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Even we can't take clean air for granted

Updated On: Oct 11, 2011

In this week's featured commentary, SIIA Director Nicholas Fang and SIIA Research Analyst Henrick Tsjeng discuss the challenges in keeping Singapore's air clean.

This article was originally featured in TODAY (Singapore) newspaper on 11 Oct 2011.

Three recent events remind us in Singapore not to take clean air for granted. First, the haze from land and forest fires in Indonesia has returned. Second, a fire blazed at the Shell Bukom refinery for some 34 hours before being put out. Third, data released by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Sept 28 reveals that Singapore's air, while generally among the best in Asia, is failing in some measures, especially in the concentration of particulate matter in the air.

There is no reason to panic. Singapore's air has remained healthy except for very short periods, when the haze tipped the recorded levels to moderate. Compared to almost every other major city in Asia, air pollution levels are low.

This makes up part of the attraction and liveability of the city. Clean city air underpins so many things we take for granted like outdoor sports, walks in the park and open-air dining. It allows those with skyscraper views to see the horizon, whereas high towers in some other cities are shrouded in smog.

Clearly Singapore cannot take clean air for granted. Looking at the three events, there are different issues to be addressed.

The Bukom fire, while dramatic, is probably the easiest to deal with. Shell has one of the strongest safety records in the industry and can be expected to do all things possible to prevent a recurrence. This is especially as the fire closed down one of its most important plants in the world, costing millions of dollars.

The haze is considerably trickier and a recurring problem. Much effort has been expended since the worst fires of 1997-98 and incidences since then have been less serious. ASEAN has negotiated a treaty to address the issue and while Indonesia has yet to ratify its terms, its ministers regularly meet with its Singaporean and other counterparts.

A small breakthrough was made in 2007 when Indonesia agreed to allow officials from Singapore to work on the ground in Jambi. With continuing efforts, the haze problem may not be completely solved, but can be managed and contained.

The WHO report, however, may indicate problems that are harder to deal with.

Even without counting the haze or recent fire, Singapore as a city is failing on certain counts of particulate matter. Singapore's concentration of particles up to 2.5 micrometres in diameter, or PM2.5, was found to be 19 micrograms per cubic metre in 2009, above the WHO recommended level of 10 micrograms.

According to the WHO, PM2.5 is more dangerous than larger particles of up to 10 micrometres as the former can travel more deeply into the lungs. Exposure to PM2.5 increases the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, and reduces life expectancy.

The sources of PM2.5 in Singapore and elsewhere can be traced mainly to power generation plants and vehicular emissions. Singapore cannot do without electricity or vehicles, but the target is not zero and blunt instruments are not needed. Focus on specific issues is instead required.

Some power plants are more efficient and cleaner than others. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, power plants which use coal and oil, as opposed to natural gas, tend to emit more particulates. To reduce emissions, Singapore has enhanced energy efficiency, successfully promoted natural gas as our main source of electricity, and taken steps to promote renewables like solar energy.

We can also observe that certain kinds of vehicles emit more particulates, especially diesels. Singapore has been supporting the use of alternative fuel vehicles, such as compressed natural gas (CNG) and electric vehicles, although issues such as a lack of CNG stations have cropped up.

Nonetheless, a new electric car-for-hire scheme in Paris sets an excellent example for Singapore to follow. The scheme, known as Autolib, allows a renter to pick up an electric car at a particular location and drop it off elsewhere. This scheme promises to give electric car usage in Paris a major boost.

These solutions to reduce particulates can be allied to another environmental effort: Lowering our carbon footprint. While lower carbon does not always mean cleaner air, the two can be combined. In the effort to pilot electric cars in Singapore, for instance, the hope is to lower both PM2.5 and carbon.

Even though our track record in maintaining clean air is sound, we cannot afford to take clean air for granted. With economic growth, emissions will likely increase if nothing further is done. Steps must be taken to reduce not only greenhouse gas emissions, but also particulate matter that affects the health of Singaporeans.

Nicholas Fang and Henrick Tsjeng
About the author: 

Nicholas Fang is the director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). Henrick Tsjeng is a researcher in the SIIA.