A Facade of Progress: Singapore’s Response to Climate Change

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Environment | Southeast Asia

A Facade of Progress: Singapore’s Response to Climate Change

The Singaporean government has so far prioritized economic interests over environmental sustainability.

A Facade of Progress: Singapore’s Response to Climate Change
Credit: Depositphotos

Climate change, in the words of Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is a matter of “life or death.” This summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report detailing the dire consequences of climate change in the absence of serious action, projecting future increases in global temperatures, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events of increased intensity and frequency.

As a small and wealthy city-state, Singapore has the unique ability to address the risks of climate change while maintaining its economic growth. However, the Singaporean government has so far prioritized economic interests over environmental sustainability and focused on fortifying the country against the future effects of climate change rather than trying to prevent them. Climate change poses a significant threat to Singapore’s low-lying islands, and the Singaporean government needs to take a more rigorous approach to addressing this issue.

The Singaporean government has historically pointed to its small size and lack of natural resources as a reason for why it should not have to regulate its development. Singapore is a small country; however, with just 0.07 percent of the world’s population, Singapore contributes around 0.11 percent of global emissions. As one of the wealthiest nations in the world, Singapore can and should be taking concerted action to address climate change.

The Singaporean government has been reluctant to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry, however, and has often favored short-term economic development over substantial climate action. Singapore’s economy was built on fossil fuels, with an oil and gas sector worth an estimated $80 billion today. At the opening of a chemical plant expansion in 2014, Lee reaffirmed Singapore’s ties to this industry, stating, “We must reduce our emissions, both of greenhouse gases as well as other more local pollutants… But at the same time, I want to assure all the energy and petrochemicals companies here that the Singapore Government stands fully behind them and will continue to help them to succeed.”

Statements like these make Singapore’s recent “Year of Climate Action” seem like a marketing ploy to greenwash state policies. While Singapore has recently become more involved in global environmentalism, its policies remain weak and ineffective. In 2016, Singapore ratified the Paris Agreement, which outlines a plan to restrict global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius in the 21st century. Singapore is on track to reach its 2030 targets, but analysts at the Climate Action Tracker argue that its climate policies and commitments “reflect minimal to no action and are not at all consistent with the Paris Agreement.” If all governments follow in Singapore’s lead, temperatures could ultimately rise between 3 and 4 degrees.

The future costs of Singapore’s weak climate policies are significant. The majority of Singapore is around 15 meters above the mean sea level and 30 percent of the country is less than five meters above the mean level. Climate scientists predict that if global emissions remain steady, mean sea levels will likely rise up to 1 meter by 2100. Along with increasingly extreme and frequent coastal flooding and rainstorms, these rising sea levels will endanger the lives of millions of Singaporeans. The country is also expected to experience extreme heatwaves that will threaten native plants and animals and likely incur substantial economic costs.

This year, all signatories of the Paris Agreement were supposed to update their Nationally Determined Contributions, non-binding plans that outline a country’s climate actions and targets to reduce emissions. According to Climate Analytics, Singapore was one of a number of developed countries that “failed to lift ambition at all, submitting the same or even less ambitious 2030 targets than those they put forward in 2015.” While the Singaporean government claims to have set “ambitious goals” to minimize the effects of climate change, there is a lot of room for improvement.

Rather than substantially reducing emissions, the Singaporean government has instead focused on fortifying the nation against the coming effects of climate change. Last year, the Singaporean government announced plans to invest S$100 billion (US$72 billion) in climate adaptation measures. Assistant professor at Yale-NUS College Marvin Montefrio notes, “While it is good that [Singapore] is already accepting the inevitability of the effects of climate change and beginning to find solutions to protect us from these impacts, we should still make concerted efforts to help mitigate the problem.”

As of 2021, most Singaporeans support the government’s policies on climate change. The Pew Research Center reports that 81 percent of Singaporeans believe that Singapore is doing a “somewhat” or “very” good job at dealing with global climate change. A poll last year also found that 45 percent of Singaporeans think that the government is doing “about the right amount” to reduce the effects of climate change and 8 percent believe that the government is doing “too much.”

Climate change poses a real threat to Singapore. While policies protecting the environment may come at a short-term economic loss, they are in the interest of Singapore’s long-term well-being. The Singaporean government needs to take initiative to address this crisis and set concrete, ambitious goals to reduce its emissions.