As Singapore mulls 2050 net-zero, some advocates wonder: can we do better?

The wealthy and developed city-state that benefits from the use and trade of fossil fuels has a responsibility to decarbonise faster than the world, they say.

Singapore climate rally 2019
Singapore's first climate rally, in 2019. Image: Eco-Business/ Liang Lei.

Germany and Sweden have said they will reach net-zero emissions by 2045. Singapore, one of the richest countries in the world, should emulate those ambitions, environmentalists in the city-state say.

Singapore is running a public consultation on whether it should aim to hit net-zero emissions, which entails reducing greenhouse gas emissions dramatically and offsetting what remains with forestry projects or carbon-absorbing technologies, by 2050. It is a step up from its existing pledge, unveiled in February, to reach the milestone “by or around mid-century”.

Scientists have said the world needs to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid its worst impacts, such as lengthy droughts and floods. 

Teng Chu Yu, 23, a member of environmental group LepakInSG, which runs events focused on climate and biodiversity, said it was planning to submit feedback to the consultation that Singapore’s proposed target is not ambitious enough.

“We see Singapore as a global leader,” Teng said, explaining the group’s stance. Singapore’s gross domestic product, at some US$60,000 per capita, is higher than that of Germany’s and Sweden’s. Both of the European countries have targeted to reach net-zero emissions before 2050.

She added that studies by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on which the 2050 net-zero target is based, tends to lean on the conservative side – a characterisation the IPCC itself acknowledges in its reports.

Other studies, such as one by Canadian and European researchers published last year in Nature, a science journal, said reaching net-zero by 2040 will only provide a 50 per cent chance of global warming not exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius, while reaching the target by 2030 will provide 67 per cent certainty.

Another group, SG Climate Rally, which hosted Singapore’s first climate demonstration in 2019, published a guide on how the public can respond to the country’s climate consultation.

It encouraged people to write that Singapore reaching net-zero by 2050 is either “just right”, or “not sufficiently ambitious”.

“As a country with one of the highest GDPs per capita globally, as well as one that has relied on the fossil fuel industry for economic growth, Singapore can and should do more,” the guide said, as an example of how people could frame their arguments in calling for greater climate ambition.

“There is a risk that the effects of climate change may accelerate due to the thawing of permafrost, releasing large amounts of carbon and creating what scientists call a ‘carbon feedback loop’. Therefore, not only should Singapore align with climate science, we should aim to get ahead of the curve,” it added.

Isaac Neo, 28, a SG Climate Rally representative, said that while the group advocates for Singapore to reach net-zero by 2050, it recognises that some people may want the country to do it earlier.

Neo said that a net-zero target before 2050 for Singapore will be aspirational at the moment.

“Not that it can’t be done, but we will need to put even more resources in developing technologies and accelerating progress on the Asean power grid,” he said. Singapore has been studying various nascent decarbonisation strategies such as replacing natural gas with hydrogen, and capturing industrial carbon emissions.

The pan-Southeast Asia power grid, meanwhile, has been in the works for 25 years and is touted as a way to facilitate the scale-up and sharing of renewables in the region. As it stands, cross-border electricity trade has thus far mostly involved Laos selling its abundant supply of hydropower to its neighbours. Singapore joined this trade in June.

“Reaching net-zero before 2050 can only benefit the world,” Neo said. SG Climate Rally’s guide also included calls for further raising Singapore’s carbon tax to beyond S$100 (US$71) per tonne of emissions, setting national targets to slash oil and gas output, and better protecting disadvantaged groups against climate impacts and transition risks.

Some advocates are still grappling with what exactly stronger climate ambitions will entail for Singapore.

“It is better to do more than reach net-zero by 2050, but I am also very aware that we don’t really understand what kind of trade-offs have to be made,” said 25-year-old Woo Qiyun, who runs the Instagram account @theweirdandwild that shares sustainability new and tips.

“Does that look like doubling in electricity prices or food prices? Or is the inconvenience more of having no plastics in hawker centres?” Woo said. She is planning to write in to Singapore’s National Climate Change Secretariat, which is hosting the consultation, to share her thoughts, instead of providing a fixed answer on whether the country’s 2050 target is sufficient in its online form.

The Singapore government, on its part, has repeatedly said that decarbonising will be a big challenge as it has limited potential to tap on renewables in the city-state, which is often cloudy and rarely windy. The country’s power mix is almost entirely dependent on natural gas, a fossil fuel. Singapore has been exploring the use of geothermal energy and clean energy imports from its neighbours.

All the climate advocates interviewed said Singapore should halve its emissions by 2030, in line with what the IPCC calls for. The country’s current pledge is for emissions to peak by then.

Consultation too short, too late

Singapore’s latest climate consultation opened on 5 September and will close on Monday (26 September). The three weeks window is too short for the public to come up with informed answers, environmentalists say.

Neo, who helped to draft SG Climate Rally’s guide to the consultation, said that it took him some time to gather and cross-check information. The guide was released nine days after the consultation was launched.

“Someone not in the climate space, like regular Singaporeans who are not that involved, may not know how to reply. Then can [the government] say it has properly consulted them?” Neo said.

He added that it would be better for the government to host in-person town halls instead of keeping the initiative online.

Woo said that the consultation could have been done earlier, given that the global climate summit COP27 was just two months away.

Countries are expected to bring greater climate ambitions to the summit, while Singapore has also committed to make revisions to its climate strategy submitted to the United Nations by this year. NCCS said that public feedback from the latest consultation will be taken into consideration for its formal updates.

Government action itself remains key, Teng from LepakInSG said.

“I think regulations are needed to push Singaporeans in general,” Teng said, adding that the same applies for businesses, based on her experience as a sustainability executive.

“They generally are not incentivised to move, because if they are one of the first movers they tend to suffer a bit in terms of cost competitiveness. They are saying they would like the government to set regulations so everyone can move together,” she added.

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