By PISA Program Assistant, Dr. Miriam Grinberg
With a population of over 5 million in a country smaller than New York City, Singapore boasts the seventh-largest gross domestic product per capita in the world. The country’s wealth suggests that it has the financial capacity to combat the effects of climate change (unlike previous countries highlighted in this series) and reduce its carbon footprint. Moreover, given the fact that Singapore lies only 15 meters above sea level on average – and that mean sea level in the surrounding Straits has risen at about 1.2 to 1.7 mm per year between 1975 and 2009 – ignoring the consequences of climate change could prove perilous.
This sea level rise has been accompanied by a rise in mean temperature from 26.6°C to 27.7°C between 1972 and 2014, and this is on track to increase by another 1 to 4 degrees by 2100. These higher temperatures naturally incur increased demands on energy, including in the form of greater air conditioning usage, which in turn produces harmful GHG emissions. In the case of Singapore, its rapid industrialization following its independence from the U.K. in 1963 – while providing a high quality of life for its residents (it ranks 1st in Asia in the U.N. Human Development Index) – also caused emissions to skyrocket.
As these emissions contribute to rising temperatures, so do they contribute to extreme weather events and sea level rise. Increased rainfall and flooding, in combination with SLR, means that by 2100 over 745,000 Singaporeans’ homes could be submerged. However, before then, other very real dangers exist as a result of SLR, including: the spread of vector-borne diseases like dengue fever; decreasing biodiversity; and salination of coastal reservoirs that provide Singaporeans with clean drinking water.
Given these dangers, Singapore’s government has, in recent years, engaged in campaigns to reduce emissions, conducted national studies on climate change, and constructed sea walls to mitigate SLR. As a Paris Agreement signatory, for instance, Singapore has vowed to reduce GHG emissions by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030. In addition, several national studies undertaken between 2010 and the present have resulted in changes to policy that have raised the minimum land reclamation level from 3 to 4 meters, impacted the design of new container terminals (so that they are built higher up), and led to the creation of a national network of water-level sensors that monitor flooding. Moreover, the government has increased construction of new desalination plants and reservoirs.
While these measures have not been insignificant, rising temperatures and sea levels will continue to place pressure on Singapore’s ability to balance high energy demands with its stated and written commitment to reducing emissions and protecting its citizens from extreme storms and flooding. Furthermore, as the country continues to enrich itself from the investments of companies like BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and Exxon Mobil, some experts have raised doubts that Singapore could willingly slow down its economic development in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Or, even if it did so, its contribution to worldwide emissions is so small that it would not make a huge difference.
In spite of its size, however, Singapore – as a model of socioeconomic development in Asia – can also serve as a leader in the region in the fight against climate change and, specifically, against the current and future impacts of SLR. On the other hand, with its unique political system which relies on authoritarian policies within democratic trappings (a system which has sometimes been praised its neighbors for its efficiency), this may also mean that whatever progress Singapore makes in this area may not necessarily be easy to replicate in larger, more diverse countries.