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No timeline set for net zero, but Singapore on track to achieve goal: government official

09 February 2021

While Singapore has not set a specific timeline for achieving near-carbon neutrality, it is moving toward its net-zero aspirations, according to a senior government official. Speaking during a webinar on 27 January, Joseph Teo, chief negotiator for climate change at Singapore's Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment, said the city-state has included a net-zero aspiration in its Long-Term Low Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS).

The panel addressed the need for businesses to pivot existing models towards lower carbon emissions and increasing energy efficiency in their operations. The event was jointly organized by Eco-Business and the British Embassy in Manila.

Challenges for a small city-state

The challenges in achieving net zero for a small city-state like Singapore lie in identifying a timetable that is feasible for the country to carry out its aspirations, Teo said.

A few tasks would first need to be undertaken, one of which is transforming industries through the use of solar power, cleaner sources of fossil fuels, and hydrogen. But these sources, in themselves, present constraints and challenges, including issues related to supply chains and the economic viability of hydrogen supplies, according to Teo.

On October 26, 2020, Singapore signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Australia's Ministry for Energy and Emissions Reduction on low-emissions solutions. It will soon sign another MOU with Chile, Teo told the virtual audience. Singapore is also in discussions with the UK about the possibility of forming an alliance to develop a hydrogen supply chain.

Domestically, research has been undertaken to study the viability of hydrogen as a clean energy carrier, he added.

Singapore is also looking to tap renewable energy from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and in developing an ASEAN power grid, Teo said. It has begun a pilot project with Malaysia to tap renewable energy, which will eventually be extended to other ASEAN countries.

"All of these require time. There is [a] Chinese saying: 'you cross the river one pebble at a time.' Our LEDS has given us the vision to cross the decarbonized, net-zero river one pebble at a time and the difference for Singapore is we are doing it slowly but surely," he said.

Singapore has moved to the use of natural gas, which contributed to 95% of its current energy mix. "To [turn] our LEDS into a decarbonized society, we need low-emission fuel, low-emission solutions like hydrogen…. All of these are pretty nascent. That said, we are crossing this decarbonized, net-zero river one pebble at a time, investing in resources, time, and energy, using our LEDS as a start," Teo said.

Limited alternative energy options

As a nation-state of 725 square kilometers, Singapore faces limited alternative energy options. It has to build houses, airports, and ports on this tiny footprint, all of which are competing for land use, which limits solar deployment in the city, according to Teo.

"We don't have nuclear options. Wind speeds are too small to use wind on a large scale like the UK. We don't have geothermal resources, and we don't have hydro resources. The only viable renewable alternative is solar. We are tapping that source as much as we can. But ... there are some limitations. That said, we are doing as best as we can," he said.

Singapore recognizes the need to do its part in addressing climate change and has supported global efforts, as seen in a number of pledges it made over the years. It began with the pledge to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 16% below business-as-usual (BAU) levels in 2020 at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference in Copenhagen in 2009 and has since improved on that with an energy emissions intensity pledge.

Last year, Singapore enhanced its pledge further by including an absolute limitation update, which will see emissions peak at 65 million metric tons (MMt) of carbon dioxide around 2030, according to Teo. Then, it intends to cut this approximately in half to 33 MMt in 2050.

Mitigation measures

At the core of its current strategy is a carbon tax, which stands at $5/Mt and applies to all energy emitters; it covers 80% of emissions in Singapore's economy. "Many see taxes as a cost, for us, yes, it is a cost, it acts a price signals to incentivize emissions reduction across industries, but the revenue collected is also earmarked for funding energy efficiency projects. I think that is a very important point to make," Teo said.

Other mitigation measures include phasing out the use of internal combustion engines by 2040. Singapore has pledged to improve industrial energy efficiency by 1% to 2% a year. It has also set ambitious solar targets, seeking at least 2 gigawatts (GW) of capacity by 2030. "We are greening buildings; we are trying to recycle and create a zero-waste economy. We are covering all our economy and the center of our mitigation measures," Teo said.

Lessons learned from LEDS process

Singapore's experience gained from its implementation efforts has demonstrated the need for "robust institutional arrangements and technical processes," according to Teo. For instance, it has announced a pilot project with Malaysia that will kick off with 100 MW of electricity imports over a two-year trial period.

"The key point I want to underscore is, despite COVID, we are pressing ahead [with] our climate actions and are committed to rebuilding more sustainably in support of our LED aspirations," he said.

Singapore's ongoing climate actions also include a greening of its ports, towns, and wastewater sector. Plans to green its ports comprise the relocation of three ports to one location in another part of the island, installing smart grids to improve energy efficiency, and using fully electric cranes and vehicles.

It also aims to reduce energy consumption by 15% by 2030 through the use of smart lighting, solar panels, centralized cooling systems, and reducing the use of private transportation.

Singapore is expected to have 100% green water treatment operations by end of this year, when it has fully deployed solar panels at its reservoirs. It has decided to deploy solar on reservoirs to maximize the use of space due to the scarcity of land, Teo said.

With daily temperatures expected to rise by 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, Singapore will see more intense periods of rain and dry conditions, according to Teo. Singapore's mean sea level is expected to rise by up to 1 meter by 2100. Most of Singapore is no more than 15 meters above sea level.

"For a small state like Singapore, you can see how precarious Singapore will be. This assessment is based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). We are about to update this study with the AR6 report. We expect the impacts to be even more grave," he said.

Reporting by Soo Cheng Patricia Lee.

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