How behavioural science helps Singapore tackle climate change

By Yun Xuan Poon

The Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) shares how social science research and zero-waste efforts will prepare the nation for a sustainable future.

Harsh policies and tough crackdowns do the job, but there are more delicate ways to change behaviour.

To deter speeding, Japan built some of its highways to play music when cars drive at exactly the right speed. To reduce littering, the UK introduced ‘ballot bins’, which allow citizens to vote in fun polls with their cigarette butts.

Economists call this ‘nudge theory’. Rather than restricting choices, this approach introduces simple measures to guide people towards better decisions. Singapore has taken on this method in the design and implementation of its sustainability policies.

The Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) shares how a combination of behavioural nudges, a circular economy model and sustainable growth will help Singapore face climate change.

Social science research

MSE has turned to social science research to understand citizen motivations and discover more effective ways to encourage environmentally-friendly decisions. There are two ways this helps.

First, surveys allow the Ministry to find out Singaporeans’ perceptions on environmental issues, including household recycling behaviours and public cleanliness. MSE uses the results from these surveys to guide the design and implementation of its policies, a Ministry spokesperson shares.

Second, the Ministry investigates the motivations underlying individual behaviour, so it can “remove potential barriers to action,” it says. For instance, it looks at the factors influencing Singaporeans’ decision to buy local produce, and designs “nudges” to prompt support for homegrown food. This will help to strengthen the country’s food security. Resource-scarce Singapore imports 90 per cent of its food, according to the Singapore Food Agency, but aims to produce 30 per cent of its food locally by 2030.

The Ministry is also bringing citizens onboard to tackle environmental challenges. Last year, it invited citizens to come together and propose solutions for improving household recycling. Another team will work on lowering the excessive consumption of disposables later this year, the Ministry shares. This is a pressing issue in Singapore, which only recycled 4 per cent of its plastics in 2019, reported the National Environment Agency.

Zero-waste nation

Singapore will work towards building a zero-waste nation, and it is placing the onus of recycling and managing waste on companies. It introduced the Resource Sustainability Act, which targets e-waste, food waste and packaging waste. These three types of waste have relatively high generation and low recycling rates, MSE wrote in a press release.

The Act details how companies should manage the three types of waste. Electronic retailers with larger premises will have to set up in-store e-waste collection points. Larger companies will have to submit plans to reduce, reuse and recycle packaging to the government. Corporations that produce a large amount of food waste, such as hotels and malls, will have to segregate their food waste so it can be converted into animal feed, fertiliser, non-potable water or biogas.

These requirements encourage environmentally-conscious practices, as well as new business models based on the circular economy, from the private sector. This will be important in Singapore’s efforts to “rally stakeholders and businesses towards sustainable economic growth,” the Ministry says.

Sustainable economic growth

Another key policy for encouraging sustainable business practices is the carbon tax. To help businesses become more energy and carbon-efficient, Singapore imposed a tax of S$5 per tonne of carbon emissions in 2018. Singapore is the first Southeast Asian nation to introduce an economy-wide carbon tax with no exemptions, and it plans to increase this value to between S$10 and S$15 per tonne by 2030.

While Singapore’s carbon tax prices in 2030 will be much lower than the World Bank’s recommendation of US$50 to US$100 per tonne, rolling out the scheme gradually will likely lead to better results, wrote the Asian Development Bank. It highlighted the need for organisations to have time to prepare for compliance actions - Korea implemented its carbon pricing policy just two months after the publication of its first master plan, so many organisations were not prepared for compliance actions.

International efforts

Singapore is actively involved in international negotiations on climate change to encourage more green action. In 2018, it led ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea in reaffirming commitments to the Paris Agreement, and discussed ways to step up regional climate action.

Singapore also works with the International Civil Aviation Organization and International Maritime Organization to address greenhouse gas emissions from the international aviation and shipping industries, the Ministry shares.

International partnerships will be crucial as the world heads into more uncertainty, as Singapore learned during the Covid-19 pandemic. When countries went under lockdown, trade and food supply were disrupted - a likely scenario in a world weathered by climate change. Singapore worked with several countries in small groups and participated in regional forums to keep trade lines and supply chains running amidst the crisis.

As a nation with scant resources, Singapore has come up with creative ways to cope with the stressors climate change will bring. Behavioural science, stringent zero-waste policies, and lessons from the pandemic will bring Singapore into a more sustainable future.