Commentary: Why Singapore’s new 'absolute' climate mitigation targets could be an absolute game changer
The Singapore Government’s setting of new absolute targets is a positive step in sharpening the narrative on climate action and shaping transformation.
SINGAPORE: On a day when attention was focused on the short-term challenges to Singapore in the shape of the COVID-19 outbreak, and with DPM Heng Swee Keat also outlining the Government’s philosophy in financing long-term spending needs, another speech also sought to outline Singapore’s longer-term plans for economic transformation.
In his speech spelling out the Government’s Long-Term Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS), Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean announced the goal of capping Singapore’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030, halving it 20 years after that, and in the latter half of the century, achieving net-zero emissions.
These goals are potentially game-changing. In moving the entire structure of the Singapore economy towards meeting these objectives, the Government has painted the picture of a vastly different Singapore for our children and their children.
SHARPENING THE NARRATIVE ON MITIGATION
The evolution of Singapore’s ambitions in climate mitigation over the last decade has been notable.
In 2009, just before the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, Singapore submitted its pledge to reduce GHG emissions by 16 per cent below “business-as-usual” (BAU) levels by 2020. This target was based on a projection of what emissions would have been, without mitigation measures.
By 2015, Singapore would submit a more ambitious commitment as part of the Paris Agreement. But even then, it was framed around cutting emissions based on “emissions intensity”, or the carbon Singapore emits per dollar of GDP.
READ: Commentary: As time runs out on the climate crisis, Singapore prepares to address the cost of adapting
The target? Reducing emissions intensity by 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, and stabilising emissions with the aim of peaking around 2030. Again, this was a largely relative goal, of improving the efficiency of our carbon emissions, from 2005 levels.
The latest commitment announced by SM Teo is, by comparison, absolute. Total GHG emissions from Singapore will stop growing by 2030, and from there, it will halve by 2050.
READ: Commentary: Recycle or reduce waste? Why Southeast Asia’s ocean plastic pile has no easy answers
In absolute terms, our emissions will stop rising at 65 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents and then trend downwards to eventually reach 33 million tonnes 20 years later.
So while there will be some who will argue that Singapore can yet do more in its global contributions to climate mitigation, the fact is that the Government has painted for itself and the country progressively ambitious targets. The key will be to continually improve on these targets as technology evolves.
The move to an absolute target in emissions should also not be under-estimated. In simple terms, countries which have led the way in cutting emissions have largely been able to do so on the back of access to renewable and alternative cleaner energy sources.
In his speech, SM Teo outlined that even at an ambitious level, solar energy will likely only meet around 4 per cent of Singapore’s current annual electricity needs.
There are few other alternatives for Singapore. At least for now, it would seem. On the back of the new target are ambitious plans to tap regional power grids, and exploring other alternatives such as solar-derived hydrogen.
Underlying Singapore’s renewed commitments is what SM Teo hinted as a wholesale “transformation” in Singapore’s industry, economy and society. Looking squarely at industry, which contributes 60 per cent of emissions, SM Teo pledged to work with the sector to “make the necessary adjustments”.
As it stands, a large part of emissions from the industrial sector are from the combustion of fuel in the refining and petrochemical sector. Currently a mainstay in the Singapore economy, the imperative now will be for the Government to work closely with major players in the sector to ensure they play their part in contributing to the absolute emissions reductions.
Indeed, the larger question which will emerge in time to come is whether and how the refining and petrochemical industries will feature in the Singapore economy of 2050 and beyond. If they are here to stay, will they be global leaders in efficiency and clean technology?
Indeed, it is not just industry that will need to transform. The transport sector too, currently contributes some 14 per cent of total emissions in Singapore.
All eyes then will be on the implementation of the recently announced phasing out of internal combustion engines (ICEs) by 2040, and how far and quickly public transport infrastructure and ridership can keep up.
Within society, game-changing transformations will also be needed, if the “50-by-50” target is to be reached.
For example, building developers will have to design for a warming world, but with far lower reliance on traditional carbon-intensive cooling and air-conditioning. Individuals too will have to make significant lifestyle changes that effectively cap their carbon-emitting activities in 10 years.
The challenges are massive, but opportunities exist. For example, a key pillar of Singapore’s more ambitious commitment is to leverage technologies “which are not yet mature such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), and low-carbon fuels,” as SM Teo said.
Here, there is no reason why Singapore can only be a price-taker in adopting these new technologies. Singapore can position itself as a destination to test-bed and create climate solutions, from green finance, to CCUS and clean energy.
WHAT DOES NET-ZERO EMISSIONS MEAN?
The reality is that more can and must always be done.
Urged on by the United Nations, more than 70 countries first signed on to commitments to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 following last September’s climate action summit in New York. As it stands, Singapore has committed to reaching net zero by “as soon as viable in the second half of the century".
Reaching net zero basically means balancing off carbon emissions through carbon removal, for example, via carbon capture or carbon-offsetting, and has been a key goal in climate action. The science on the importance of the world getting to net-zero emissions is clear.
READ: Commentary: Rising temperatures, fires and floods highlight importance of understanding weather extremes
If we are to ideally limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, net-zero emissions must be attained by 2050. If warming is to be kept to below 2 degrees, then this net-zero goal must be reached by around 2070. Seen in isolation, Singapore’s contribution will look inadequate.
The point, however, is this: Singapore has already achieved and progressively built on its past commitments. It must now deliver again; and in time, strengthen them further.
The setting of new absolute targets is a positive step. The next steps are just as crucial: Not only in driving further domestic action, but also in pushing international action, for example on carbon markets to allow for carbon-offsets.
From individuals, to companies and at the international level, it is rarely too late for strengthened climate action.
Jaime Ho is Chief Editor at CNA Digital.