How green is this little red dot?

Singapore’s reputation as a ‘clean and green’ city has taken a few hard knocks recently.

First was a University of British Columbia study in February that ranked the Republic bottom of 150 countries in its Eco2 Index. That index looked at ‘ecological deficits’ - how much of the Earth’s resources it uses compared with how much resources it can supply. Media reports described ‘ecologically bankrupt’ Singapore as the ‘world’s unhealthiest country’.

Then came an Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency report quoting conservation group WWF president Yolanda Kakabadse saying that Singapore topped the list for the largest carbon footprint in Asia-Pacific in 2010. She reportedly described Singapore as perhaps ‘one of the best examples of what we should not do’.

These recent claims have ruffled a few feathers on this Little Red Dot, which prides itself on its clean and green reputation built over the decades.

The Government has strongly rebutted these rankings, saying they are biased against ‘import-dependent, land-scarce, densely populated countries such as Singapore’. Some netizens, however, have gleefully used it to validate why they think everything is wrong in this country.

So what’s the truth? Is Singapore ecologically bankrupt or a green haven?

To be sure, these recent rankings seem to be making a fair point: Singapore consumes far more than it can offer ecologically. But dig further, and other points emerge.

A close look at the methodologies of the two rankings above show that both based their findings on data compiled by the Global Footprint Network (GFN), an alliance of scientists which calculates how many ‘planet earths’ we need to sustain our current growth rates. The GFN uses a complicated method that measures a country’s ‘ecological footprint’ by defining how much resources - expressed in land area - is needed by a country for its consumption and waste generated.

This explains why the Eco2 Index put Singapore right at the bottom. As a built-up city with virtually no agriculture industry or natural resources, it has no ecological assets to speak of.

But ranking Singapore with land-rich and agriculturally endowed countries such as Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay which emerged top of the Eco2 Index is not only pointless, it is unfair.

It essentially penalises Singapore for its nature as an urban city-state with few natural resources.

In order to get a high ecological rating, Singapore would have to live within its means ecologically: That is, consume no more than its land can produce. The fishing village that was Singapore before 1819 might then have scored high on the Eco2 Index. In that sense, the Eco2 Index penalises small countries which refuse to be constrained by their natural resource shortage, and manage to outgrow their limits.

Then there is the matter of carbon footprints. WWF’s Living Planet Report 2010 ranks Singapore with the highest carbon footprint in the Asia-Pacific. But this conflicts with that of other rankings.

The International Energy Agency, for example, uses a method adopted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for all countries. This calculates a nation’s emissions based on the country’s production - any activity that takes place within the country’s borders. Aviation and bunker fuel - which are tricky to attribute to any one country due to their transboundary nature - are excluded.

Using this method, Singapore was ranked below other Asia-Pacific countries like Brunei, Australia and South Korea in per capita emissions.

By contrast, the GFN method, which WWF’s report is built on, uses a method that accords more weight to where an item is consumed than produced. So a car manufactured in Japan but sold and used in India will contribute to India’s, rather than Japan’s, consumption footprint.

This is an interesting, alternative way of looking at footprints - but there is no accurate or consistent way of calculating this globally at the moment. GFN’s method takes into account differing ways of producing exports - for example, what type of energy is used - but does not apply the same to imports.

Emissions from aviation are also attributed to individual countries - which means an air hub like Singapore ends up with a high tally. Media reports like the one from AFP did not make all these different accounting methods clear.

In fact, there are other methods to rank green cities. Last year, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) developed an Asian Green City Index which scored 22 cities across eight categories, including energy and carbon emissions, land use, transport and waste.

It used 29 quantitative and qualitative indicators from how a city performs in say, waste production, to assessment of its policies, such as on energy efficiency. Singapore was ranked Asia’s greenest city on this index. It was also the most energy efficient - using three megajoules of energy to generate a US dollar of gross domestic product (GDP), compared with the index average of six megajoules.

Consultancy firm Solidiance around that time also issued a green ranking of Asia-Pacific cities that put Singapore fourth, with Tokyo, Seoul and Melbourne ahead - but it did not publish its quantitative and qualitative indicators so there is no way to tell how it derived its results.

So which ranking is right?

The fact of the matter is, the Singapore authorities and citizens shouldn’t get too hot and bothered over any particular rating as each has its methodology.

We need to look at the methods used, and examine their robustness and logic, before making up our minds on how much credence to give them. Those reporting on such ratings should also do some homework and not dismiss an entire country based on one survey.

Singapore agencies should also accept unfavourable ratings in the right spirit. There is much room for improvement on Singapore’s green credentials. For example, it is slow on adopting electric vehicles, it does have high levels of energy consumption and buildings still waste too much energy on air-conditioning.

As for the WWF reportedly citing Singapore as what societies ‘should not do’: It made that comment at the same time it moved its global headquarters for Earth Hour, a well-known global environmental campaign, to Singapore from Sydney.

Bottom line? When it comes to green surveys, it’s not all black and white.

This article was originally published in The Straits Times.

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