Exclusive: Inside Singapore’s strategy for battling climate change

By Yun Xuan Poon

Interview with Tan Kok Yam, Deputy Secretary (Smart Nation and Digital Government), Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore.

The mythical ancient civilisation of Atlantis was engulfed by floodwaters and sank to the bottom of the ocean. This legend holds not just tales from the past, but warnings of the future as well.

Island states like Singapore could be feeling the acute impact of climate change not that far into the future. In the worst case scenario, sea levels in Singapore could rise by more than 2.5 metres by 2100, according to the Chair of Nanyang Technological University’s Asian School of the Environment.

But the country is serious about making sure it won’t become the next underwater city. It recently announced that it will halve its peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 - a target that has been called “an ambitious aspiration” by Tan Kok Yam, Deputy Secretary (Smart Nation and Digital Government) of the Prime Minister’s Office. He shared with GovInsider how Singapore is preparing for the worst, and using innovation to battle climate change.

Smart and Sustainable Nation

Technological innovations are key to meeting Singapore’s emissions targets, says Tan, given the country’s lack of access to renewable energy. Singapore’s lack of land means that it can’t afford “traditional models” of large solar or wind farms, explains Tan. Singapore has used emerging tech to optimise energy use, encourage the uptake of greener energy sources, and reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.

Buildings in Singapore are using IoT to monitor and optimise energy performance. For instance, “we are looking at optimisation not just within a single building, but across an entire residential or industrial estate.” It helps that more than 80 per cent of housing in Singapore is public housing.

Across the nation, Singapore has built a Smart Nation Sensor Platform to reduce energy wastage. This will make “our city planning and operations more responsive to the environment– turning off street lights when the ambient light is high, and planning our spaces better with environmental data, to reduce urban heat,” Tan adds.

Singapore has also created a 3D platform - called ‘Virtual Singapore’ - to identify where best to build solar panels, by assessing light and temperature variation across the country. “In this way, modelling and simulation help us optimise the amount of clean energy we can harness from the sun, in land scarce and heavily built up Singapore,” explains Tan.

Creating a seamless public transport system is another of Singapore’s initiatives in reducing the nation’s carbon footprint. “How we travel everyday – go to work, go to school – has a disproportionate impact on our individual carbon footprint,” says Tan. “To be able to limit private transport, we need to have excellent public transport.”

The government is using data to plan, adapt and inform its public transport systems. For instance, LTA and GovTech have created Reroute, an app for bus planners to understand how bus route changes would affect commuters’ experience. Bus arrival timing apps like the government-built MyTransport.SG help commuters make their journey smoothly, right down to the last mile. “With an efficient and well-planned bus network, buses operate more efficiently and consume less fuel, and commuters can enjoy time savings,” Tan says.

Rising above the challenge

As an island nation, one of the biggest climate threats Singapore faces is rising sea levels. Singapore has set aside S$5 billion to protect its coasts and guard against floods. Indeed, Singapore has already started preparing for the worst.

For instance, the new Changi Airport Terminal 5 will be built five metres above Singapore’s historical mean sea level. This terminal will cost around S$10 billion, and will be able to handle up to 50 million passengers a year.

Singapore is also looking to implement nature-based solutions, such as restoring mangrove areas and building up living shorelines, which will help to protect ecosystems and coasts from erosion. “Coastal protection is a key challenge for Singapore, but it is by no means the only issue we have to adapt to, with global warming,” says Tan.

Whole-of-government approach

Singapore takes a “whole-of-government” approach to the problem of climate change. This “ensures that our ambitions are set high, our cross-ministry efforts are well aligned, and our actions are decisive and effective,” says Tan.

This approach has resulted in a successful programme SolarNova, which encourages government agencies in Singapore to start using solar energy. The Economic Development Board funds feasibility studies for government agencies so they can find out their demand, and how many solar panels they need to install. “This is only possible with a whole-of-government approach,” he says.

Whole-of-government will also be crucial in phasing out Internal Combustion Engine vehicles by 2040. This means the government will have to make changes to policies on vehicle ownership and the energy grid, so it can provide more electric vehicle charging points, Tan says.

International collaboration

Singapore intends to boost the capacity of neighbouring countries to cope with the effects of climate change. For instance, it will give S$5 million to the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) over the next five years to strengthen ASEAN’s efforts in climate projections and adaptation planning.

Singapore has also contributed to the Southeast Asia Disaster Risk Insurance Facility (SEADRIF) Trust, which pools together of money from various countries to cushion the financial blow countries face during floods. Floods are more difficult to insure than other natural disasters, and a study found that floods in Asia could cost US$500 billion by 2050. The trust, set up with the Japanese government and the World Bank, will help Laos, Myanmar, and potentially Cambodia be more financially resilient during floods.

Since 2018, Singapore has been conducting training programmes in climate change mitigation and adaptation in the areas of climate science, flood management, and disaster risk reduction. “These programmes support the efforts of fellow developing countries, in particular the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), in building climate resilience,” says Tan.

Singapore will continue to support other ASEAN cities in becoming sustainable through the ASEAN Smart Cities Network. This means improving accessibility to resources like land and water, enhancing disaster resilience and mitigating climate change impact, Tan says.

Looking forward to COP26

This year, Glasgow will be hosting the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26). Singapore is looking forward to “[working] with other Parties to advance the momentum of global climate action” at COP26, Tan says.

“Given the urgency to cut global emissions, all Parties must play their part to advance collective climate ambition,” notes Tan. To “[demonstrate] our commitment to support global climate action”, Singapore is submitting an enhanced Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) and Long-term Low-emissions Development Strategy (LEDS) to the UNFCCC this year.

Singapore is also looking forward to tying down discussions surrounding the Paris Agreement, which is an agreement between countries to reduce emissions. “COP-26 represents an important milestone opportunity to advance the process of ensuring that Parties have certainty on the implementation rules of the Paris Agreement and will take the necessary efforts to implement their commitments,” Tan says. “We also hope to play a part in achieving agreement on a key outstanding issue, called Article 6,” which discusses how countries can cooperate to help one another achieve their emissions targets.

What would it take for an island state to protect itself from the impending threat of rising sea levels? A whole-of-government approach, international collaboration, and preparing for the worst, according to Singapore.