Sustainable Singapore: Dream vs Reality

The city-state of Singapore is often portrayed as a utopia in terms of quality of life, economy, and sustainability. In fact, the Sustainable Cities Index 2016 ranked it first in Asia and second globally. On paper, the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint looks ideal. But environmental utopian models such as ‘eco-cities’ have poor track records when it comes to implementation. My question is: has Singapore managed to turn these environmental dreams into reality?

Singapore’s Journey Towards Sustainability

Mr. Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security, speaks about how Singapore’s founding generation had a vision of a green and sustainable nation for every citizen. With Singapore being an island nation, the country has overcome many issues related to its small land area, and lack of natural resources.

In the last 50 years, the nation has seen vast improvements in public health, housing, and sanitation. Singapore’s management system presents creative and innovative solutions to move forward sustainably. Like many modern cities, the nation has built up a homogenised financial district to enhance its competitive edge, given that banking is a key contributor to the economy. Due to the lack of natural resources in Singapore, economic growth has required integrated and long-term planning. Excitingly, prospects in Singapore sustainability could create 380 million new jobs by 2030 and contribute US$12 trillion to global GDP.

Current Sustainable Action

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Image: GlobalGoals.org

As Singapore makes its journey towards a sustainable nation, there will be constant challenges faced, even with ample planning. What actions has Singapore taken, and have management teams addressed unanticipated problems well?

Singapore’s modern sustainability plan was laid out under the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint (SSB) in 2014. One of its stated goals was to be a ‘City in a Garden’. It already has 47% green cover, and more than 80% of households are within a 10-minute walk from a green space. Sounds great, right? But let’s not forget that Singapore is 100% urbanised, with most of its forest heavily fragmented and of secondary structure. This has drastic ecological consequences for biodiversity. With Singapore having lowland tropical rainforests, a large proportion of biodiversity are interior specialists who suffer when interior habitats are lost. As well as this, connectivity is reduced among fragments – a problem that projects such as green corridors and Eco-Links have addressed, albeit with no assessment of their beneficial impacts.

The SSB states that Singapore will reduce its carbon emissions by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030, but its methodology in meeting this goal has been lacking. The implementation of a carbon tax by 2019 will help, but will it be enough?

Other long-term issues include rising sea levels due to climate change, which is especially concerning for any low-lying coastal city. Early safeguards already in place include raising the coastline, seawalls, and rocky slopes. Some have called for more natural methods of coastal protection, such as mangrove restoration, which seems an impossible idea with the maritime developments that surround Singapore.

What other advances are ongoing in Singapore? Under the SSB, action has been taken to develop 5 focal areas:

  • ‘Eco-Smart’ Towns – implementing smart technology, more green spaces and eco-friendly features in towns and homes
  • ‘Car-Lite’ – improvements to rail and bus networks while promoting cycling and walking
  • Zero Waste Nation – initiative to decrease food and energy wastage
  • Leading Green Economy – Green Building Masterplan to lead the development of green buildings and invest in solar power
  • Active and Gracious Community – all areas of society are called to come together and contribute to initiatives

Singapore and ‘Eco-cities’

Singapore has been involved in the contemporary eco-city project ‘Sino-Singaporean Tianjin Eco-city’, a collaboration with the Chinese government. Most such projects have been highly ambitious and technologically driven and led by partnerships between private and state sectors. Environmental sustainability is not the only agenda – this project also aims to grow economic relations between China and Singapore.

Often, the biggest challenges arise when insufficient consideration of local standards of living, reduces access to most urbanites who cannot afford these technological innovations. The growth of eco-cities may be limited by the realities of being profit driven and commercial planning. They face an intrinsic inconsistency between environmental conservation and the capitalist system that funds them, causing them to be judged by their economic rather than environmental performance. For example, Chinese authorities may hide behind an environmental agenda for Sino-Singaporean Tianjin, while its main concerns are likely economic ones. Ultimately, the system that supports these projects may be their downfall.

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City Investment and Development Co., Ltd (SSTEC). Image: Tianjinecocity.gov.sg.

Sustainable Business Practice Behind The Mark

Although optimistic goals have been set for sustainable businesses practices in Singapore, mid-sized firms have fallen behind their global peers. It is alarming that only 26% of these firms have prioritised sustainability as a top long-term goal. Many companies may recognise the importance and benefit of sustainability, but few have put their words into action. Mr. Alan Turner, head of commercial banking at HSBC Singapore, says that companies in Asia are just starting their sustainability journeys and are often battling an ‘uphill task’.

To improve sustainable business practices, it is suggested that companies should;

  • Seek green and cost-effective efficiencies
  • Publically agree on sustainability targets
  • Source raw materials that are environmentally-friendly

Singapore as a Leader?

With global environmental difficulties on the horizon, sustainability solutions cannot come quickly enough. But as long as economic goals are prioritised over sustainability within utopian environmental models, projects may end up compromising their initial, environmentally-friendly objectives. Singapore currently stands as a good role model for many other countries, but its structure and implementation of policy is not flawless. Most likely, it can serve as an example for other cities in some respects, while also being open to taking lessons from successful initiatives in other jurisdictions.

References

Eco-Business. (2018). The Four Pillars of Singapore’s Sustainable Development Success. [online] Available at: http://www.eco-business.com/opinion/the-four-pillars-of-singapores-sustainable-development-success/ [Accessed 15 Mar. 2018].

En.wikipedia.org. (2018). Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sino-Singapore_Tianjin_Eco-city [Accessed 24 Mar. 2018].

The Global Goals. (2018). The Global Goals. [online] Available at: https://www.globalgoals.org/ [Accessed 24 Mar. 2018].

Gov.sg. (2018). Three Interesting Facts About the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.sg/factually/content/three-interesting-facts-about-the-sino-singapore-tianjin-eco-city [Accessed 12 Mar. 2018].

Meixian, L. (2018). Singapore firms fall behind in sustainability journey. [online] The Straits Times. Available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/business/economy/spore-firms-fall-behind-in-sustainability-journey [Accessed 24 Mar. 2018].

Mewr.gov.sg. (2018). Singapore Sustainable Blueprint. [online] Available at: https://www.mewr.gov.sg/docs/default-source/module/ssb-publications/41f1d882-73f6-4a4a-964b-6c67091a0fe2.pdf [Accessed 22 Mar. 2018].

Opengovasia.com. (2018). Good Progress for the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015 | OpenGovAsia. [online] Available at: https://www.opengovasia.com/articles/6690-good-progress-for-the-sustainable-singapore-blueprint-2015 [Accessed 24 Mar. 2018].

Rapoport, E. (2014). Utopian Visions and Real Estate Dreams: The Eco-city Past, Present and Future. Geography Compass, 8(2), pp.137-149.

Tan, A. (2018). Sustainability still key, with challenges ahead. [online] The Straits Times. Available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/sustainability-still-key-with-challenges-ahead [Accessed 20 Mar. 2018].

Tianjinecocity.gov.sg. (2018). Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City, Master Plan. [online] Available at: https://www.tianjinecocity.gov.sg/bg_masterplan.htm [Accessed 24 Mar. 2018].

Xi, T. (2018). As sea levels rise, Singapore prepares to stem the tide. [online] The Straits Times. Available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/as-sea-levels-rise-singapore-prepares-to-stem-the-tide [Accessed 24 Mar. 2018].

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