Take the green lead, Singapore

The United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa, earlier this month resulted in what some have called ‘a plan to make a plan’: an agreement for all countries to negotiate a new regime of greenhouse gas emissions cuts by 2015 and have it take effect by 2020.

The current Kyoto Protocol was extended for another five-year commitment period, but it covers only developed nations.

What’s a developing country to do in this interim grey area? They could get some pointers from Singapore, perhaps.

Though the island state aligns itself with the Alliance of Small Island States and the developing world Group of 77 (G-77), which want the developed world to bear responsibility for the emissions it put into the atmosphere, it bears characteristics of both developed and developing countries.

Hence, the Republic serves as a model of how a relatively advanced economy could navigate the tricky shoals of climate change.

Singapore has close relationships with both Eastern and Western nations, and Asian countries in particular look to it on many counts. For example, it has collaborated with China on projects like the Suzhou industrial park and a planned eco-city in Tianjin.

But the implication is that serving as a role model means Singapore must shoulder some responsibilities, and tackling climate change is one of those responsibilities it must bear.

Singapore’s stance is: It is keen on a binding agreement that all countries adhere to, according to their respective responsibilities and capabilities.

Singapore Environment Council executive director Jose Raymond commented: ‘As a small island state, Singapore certainly has a vested interest in a legally binding deal being reached as soon as possible.

‘The longer it takes, the greater our vulnerability to climate change, and the greater our investment in mitigation and adaptation measures will be,’ he said.

But torn between its twin interests as a small vulnerable island state and an economy that relies on energy-intensive industries such as petroleum refining, it can be a little split personality.

Arguably, it is not absolutely necessary for Singapore to go any greener.

Compare cutting emissions with the case of electricity. Electricity is not subsidised here, to encourage people to use less. But for many residents middle-class and up, electricity is a small proportion of overall costs, compared with the overall benefit they derive from running the air-conditioner and the computer 24/7.

Likewise, Singapore now has such a high gross domestic product - US$43,867 (S$56,800) per capita - that adapting to the impact of climate change would be a small proportion of overall costs, compared with the potential short-term benefit of continuing to produce carbon emissions by encouraging consumption and industrial growth.

At the same time, Singapore is not sitting around waiting for a real deal, so to speak, before it starts cleaning house. In 2009, it announced it would cut emissions by 7 per cent to 11 per cent by 2020 if no global, binding deal was reached, and by 16 per cent if one was.

Already, other emerging economies that have grown very fast in the past few decades - such as South Korea and China - are adopting similar voluntary targets.

Singapore’s targets are down from the ‘business as usual’ case - in other words, if it continued on the growth trajectory it was on. If no changes were made, Singapore was predicted to have reached some 72 million tonnes of emissions by 2020.

It is aware it will have to pay for adaptation measures anyway, and has already raised minimum levels for land reclamation and new building platforms.

But the crux of the matter is that Singapore’s current energy demand outstrips its current alternative energy supply.

With constant cloud cover and intermittent wind, Singapore is not able to take full advantage of alternative energy sources like solar and wind power.

So it must rely on energy efficiency to achieve those cuts, and has put a new Energy Conservation Act up for discussion, meant to rein in large energy users. (In fact, this is an important symbolic shift, signifying a willingness to use the law instead of simply offering energy users monetary incentives to improve.)

But energy efficiency goes only so far.

That’s why Singapore is genuinely concerned about meeting more stringent binding targets, if in future, all countries must limit their emissions.

Speaking to The Straits Times after the UN talks, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan acknowledged that Singapore might have to purchase carbon offsets one day, depending on how future negotiations go.

Still, Singapore could do more to go green systematically - for example, taxing cars by emissions instead of fuel type, truly supporting the use of public transport and cycling, or offering tax incentives to cleaner and more energy-efficient firms.

That suggests one way to be a role model. The Republic is an emerging economy, which has grown very fast in a few short decades, and countries like China and Thailand are on a similar trajectory (and so are their carbon emissions). While the island state taking the plunge will not transform the world’s climate, it can, by its own action yet, nudge such emerging economies towards deeper, binding targets.

This is not to single Singapore out.

Many countries at the negotiations were also loath to commit to internationally binding, absolute targets, even though they had passed domestic legislation to trim emissions.

With its energy performance requirements and green building legislation, Singapore is already on something approaching the right track.

But now it needs to take the lead and make the difficult decision on how much further to go.

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