“Sustainable development in Singapore is a necessity, not an ideology, a luxury, or a nice-to-have. It is a must-have”, said Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources.
Dr. Balakrishnan stressed this reality in his closing keynote address, delivered at the 4th ASEAN and Asia Forum last week.
Singapore is one of the most densely populated city-states in the world, without any hinterland or backyard it can afford to pollute, Dr. Balakrishnan noted. Unfortunately, Singapore is not well-placed to take advantage of emerging sustainable energy sources.
“Singapore almost fully dependent on imports of oil or natural gas to meet all our energy needs…our small size and our geographical location constrains us almost irrevocably,” he said.
Because Singapore is a safe harbour and tectonically stable, wind, tidal, and geothermal power are not options. Since the island is low-lying, Singapore cannot generate power through rivers and dams. It is also not possible to build many solar panels due to limited space. As a result, Singapore’s sustainability efforts focus on improving energy efficiency.
“Reducing energy usage also reduces the cost and impact of carbon emissions. Therefore we believe this is the most critical strategy for us,” Dr. Balakrishnan explained.
In line with this strategy, Singapore is spending more than $60 billion extending the rail system to incentivise the use of public transport, and also promoting green vehicles. Under the planned Energy Conservation Act, set to come into force in 2013, companies that consume more 15 GWh of energy annually will need to take energy efficiency measures.
According to Dr. Balakrishnan, maintaining a clean and green environment in Singapore is also essential to ensuring Singapore’s success.
“Companies of the future will go to where talented people congregate. And talented people congregate where they have safe and viable environments,” Dr. Balakrishnan explained, “Singapore looks after the environment, so it becomes an attractive place for businesses, companies, to flourish.”
Responding to a question from SIIA Chairman Simon Tay, Dr. Balakrishnan pointed out that cutting Singapore’s carbon emissions will not make a huge impact on the global environment, owing to the country’s small size. But for Singapore, mitigating the effects of climate change is a matter of survival, such as coping with rising sea levels.
“If resources become more limited, a more efficient economy is better off anyway,” he added, “in the case of Singapore we are not green ideologues…we are doing this because it makes sense, because it is the responsible thing to do, and guess what, it also provides a competitive edge to us.”
Commenting on Singapore’s need for water, Dr. Balakrishnan said: “With the advent of technology, we’ve been able to turn a strategic constraint to a business opportunity…Hyflux, Keppel, and Sembcorp are now going to other places of the world because there is an example of success in Singapore.”
While Singapore did not invent desalination and other water purification technologies, Singapore has taken such technology and applied into a nation-wide system. What Singapore has done with water serves as an example of other opportunities in handling energy and resources.
But Dr. Balakrishnan warned that: “As improvements in technology come about…we have to make sure people have access to the technology, that there aren’t artificial barriers to it. In the past if you wanted to have solar panels on your house and sell excess energy back to the grid, there were plenty of bureaucratic hurdles.”
However, he said the government is “rather reticent about tax incentives and subsidies”, as this requires a choice as to which technologies or projects to subsidise. “We…try to be technology-agnostic,” Dr. Balakrishnan explained, “for instance for green vehicles we do have a rebate scheme. But this is not a panacea. You could argue the incentives we give are perhaps not adequate. But…the government is not necessarily in the best position to choose…we need to be careful about unintended consequences.”
“The fact we do not subsidise energy in Singapore, even cooking oil, makes our people more sensitive to energy costs,” Dr. Balakrishnan argued. In other countries, energy subsidies mean citizens do not realise the true cost of energy, and it becomes difficult to withdraw subsidies once they are in place.
The ASEAN and Asia Forum
is an annual event organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. This year's forum was held at the Capella Singapore on Sentosa Island, with the theme "Economy, Energy, and the Environment".