(Energy, Technology, and the Environment) Singapore’s Development “Stories” – The Exploitation of the Region and its Environment

Can we really call Singapore a success story if we are growing and protecting ourselves from climate change at the expense of our neighbours?

By Alisha Lavendra (’22), Jie Min Heng (’22), and Nicole Hu (’23)

A Story of Sustainable Development

Over the past 50 years, Singapore has garnered a reputation for our rapid economic ascension from third-world to first. Despite having a mere 721.5 km² of landmass and limited natural resources, we have been able to produce a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that exceeds $300 billion dollars annually, ranking 3rd internationally in terms of GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity. 

More impressively, Singapore seems to be able to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability, having been actively pursuing sustainable development even “before the term became fashionable”. Singapore has consistently been ranked ‘the best in Asia’ in both sustainability and livability. As of April 2019, close to 40% of building projects’ gross floor areas are “Green Mark” certified, a testament to how energy efficient our buildings are. Turning to energy production, in April this year, Singapore achieved our ten-year 2020 target to annually power an equivalent consumption of 5% of all households with solar energy. Beyond successfully integrating greenery into where we live, work and play, the city-state has embarked on ambitious and innovative showpiece projects like Gardens by the Bay and Jewel Changi Airport to build our image as a biophilic ‘City in a Garden’. Besides raking in millions from tourist revenues, these sites house some of the world’s largest indoor gardens and greenhouses, showing how nature can flourish within ‘eco-friendly’ Singapore. It is with these credentials that we market ourselves as “Asia’s Greenest City,” holding ourselves up as role models for the region to learn from. In fact, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli has proclaimed that the Singapore model “demonstrates how we can make economic progress and yet maintain the integrity of the environment.”

However, under this façade of achieving both economic growth and environmental sustainability, Singapore fails to be as environmentally responsible as we say we are. In being overly invested in pursuing a specific brand of sustainable development, one where environmental sustainability and economic development are delicately balanced, we end up avoiding instances of conflict between the two, even when confrontation is necessary. By not challenging the status quo, Singapore continues to prioritise economic development above all else, turning a blind eye to unethical and unsustainable industrial practices. Furthermore, continuing with our present development trajectory will become an impossibility, as climate-induced instability becomes the new norm worldwide. 

How Green Are We Really? 

First, we must face the reality of our role in contributing to carbon emissions. At present, Singapore contributes to 0.11% of global carbon emissions. While our carbon intensity (emissions per $GDP) ranks us amongst the lowest 20% internationally, our per capita emissions ranks us amongst the top 20%. In other words, though we have managed to be somewhat carbon-efficient in our pursuit of economic wealth, we still contribute disproportionately large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere. Singapore has not been confronting the full extent of our role in climate change. We exclude emissions from marine vessels and bunkers, our aviation industry, and coal financing from carbon calculations, conveniently ignoring our central position as one of the world’s top three export refining centres and our deep complicity in the petrochemical industry. Though individuals do play a role in reducing our carbon emissions, they make up less than 20% of our carbon footprint. Large industries contribute towards a majority of our emissions, and it is imperative that the government recognise this, and actively consider how we can pivot our national value creation away from these polluting industries.

Secondly, we should acknowledge the fact that we are developing at the expense of our neighbours, despite the fact that we do have the money, resources and scientific expertise to pursue a more regionally inclusive notion of sustainable development. Just last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong publicly acknowledged the existential threat climate change-induced temperature and sea-level rises pose to our small, low-lying island. In the same breath, he also shared about the government’s S$100 billion plan to engineer for ourselves a solution to sea-level rise, by continuing our legacy of land reclamation.

Yet, at what cost? While protecting ourselves from the effects of climate change is undeniably important, one should not disregard the fact that our land reclamation entails the continued exploitation of sand resources from other ASEAN countries. Over the past decade, many Southeast Asian countries have tried to implement bans on sand exports to Singapore, and for good reason — dredging is believed to lower water tables, increase riverbank erosion and destroy marine and riverine habitats, lowering fish stocks, and threatening local livelihoods. Furthermore, because of how poorly regulated the industry is, there is rampant misreporting of how much sand is being dredged. Ultimately, the murkiness of regional sand dredging occludes attempts to demand accountability. By engaging in land reclamation, we are using our comparative wealth to take advantage of our neighbours, sabotaging their chance at sustainable development. 

Beyond causing direct environmental degradation, Singapore also indirectly drives the growth of unsustainable industries throughout the Southeast Asian region. While many Southeast Asian countries are themselves among the fastest increasing emitters globally, we have to question the enabling role Singapore plays as one of the wealthiest and more influential nations in the region. As mentioned earlier, we should remember Singapore’s integral role in the global petrochemical supply chain, our banks’ continued financing of existing coal-fired power plants in neighbouring countries, and our high consumption of imported goods and services that contribute to habitat degradation and sometimes unsustainable practices in source countries. Within an interconnected regional economy, Singapore’s economic activities will always have a sizable impact on other countries. In our pursuit of growth, profit, and consumption, we are fuelling unsustainable industries across the region and accelerating climate change beyond our borders. 

How Will Climate Change Affect Our Neighbours?

It is widely acknowledged that climate change disproportionately harms tropical coastal regions and low-lying areas — geographical characteristics of Southeast Asia’s regions with the poorest and most vulnerable communities. These nations suffer even more as they also have fewer economic resources to adapt to and mitigate the onslaught of environmental threats that face them. The Germanwatch global climate risk index, which measures the direct fatality and economic losses from past weather events, listed half of its 10 most climate-vulnerable nations as South and Southeast Asian nations: the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Bangladesh. A recent 2020 McKinsey report estimates that “the risk of extreme future flooding events in [the] major Vietnamese metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City, could increase by up to 10 times by 2050, resulting in immense economic and infrastructural damage”. Without climate change mitigation, a once-in-a-century flood would inundate two-thirds of the city, causing the city centre to become an island, causing gargantuan disruptions and social instability. Meanwhile, Indonesia has taken the drastic step of moving its capital from Jakarta, one of the fastest sinking cities, to the Kalimantan highlands.

Climate change will also invariably alter Southeast Asia’s economic landscape. For one, the key economic sectors of these Southeast Asian nations include agriculture and fishing, industries that are heavily intertwined with environmental factors, making them especially vulnerable to prolonged dry-spells, sea-level rise and extreme weather events. For example, Vietnam’s food bowl, the Mekong River Delta, produces over half its rice and staples and over 60% of its shrimp, but flooding and rising sea levels exacerbated by warming are projected to inundate up to 7% of its low-lying agricultural land, causing a 40% decline in production along the delta during some seasons. If we continue with business as usual, researchers estimate that climate change could cost Southeast Asia GDP losses of up to 11% by 2100

Why Should We Care? 

The plight of our neighbours given the imminent climate disaster should compel us to address the harmful externalities of our high emissions per capita. Still, Singapore often seems reluctant to be more ambitious in curbing emissions, especially when it threatens our economic growth. After all, however dire the effects of climate change seem, we will not be the worst off. Already protected from natural disasters owing to our geography, we have the money and resources to invest in climate change mitigation solutions to protect ourselves from the effects of climate change. 

Even if we wish to place economic arguments over ethical ones, the impact of climate change on the region will not be insignificant for Singapore. The harms are not as distant from us as we think. Among the various commonalities that Southeast Asian nations share — such as long coastlines and heavily populated low-lying areas as shared earlier — two other common traits are significant for Singapore’s economy: they are our key trading partners, and home to huge segments of our vital foreign labour. 

Since the 1970s, Singapore has pursued economic growth by relying on a large pool of migrant labourers from across Southeast Asia. Today, Singapore harbours almost 1 million migrant workers, close to 1 in 5 people on the island, who form the basis of the labour force in construction, shipbuilding and domestic help, and who keep our city as pristine and manicured as it is. This understanding only serves to make reality all the more discomforting when one realizes that the home countries that our migrant labourers come from are the very nations that will bear the biggest brunt of climate change. 

Our nation’s export-oriented trade model also means that we will be hurt by regional economic instability. As of 2016, ASEAN holds the biggest market share for Singaporean exports, a strong indicator that local and regional economic interests are intertwined. Wounds from the US-China trade war and COVID-19 pandemic also reveal our dependence on regional economic health. Climate change-induced instability will undoubtedly alter local economies, take a heavy toll on regional trade and financial markets, and impact Singapore’s economic outlook

The irony remains that the very people we depend on to support our development are the ones who will be hardest hit by our negligence, and the impacts of our development will eventually come back to bite us. It is unethical of us to continue to prioritise continued economic growth over what seems to be costly environmentalism, just because we can afford to protect ourselves from its harms. Considering the fact that our economy relies heavily on regional trade, migrant labour and fossil fuels, our continued prioritisation of carbon-emitting economic growth means this: we are making our labourers drive our economic growth while squeezing them dry. We ask them to help build climate solutions for our homes while letting theirs sink underwater.

Dealing With Globalized Risks 

Ultimately, the global climate crisis requires every country to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, no matter how far removed they may be. Though the impacts of climate change are not equally felt, it does not excuse the seemingly more sheltered nations from having to do their part to build a more resilient world. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that national borders blur in a crisis, and our dependence on one another becomes ever more pronounced. The externalisation of our environmental costs onto our neighbours will only serve to hurt us, as the climate crisis continues to escalate over time. As Singapore continues on our path of development, we need to reconsider the kind of growth we want to achieve as a nation. 

Taking a step in the right direction, the Singaporean government announced plans to strengthen our climate pledge at the 2020 Budget debate: constrain our 2030 peak emissions to an absolute cap of 65 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, halve this by 2050, and achieve net-zero emissions “as soon as possible”. Nevertheless, we are still lagging behind IPCC’s recommendation to achieve global net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, if we hope to limit global warming to 1.5°C and avert the worst of the climate crisis. 

To enact truly transformative and sustainable growth, we must begin by setting up new frameworks to assess our climate impact on a regional and global scale, rather than a local one. Our position of economic stability should be seen as a privilege that allows us to direct our economic growth towards greater social equity and ecological justice. Instead of minimising our own responsibility by pointing to our meagre size and supposed insignificance on the global stage, we must leverage on our vast wealth and technological expertise to take the lead in shifting the region’s trajectory towards real sustainable development. It’s time to stop pretending to play the ‘balancing’ act and be bold when it comes to climate action. 

Image credit: Ria Tan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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