Singapore toughens regulations to meet environment goals

A stagnant recycling rate and modest improvements in energy efficiency have prompted the Singapore government to introduce new technologies and regulations to speed up the country’s progress in meeting its environment goals.

Traffic in Geylang, Singapore
A congested road in Singapore. Singapore is introducing a new scheme to regulate vehicular emissions and encourage residents to purchase less polluting cars. Image: Vetatur Fumare, CC BY-SA 2.0

Tougher vehicle pollution standards and mandatory air suction waste systems are two of the initiatives that the Singapore government will be implementing to curb emissions and revive the nation’s stagnant domestic recycling rates, but experts say more must be done to encourage Singaporeans to adopt more environmentally responsible lifestyles.

The measures were first announced at this year’s Budget speech in Parliament last month, but the details were only unveiled earlier this month in a debate over the Ministry of Environment and Water Resource’s (MEWR) budget.

Future residents of new private apartments will have access to two chutes in their homes: one for recyclable waste, the other for non-recyclable refuse such as food waste. Already in use in newer blocks of public housing flats in Singapore since 2014, the chutes have helped recycling rates in these households to triple, according to Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State, MEWR. 

Private residential developers must install dual chutes in developments taller than four storeys for new development applications submitted from April 1, 2018. Applications to develop private apartment from April 1, 2018 onwards must also come with plans for pneumatic waste conveyance systems if the development has 500 residential units or more.

A pneumatic waste conveyance system is made up of a network of underground pipes that transport waste from homes to a central collection point via air suction without the trash having to be shuttled about manually, reducing the chances of spillage and the need for manpower. 

The system is already functioning in more than 100 private residential developments in Singapore, and will be included in upcoming public housing developments such as Tampines North and Bidadari.

However, Eugene Tay, director of sustainability consultancy Green Future Solutions said that the measures are not enough for Singapore to meet its 30 per cent domestic recycling rate goal. This is because a majority of residents live in public housing and there are not enough new developments to increase the volume of trash recycled significantly, said Tay, who is also executive director of Zero Waste SG, a group campaigning to curb waste.

“Proposing this new technical solution is disguising the fact that we are not putting in enough effort to educate and engage residents and change behaviour on household recycling,” he said.

Boosting industrial energy efficiency

Change is on the cards for the Energy Conservation Act (ECA), which regulates energy in the industrial sector.

From 2018 onwards, industrial firms must use internationally recognised methodologies and standards - such as the World Resources Institute’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol - to measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions. They are not required to do so at the moment, but it is understood that the move will help companies in the sector prepare for the carbon tax slated to take effect in 2019.

Melissa Low, research fellow at the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore, commented: “The enhancements to the ECA will require companies to be accountable for their data submissions and be less reliant on the NEA to do the backend work to compute the data.”

Owners of new and existing industrial facilities are also required to review their facilities’ energy efficiency rates under the new regulations, while the NEA will set efficiency minimum standards for industrial equipment.

The changes are aimed at improving Singapore’s industrial energy efficiency improvement rate in line with the targets stated in the Singapore Climate Action Plan released in 2016. Singapore’s rate has stalled at 0.4 per cent in 2014 and 0.6 per cent in 2015 - lower than the one to two per cent improvement rate in countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands.

Low welcomed the ECA revisions as timely, saying that most companies have managed to fulfil the requirements of the original ECA that came into effect in 2013. Asked why Singapore’s energy efficiency has been improving so gradually, she told Eco-Business: “Companies may be cautious of implementing changes that require high capital costs. Management usually approves of projects that require low investment and short payback periods of two to three years.”

Investing in energy upgrades can also take a toll on bottom lines, she added. 

Furthermore, Singapore-based multinationals may have their hands tied when it comes to process and plant design as these are set by their headquarters. Singapore’s “highly specialised and integrated” industrial sector means there is also little room for downtime and improvements must be planned ahead of time to avoid major disruptions to operations, said Low.  

Cleaning up the roads

A new Vehicular Emissions Scheme (VES) will replace the Carbon Emissions-Based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS), which rewards car buyers with tiered rebates depending on the amount of emissions the car produces, starting on January 1, 2018.

The NEA and the Land Transport Authority have lowered the maximum amount of acceptable emissions and added four more pollutants - hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter - to the banding criteria. Under the CEVS, banding was decided based on carbon emissions. The VES, applicable to new cars, taxis and newly imported used cars, will assign banding based on the worst performing pollutant.

“We calibrate the bands to achieve our goal of moving car and taxi buyers to purchase overall less pollutive vehicles,” said the NEA. It said the banding system would be reviewed regularly to ensure it remains relevant.

However, experts question two aspects of the VES that have been carried over from the CEVS: a grid emissions factor (GEF) that imposes a cost on car buyers for emissions produced in generating electricity for their electric or hybrid vehicles, and the rebate’s impact on car value.

“Are we really comparing apples with apples?” commented Sanjay Kuttan, programme director, Multi Energy Systems & Grids (SMES) at the Energy Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, about the GEF.

“The GEF takes into account the transfer of electrons to the car engine and the carbon footprint in between. Should we start calculating the carbon footprint of petrol, from the refinery to the point it enters the car engine?” he said. The LTA will announce the grid emissions factor in mid-2017.

Asked if there was an equivalent fee for petrol or diesel vehicles, an LTA spokesperson told Eco-Business petrol duty rates were raised in 2015 to discourage car use and cut emissions, and the government reintroduced a diesel duty in February this year. 

The latter is meant to move Singapore towards a usage-based system of charging drivers based on how much diesel they consume, and will replace the lump sum Special Tax on diesel vehicles. However, local broadsheet The Straits Times has said the withdrawal of the Special Tax will offset the impact of the diesel duty for most drivers.

Kuttan also questioned how the rebates are used to derive a car’s end-of-life value. Under the current formula used in the CEVS and VES, car buyers who purchase a cleaner vehicle will receive a smaller sum upon deregistration than those with more polluting models. “The value of having a cleaner car is diminished,” he said.

Besides the new VES scheme, the Early Turnover Scheme has been extended and revised to owners to replace their commercial diesel vehicles with less polluting models starting August 1 this year, while petrol vehicles and motorcycles will be subject to new and tighter emissions standards from April 1, 2018.

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