life and death for millions, if not billions, around the world. To give in to the inevitability of climate change and continue with business as usual is to decide that all of this is written; that permanent instability, violence, and eco-fascism are the future to which we want to be resigned.

In the face of such incontrovertible truths, an emotional reaction is natural, and more and more psychologists are beginning to explore the phenomenon of climate anxiety and climate grief

Bas van Ruijven, a co-chair for the International Committee on New Integrated Climate Change Assessment Scenarios, warned against the consequences of national self-interest in an interview with The New Republic. In a worst-case climate disaster scenario, he said, “countries have their own interests first, with a narrow definition of what their ‘interests’ are.” Van Ruijven’s comments referred primarily to rising ethnonationalism in countries like Hungary, the U.S.A, and Brazil. But for Singapore as well, viewing the problem and solutions to climate change as international is absolutely crucial, especially as the impacts of the crisis deepen. Seizing the moment to act is an opportunity to rethink our relationship to the environment as well as our relationship to each other.

There is an alternative, which some have begun to articulate in policies like the Green New Deal in the US. That plan addresses a range of structural issues that have brought us to this moment and are inherently linked to it, and provides a way forward for a more equitable and just world. Given Singapore’s large role as a trader and financier, plenty of others will have ample reason to follow if its government chooses to take the lead.

And there is still time. Politicians in Singapore seem to understand this, warning that inaction on climate might lead to unrest and trying to work with the public to come up with solutions. Researchers are working both locally and abroad to develop strategies in mitigation and adaptation. Activists are pushing for more transparency and accountability. The wheels are in motion, but they must start turning more quickly if total collapse is to be avoided. 

What else can I do, individually?

Anngee Neo

Further Reading:

Speak for Climate – S4C Ideas

SG Climate Rally – Calls to Action

LepakInSG – Public Action on the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint

350 Singapore – Vision 2050: Towards a People’s Climate Action Plan for Singapore

Speak for Climate and SG Climate Rally are also working together on Greenwatch, a campaign to bring the issue of climate change to the fore in this year’s general election that includes initiatives like releasing climate scorecards.

Suggestions for Action:

Join the environmental community:

Make your voice heard:

  • Email/Message your MP to make your concern clear.
  • Here are some examples of postcards and questions that other people have sent.
  • Raise the issue at Meet the People sessions.
  • Join Climate Media Hub to amplify climate news via social media and incentivise politicians to take action.

Volunteer with environmental organisations:

Other ideas:

Start and continue to have conversations about sustainable practices and systems. Although individual action may not have a large impact, a larger movement against unsustainable palm oil or waste can move corporations and governments towards sustainable policies.

Meerabelle Jesuthasan

Meerabelle Jesuthasan is a freelancer from Singapore, France, and Malaysia, currently based in the US where she is an intern at The Nation. She also runs a public oral history project, When We Go Out, focused on Philadelphia's lesbian community in the 1970s and '80s.

Anngee Neo

Anngee is a Singapore-based illustrator who creates drawings with an emphasis on storytelling with compelling characters. Her quirky, surreal and whimsical works have breathed life into children’s books such as The Rock and the Bird and Do Gallery Sitters Sit All Day?. She has made illustrations for campaigns and books for clients such as National Gallery Singapore, Singtel, LTA and HP Singapore.

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