Singapore: Making Business Unusual The Norm

By Dawn McGregor 25 February, 2021

CWR's McGregor shows how Singapore is innovating its climate threats into building resilience & new ways of making money

Disruption from Covid has seen business as usual die and a new unusual norm sprout up, especially in the climate space; Musk offering $100mn for carbon capture & Gates promoting 100% synthetic beef
Less obvious is the work Singapore has been doing; like SG has a plan for Covid, it has a plan for climate change that came from the very top (it's not fool proof but it is a plan)
SG's big adaptation plans are shoring up food to water security as well as flood & coastal threats; it is innovating its threats into new ways of building resilience & making money

Covid disruption have seen old businesses – business as usual – die and new ones – the new norm – sprout up. An area this has been obvious is climate change, especially around reining in carbon emissions; it’s been all over the global press. In January this year Elon Musk announced he will give $100 million to whoever creates the best carbon-capture technology and then earlier this month, Bill Gates said that all rich countries should move to 100% synthetic beef.

Covid disruption has seen business as usual die & a new norm sprout up…

…especially in the climate space

Less obvious is the work Singapore has been doing. I was in Singapore for the pandemic Circuit Breaker and it became clear that it has cottoned on that business unusual is the new norm. It took a moment, but it has a plan for the virus that has kept infection rates incredibly low. It also has a climate change plan, it’s not fool proof but it’s a plan. Singapore is a city of plans that get implemented and they work. Singapore’s big adaption plans are shoring up food to water security as well as flood and coastal threats. It is actually innovating its threats into building resilience and new ways of making money. In case you haven’t been following Singapore’s climate plans, let me break them down for you.

Carbon – Reining in emissions

While Singapore is acting on multiple fronts against climate impacts, it has yet to set a net zero target and some say its climate ambitions are not aggressive or ambitious enough when compared to its peers. For example, Singapore is one of the world’s largest marine bunkering hubs but since this falls under international shipping, the emissions are not included in Singapore’s total. It is expanding its liquefied natal gas (LNG) bunkering capabilities – better for emissions than other fuels – but could it use Covid disruption to leapfrog to hydrogen? Another big emissions source are vehicles. Singapore has a plan to phase out petrol vehicles by 2040 and is promoting EVs but it operates a Certificate of Entitlement (COE) system that is valid for only 10 years, which is not inducive for growing circular economies. On the flipside, we do like:

  • Carbon tax – Singapore is one of around 40 countries globally and the first in South East Asia to implement a carbon tax, which it did at the start of 2019. The rate was set at SG$5 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions. It had been outlined that the tax would increase to SG$10-15 by 2030 but at a recent Parliament debate,18 MPs called for the 2023 review to be brought forward. And even more, it was said that the SG$10-15 is “far too low” and “some feel that it simply will not work as a way to slash emissions. The International Monetary Fund, which has one of the most conservative models out there, says our rate needs to be no lower than S$99 in 2030 to keep climate change at safe levels.”, MP Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC).
  • Electricity power generation – Singapore has made the switch (95%) from using oil to natural gas, which is the cleanest fossil fuel, for its power generation. While this is positive, given Singapore’s commitment to the climate could it do even more? Switch to renewables? It is working on it as part of it’s “4 Switches” energy plan but there are challenges with limited access to renewable energy options such as geothermal or wind power and also with harnessing solar, according to Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing.

Adaptation – Building to protect cities with no regret scenarios

Adaptation must be done in tandem with development. Realising this, Singapore has been prioritising adaptation strategies to protect its people and its economy. “Both the SAF and climate change defences are existential for Singapore… These are life and death matters.”, Prime Minister Lee, 2019. It is also willing to spend on these strategies. The Monetary Authority of Singapore said that climate change is a long-term risk that presents significant risk to financial systems and that the financial system plays a key role in catalysing the global response. Some recent key adaptation strategies to highlight include:

  • Green Plan 2030 – Released this year, Singapore’s Green Plan 2030 sets targets across 5 areas for the next ten years. It includes SG$19bn in green financing and just under SG$100mn in other funds. Separately, but also outlined in Singapore’s 2021 budget is the “Towards a cleaner & greener transport” measure.
  • Spending on adaptation – In recent years Singapore has executed various infrastructure upgrades to make the city more resilient against climate impacts, especially to tackle flooding either from freshwater or saltwater. It is raising critical infrastructure by 5m to protect the island nation (2m of SLR + 2m of tidal changes + 1m of buffer in case). In 2019 it announced it will spend SG$400 million in two years to upgrade & maintain the country’s drains and strengthen its flood resilience. In the same year it also said it will likely spend north of SG$100 billion to protect against rising sea levels. It has started by setting up a new Coastal and Flood Protection Fund, with an initial injection of SG$5 billion.

Indeed, in our recent five report series that unpacks the coastal threats for 20 key APAC cities, “CWR Coastal Capital Threat Series”, Singapore came out top (see tables below). It was a star performer across both 1.5°C and 4°C models that factored physical threats and government adaptation efforts; it was the No.1 most proactive city.

Water – Protecting water, the most vulnerable asset to climate change

Singapore has always been doing things around water and it’s been a priority for its highest government officials, and its paid off, Singapore has an advanced water management system and is global hydro innovation hub. “We are always pushing the limits of our water resources. Producing each additional drop of water gets harder and harder… We require more infrastructure, new technologies, more extensive treatment, all of which inevitably means a higher incremental cost…”, Prime Minister Lee, 2021. The government is also continually trying to reduce and make personal and industrial use more efficient. “Singaporeans also need to play our part, to use water only when we truly need to, and to make conserving water our daily way of life…”, Prime Minister Lee, 2021. See what else Singapore is doing below:

  • NEWater sources – One of Singapore’s ‘Four National Taps’ is NEWater, which was launched in 2003 and now provides up to 40% of Singapore’s current water needs and is expected to meet 55% by 2060. The NEWater process recycles treated used water into ultra-clean, high-grade reclaimed water. NEWater improves Singapore’s water security (it still imports water from Malaysia under a contract until 2061) as well as makes it more resilient to climate impacts.
  • Desalination – Another of Singapore’s ‘Four National Taps’, the city-state’s first large-scale desalination plant capable of treating both seawater and freshwater opened in Feb 2021, its fourth desalination plant overall. While desalination is a freshwater source and this plant incorporates eco-features and has turned the roof of the plant into a greenspace for the public (it’s a nice spot, I’ve been), desalination is energy intensive and so should not be a major resource.
  • Global Hydrohub – Singapore hosted the first ‘Singapore International Water Week’ (SIWW) in 2008 and has continued to do so ever since. SIWW is part of the strategic programme of the Singapore Government, which has committed SG$670 million to foster leading edge technologies and spearhead the growth of the environment and water industry. The 2018 event saw more than 24,000 participants from across the world and SG$23 billion in total value for announcements on projects awarded, tenders, investments and MOUs. Prime Minister Lee said, “Water treatment technology will keep on improving. We will surely never stop building newer waterworks and facilities, each one different and slightly better than the previous ones…”.

Food – Building food security in a changing climate

Food is another hugely impacted and key area in the climate crisis. Singapore imports more than 90% of its food and thus ensuring food security is very difficult. It is not only reliable on food produced from other countries but the logistics that mean the food can reach Singapore. However, even if Singapore’s ports and airports are resilient it won’t matter if the ones in the countries producing the food aren’t. Highly aware of this Singapore has been ramping up its food initiatives to increase its food security. Indeed, it is at the future of food:

  • 30 by 30 – Set in 2019, the “30 by 30” goal aims for almost one third of the food that Singapore needs to be home-grown by 2030. “Farmers of the future will operate computerised control systems in a pleasant environment,” said Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli.
  • Lab-grown chicken approved – Singapore authorities were the first globally to approve cultured meat. In Dec 2020, the lab grown chicken from Eat Just was approved to be sold commercially. The cultured chicken was made in Singapore and Eat Just with a partnership with a private equity firm has announced plans to build a US$120 million plant-protein factory in Singapore.

The future is clearly business unusual for Singapore and it is leading a new path that could make it Asia’s leader. As it continues, it must ensure that it is planning for where we are really going as a global collective, not just where Singapore is going or wants to be.

While SG is doing its part, it’s too small to have a global impact, everyone needs to be going unusual

Even if Singapore became carbon neutral tomorrow it wouldn’t matter in the climate crisis as Singapore is too small. It needs the bigger countries, it needs everyone, to be in. Set to host the World Economic Forum this year, only the second time it will be held outside of Switzerland and because Singapore is handling the pandemic so well, it would be an ideal opportunity to truly highlight the need for everyone to act on the climate before we pass irreversible tipping points.

Further Reading

  • Hong Kong & Asian Investors Jump On First Lever VC Asia Alt Protein Fund – Investor interest in alternative protein is at an all-time high and with a bullish Asia region. Lever VC secured USD23 million in capital. Green Queen’s Sally Ho expands
  • The Rise Of Climate Positive Food – From startups to big food companies, Green Queen’s Sally Ho shows how they are dishing out guilt-free snacks for the planet, from carbon neutral to regenerative agriculture-backed
  • Fashion Is Dead, Extreme Makeover Time – There have been 20+ bankruptcy filings in the last 6 months between brands & retailers. Surely, being broken can trigger an extreme industry makeover suggests CWR’s Dawn McGregor
  • The Water Footprint Versus The Water Handprint – Corporate water stewardship is stalling. It is time to adopt a water handprint strategy with its positive and broader impact focus, seen already in the ICT sector, says William Sarni, Water Foundry CEO
  • Dreaming Of A Regenerative Economy?  Co-founder Dr. Simon J.D. Schillebeeckx explains how Handprint helps restore threatened ecosystems one micro purchase at a time by helping companies to integrate positive impact

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Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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