Skip to main content

You are here

News & Insights

Case Study

Nov 10, 2014

Environmental and Developmental Goals Coexist in Singapore: Rewriting Old Narratives

This article was first published in CityGreen.

For the first time, Singapore is in the Top 10 of the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a global ranking of how well countries address pressing environmental issues. The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, one of the creators of the EPI, provides an overview of why Singapore garnered top marks and where it still stands to improve. 

Singapore highlights the ways in which urban centers – particularly in Southeast Asia – reframe how environmental sustainability is defined and experienced.  As a small island nation with a population of over 5 million, but a land area of only 671 square kilometers, Singapore has been forced to focus on efficient resource consumption and reuse.  Given its limited geography, Singapore has undertaken robust, integrated, and long-term land use planning measures that have made it a recognized, international leader on sustainable development. 

Leveraging high-density development and infrastructure enables urban areas to link sustainability and economic growth.  Singapore’s identity as a “city in a garden” has drawn new investors to the country, sometimes pulling them from competing economies.[i]  In the process, it has rewritten old narratives that required countries to sacrifice environmental and public health to fuel economic growth, though significant conflicts and challenges persist.

Singapore’s emergence as a global leader in environmental sustainability was bolstered when it garnered the fourth highest performance in the 2014 Environmental Performance Index (EPI).  A joint project between the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University, the 2014 EPI ranks 178 countries, whose combined populations represent 99 percent of the global population.  The Index scores national environmental performance across two overarching categories: the protection of ecosystem vitality and the protection of human health from environmental dangers.  In addition to enabling countries to compare their progress to other nations, the EPI also tracks each nation’s progress in the rankings over time. 

Strong scores in climate and energy, water and sanitation, and wastewater treatment contributed to Singapore’s rise in the rankings.  However, biodiversity protection lagged behind the nation’s other indicators.  Singapore ranked 109th out of 178 countries in terms of terrestrial and marine protected areas, and received a score of zero, indicating insufficient or incomplete reporting, for its fisheries management.  Despite strong internal air quality standards, transboundary pollution from Indonesia and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia,[ii] creates major environmental and public health risks.  As it meets these challenges, which fall outside the traditional scope of urban environmentalism, Singapore has an opportunity to expand its environmental leadership within Southeast Asia. 

Energy and Climate

The EPI considers trends and changes in carbon intensity, and the trend in carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt hour (kWh) to compile each country’s climate and energy score.  The rankings also take each country’s economic and industrial development into consideration, using the World Bank’s Gross National Income per capita to weight low-income, middle-income, and high-income countries’ scores differently. 

The scores for high-income countries, like Singapore, focus on trends in carbon intensity, or, in other words, on these nations’ ability to reduce carbon emissions from energy consumption, transportation, industry, and electricity use.  In contrast, middle-income countries, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, China, and Vietnam, are scored primarily based on the rate at which their carbon intensity growth has slowed, since they must continue to develop while gradually moving toward more sustainable energy sectors.  (More details on the methodology are available at www.epi.yale.edu.)   

Over the past decade, Singapore’s trend in carbon intensity has decreased significantly.  This achievement propelled it to a second-place ranking in this category, just behind Papua New Guinea, and ahead of countries traditionally seen as clean energy leaders.  Sweden ranked 8th in this category, just ahead of Norway (in 10th place), Iceland (in 13th place), Denmark (in 15th place), and Germany (in 31st place).  Australia and New Zealand, which share the South Pacific region and a high-income Gross National Income category with Singapore, ranked 71st and 28th, respectively.  The top 10 finishers also included several European countries, specifically, Switzerland, Albania, Spain, and Portugal. 

Singapore’s cityscape represents both the scope and ingenuity of the nation’s work to reduce its carbon footprint. 

Like many of the Scandinavian countries that share high EPI scores in this category, Singapore’s small size and demanding climate shape its approach to energy efficiency. However, while Iceland and Norway’s landscapes enable them to harness geothermal heat or hydropower, Singapore’s small geographic size limits its ability to draw on renewable industries.  Instead of solar, wind, or nuclear power, energy efficiency drives Singapore’s carbon reduction strategy.  A creative mix of supportive and regulatory initiatives across its energy, industry, and transportation sectors enable the nation to emerge as a leader through this approach. 

Singapore’s cityscape represents both the scope and ingenuity of the nation’s work to reduce its carbon footprint. The 2009 Sustainable Singapore Blueprint set a number of ambitious environmental targets, including a goal of certifying 80 percent of its buildings as energy efficient by 2030.  The Green Mark Certified rating system, along with the allocation of $100 million to retrofit existing buildings, makes this goal feasible and accountable.[iii]  Since launching the Green Mark Certification system in 2005, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) has certified 1,534 new and 215 pre-existing buildings.[iv]  In total, these certified buildings cover more than a fifth of the country’s gross floor area.[v] 

Like many of Singapore’s successful environmental initiatives, this strategy also delivers significant financial benefits.  Green Mark’s energy efficiency standards cut a building’s operational costs by an average of 11.6 percent – and boost its capital value by an average of 2.3 percent.[vi]  This economic incentive, along with the certification’s focus on energy use in tropical climates, may explain Green Mark’s rising profile in Southeast Asia, China, and parts of tropical Africa.  Green Mark is also gaining ground in places, such as Malaysia, where it must compete against local certification systems.[vii]     

In addition to promoting energy efficiency in the commercial sector, a number of strategies target carbon use within industry.  The government provides no energy production or consumption subsidies, and introduced the 2013 Energy Conservation Act to increase energy efficiency.  In addition to regulating emissions, this legislation builds capacity to increase energy efficiency, by asking businesses to self-monitor.  It requires the approximately 170 companies that consume more than 15 gigawatt hours per year implement a three-part plan to:

(1) appoint an energy manager;

(2) monitor and report energy use and greenhouse gas emissions; and

(3) submit energy efficiency plans.[viii]  

The most successful strategies and transformations are shared through the National Environmental Agency’s Energy Efficiency Circle Programme.  Using data as a centerpiece of this act enables Singapore to simultaneously set and support efficiency goals.

Singapore’s transportation goals also leverage data to support both individual and nation-wide environmental action.

Singapore’s transportation goals also leverage data to support both individual and nation-wide environmental action.  One of the only countries to successfully implement a vehicle quota, Singapore plans to continue reducing its vehicle population, to 1.2 million vehicles by 2020 – a cut of nearly 40 percent from 2009 levels.[ix]  The rollout of the Fuel Economy Labeling Scheme (FELS) – which provides car consumers with fuel economy information – enables drivers to reduce the fuel costs and footprint of remaining vehicles.  An increase in the service areas and linkages between existing public transportation options also helps facilitate this transition away from car-dependent travel.  Since Singapore’s transportation sector accounts for approximately 13 percent of its overall energy consumption, and 50 percent of the fine particles (including the dangerous fine particulate pollution or PM2.5) in the air,[x] these changes have promising implications for both carbon emissions and public health. 

Water and Sanitation and Wastewater Treatment

Singapore also emerged as a leader in categories that focused on the nexus between public health and water management.  Along with 20 other countries, it achieved a rank of one in both the water and sanitation and wastewater treatment categories.  In its scores for access to drinking water and to sanitation, the nation performed 17.09 percent better than countries with similar levels of GDP, and 99.2 percent better than other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The 2014 report marks the first year that the EPI assessed wastewater treatment, an indicator with strong impacts on both ecological and human health.  This category measures the country’s wastewater treatment, as function of its wastewater volume and total population.  On this metric, Singapore performed 65.55 percent better than its economic peers, and 100 percent better than other Asian-Pacific countries.

Singapore’s strong water, sanitation and wastewater scores reflect an increasing drive towards self-sufficiency.  As with energy, Singapore’s small geographic area necessitates a strong focus on efficiency and conservation; despite frequent rainfall, limited land area prevents the country from storing large amounts of water. Tensions over the future of Singapore’s current water-sharing agreement with Malaysia also heighten the desire to reduce the need to import this vital resource.  As a result, Singapore’s strong water sanitation and wastewater treatment scores emerge from the country’s holistic commitment to water conservation and re-use.  

Highly reclaimed purified water, branded “NEWater” by the Public Utilities Board, makes up one part of a four-pronged water source plan.  In addition to relying on reclaimed, imported, and desalinated water, Singapore is one of a few countries harvesting urban storm water at a large scale, to augment its water supply.[xi] The 2001 transfer of sewage and drainage responsibilities from the Ministry of the Environment to the Public Utilities Board gave this agency oversight of the nation’s overall water cycle.  This bird’s-eye view enables the Board to identify and act on these kinds of linkages and synergies, [xii] transforming “vulnerability to strength.” [xiii]

This big-picture perspective extends to the implementation of Singapore’s water infrastructure.  By relying on metering and on frequent inspections and repairs of infrastructure, Singapore has cut its rate of unaccounted-for-water loss – water leaked from pipes and infrastructure – to five percent.  In comparison, many countries’ rates fall between 10 and 30 percent.[xiv] Singapore’s attention to human behavior also expands the nation’s capacity to preserve its water supply.  A range of water conservation programs encourage households and industries to reduce their water use; these initiatives aim to lower per capita domestic consumption by five liters per day before 2020.[xv]

Singapore’s response to water scarcity recasts wastewater as a developmental asset, rather than a burden.  Its merger of environmental and economic goals may offer valuable models for emerging cities looking to maximize the return on their infrastructure.  The scale of urban areas multiplies even small efficiency gains, justifying this kind of sustained focus on all of the components that influence a water supply chain.  However, while Singapore stands as proof of the value of wastewater management, it also demonstrates that a country’s governing capacity forms a crucial part of this infrastructure. As water becomes increasingly valuable, changes in household and industrial resource use may become an increasingly important part of water management portfolios.  

Singapore’s response to water scarcity recasts wastewater as a developmental asset, rather than a burden.  

Emerging Challenges

While dense urban areas offer tremendous opportunities for efficient resources use, they can also concentrate and magnify the impact of human populations on the landscape.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Singapore’s urban character creates a number of risks for its wildlife.  While four nature reserves and 18 nature areas protect the island’s significant biodiversity, direct competition for land use, as well as indirect impacts from pollution, habitat fragmentation and degradation, pollution, and competition from invasive species, still threaten flora and fauna.[xvi]  Poaching has also emerged as a growing concern, as wild boars and ornamental birds are caught for food, or sold to pet shops.[xvii] 

The nation’s impact on its natural species extends to the sea.  Along with 57 other nations, Singapore received a score of zero on the EPI’s fisheries indicator, reflecting incomplete or insufficient data, and mirroring a very poor global performance on this issue.  Without strong baseline data, implementing and monitoring the recovery of fisheries has proven extremely difficult, putting a vital source of food and economic security at risk.     

In addition to concentrating environmental impacts, cities increasingly concentrate wealth, sitting at the center of complex supply chains that cross geographic boundaries.  This move towards regional and global economies often pulls the causes and effects of environmental challenges apart.  For instance, Singapore’s air quality increasingly reflects transboundary pollution from Indonesia and Malaysia, in addition to emissions from within its borders.  Over the summer of 2013, smoke from illegal fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra pushed Singapore’s Pollution Standards Index to 371, topping the previous 1997 record of 226.  Health officials consider pollution levels above 300 hazardous to health, and the poor air quality closed airports, schools and other city activities.[xviii] 

While Singapore urged Indonesia to take action to curb the fires, Indonesian officials argued, “Malaysia and Singapore deserve[d] part of the blame because their companies control many of the palm oil plantations where the burning takes place.”[xix]  A mix of diplomatic discussions and joint monitoring tools are laying the groundwork for a regional approach to these challenges.  The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution and a joint haze monitoring system represent “small, but positive, steps forward in regional efforts to tackle transboundary haze.”[xx]

This crisis also prompted Singapore to act on its own, by incorporating particulate matter of 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5) into its Air Pollution Index.  This pollutant, which has been linked to increased respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, emergency department visits, and deaths,[xxi] is released through combustion, and emerged as a major source of uncertainty and concern during the June 2013 fires.  The National Environmental Industry added PM2.5 as the sixth component of the Air Pollution Index in April of 2014.  Its inclusion reflects the regional determination of air quality, as well as the importance of data in helping citizens adjust to unfamiliar environmental threats.     

Singapore’s dense urban character shapes its innovative environmental solutions, but also presents ongoing challenges.  The country’s continued leadership in urban environmentalism may turn on its ability to apply the resourceful and data-driven approach that works well within its borders to challenges outside of them.  The importance of working regionally comes at an opportunity-rich time.  Forty percent of people in the Asia-Pacific region already live in cities, and the United Nations estimates that this figure could grow to two-thirds by 2050.[xxii]  Singapore’s expertise in melding environmental and developmental goals could offer a promising starting point as the region works together to envision a sustainable future. 

Amy Weinfurter is a Masters of Environmental Management candidate (MEM’15) at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She works as a Research Analyst at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

 

[i] Heng, Lye Lin.  “A Fine City in a Garden – Environmental Law and Governance in Singapore.”  Singapore Journal of Legal Studies, 2008: 68-177. 

[ii] Quah, Euston.  “Transboundary Pollution in Southeast Asisa: The Indonesia Fires.”  National University of Singapore, Singapore.  World Development 02/2002; DOI:10.1016/S0305-750X(01)00122-X

[iii] Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, Singapore.  “Chapter Four: Live – A Sustainable Way of Life.” Accessed April 8, 2014.  http://app.mewr.gov.sg/data/ImgCont/1299/Chapter04-LIVE.pdf

[iv] Ives, Mark.  “Singapore Takes the Lead in Green Building in Asia.”  Environment360, Yale University.  Accessed March 18, 2014.  http://e360.yale.edu/feature/singapore_takes_the_lead_in_green_building_...

[v] Ives, Mark.  “Singapore Takes the Lead in Green Building in Asia.”  Environment360, Yale University.  Accessed March 18, 2014.  http://e360.yale.edu/feature/singapore_takes_the_lead_in_green_building_...

[vi] Ives, Mark.  “Singapore Takes the Lead in Green Building in Asia.”  Environment360, Yale University.  Accessed March 18, 2014.  http://e360.yale.edu/feature/singapore_takes_the_lead_in_green_building_...

[vii] Ives, Mark.  “Singapore Takes the Lead in Green Building in Asia.”  Environment360, Yale University.  Accessed March 18, 2014.  http://e360.yale.edu/feature/singapore_takes_the_lead_in_green_building_...

[viii] Ghadialy, Shar.  “Singapore’s Energy Conservation Act – What It Means For Companies.”  Green Business Singapore.  Published March 27,2013.  Accessed April 19, 2014. http://www.greenbusiness.sg/2014/03/27/singapores-energy-conservation-ac...

[ix] Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, Singapore.  “Chapter Five: Commute – Cleaner, Greener, and More Convenient Travel.” Accessed April 8, 2014.  http://app.mewr.gov.sg/data/ImgCont/1299/Chapter04-LIVE.pdf

[x] Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, Singapore.  “Chapter Five: Commute – Cleaner, Greener, and More Convenient Travel.” Accessed April 8, 2014.  http://app.mewr.gov.sg/data/ImgCont/1299/Chapter04-LIVE.pdf

[xi] Public Utilities Board, Singapore.  “The Singapore Water Story.”  Accessed April 19, 2014.  http://www.pub.gov.sg/water/Pages/singaporewaterstory.aspx

[xii] Tortajada, Cecilia.  “Water Management in Singapore.”  June 2006.  Water Resources Development,

Vol. 22, No. 2, 227–240.

[xiii] Public Utilities Board, Singapore.  “The Singapore Water Story.”  Accessed April 19, 2014.  http://www.pub.gov.sg/water/Pages/singaporewaterstory.aspx

[xiv] Public Utilities Board, Singapore.  “Unaccounted-for-Water.” Accessed April 19, 2014. http://www.pub.gov.sg/general/watersupply/Pages/UFW.aspx

[xv] Public Utilities Board, Singapore.  “The Singapore Water Story.”  Accessed April 19, 2014.  http://www.pub.gov.sg/water/Pages/singaporewaterstory.aspx

[xvi] National Park Board, Singapore.  “Fourth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity.”  Accessed April 19, 2014.  http://www.cbd.int/doc/world/sg/sg-nr-04-en.pdf

[xvii] Carter, Simon.  “Illegal Poaching in Singapore Nature Reserve.” Care for the Wild.  Accessed April 19, 2014.  http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://right-touris...

[xviii] Mullany, Gerry.  “Pollution in Singapore Hits Record Level.”  The New York Times.  June 20, 2013.  Accessed March 18, 2014.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/world/asia/pollution-in-singapore-hits...

[xix] Mullany, Gerry.  “Pollution in Singapore Hits Record Level.”  The New York Times.  June 20, 2013.  Accessed March 18, 2014.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/world/asia/pollution-in-singapore-hits...

[xx] Kotwani, Monica.  “No agreement on concession maps at haze meeting.”  April 2, 2014.   Channel NewsAsia.  http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/no-agreement-on/1056762....

[xxi] New York State Department of Health.  “Fine Particles (PM 2.5) Questions and Answers.”  Accessed April 24, 2014.  https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/indoors/air/pmq_a.htm

[xxii] Ives, Mark.  “Singapore Takes the Lead in Green Building in Asia.”  Environment360, Yale University.  Accessed March 18, 2014.  http://e360.yale.edu/feature/singapore_takes_the_lead_in_green_building_...