Singapore authorities introduced a green-building programme for new projects that has transformed the city skyline, with towers and apartments draped in greenery. Picture: Wei Leng Tay/Bloomberg
Singapore authorities introduced a green-building programme for new projects that has transformed the city skyline, with towers and apartments draped in greenery. Picture: Wei Leng Tay/Bloomberg

Singapore has a reputation for planning ahead. When it comes to climate change, it's planning for the worst.

Governments around the world are struggling to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement — keeping the global temperature increase to about 1.5°C and the rise in sea levels to less than 0.5m — but Singapore is devising a S$100bn (R1.1-trillion) plan to safeguard the city against temperatures and floodwaters several times those levels.

Analysis by the Meteorological Service Singapore's Centre for Climate Research Singapore suggests that in a worst-case scenario, floods could rise by almost 4m, factoring in effects like storm surges — an increase that would submerge cities from New York to Shanghai and London if repeated globally.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called it a matter of “life and death”, an existential threat to the country as important as national defence.

Singapore has reason to worry. According to the government weather service, the city has been warming twice as quickly as the world average over the past six decades, with temperatures rising about 0.25°C per decade. It just had its hottest decade on record and if global carbon emissions keep rising at the current rate, daily temperatures could reach highs of 35°C to 37°C by 2100.

At the heart of Singapore's plan is a coastal adaptation study commissioned by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) in 2013 and submitted to the government last year. The BCA declined to provide details of the report, saying that the government is reviewing the findings, but the options for the government are expected to range from using mangrove forests to protect coastlines to flood-proofing subway stations and developing green “sponge” areas that can absorb floodwaters.

A Coastal and Flood Protection Fund will be set up with an initial S$5bn, finance minister Heng Swee Keat said in his budget in February, with S$1bn committed to research in urban solutions and sustainability, focusing on renewable energy and cooling. “If we start early and think long term, we can begin the preparation,” said Heng.

A third of Singapore, including its central business district, is less than 5m above mean sea level. The plan could ultimately involve spending billions to encircle the country in protective polders and dykes, or connecting a chain of offshore islands with barrages to create a giant reservoir.

“Is Singapore overreacting? No. Reality has so far overshot scientific projections of climate impacts,” said Vinod Thomas, visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “This is a necessary, perhaps a minimal insurance policy.”

The city is no stranger to pushing back the sea. Singapore's land area has grown more than 25%. Now Singapore wants to spend substantially over the next 50 to 100 years, on top of hundreds of millions already spent on engineering projects to prevent flooding.

At its airport, workers are paving taxiways and carrying out piling work for a fifth terminal that will be bigger than all the other terminals combined — able to handle 150-million passengers a year when completed in about 2030. Terminal 5 is being built about 5.5m above the average sea level, and will include 10km of drainage to keep runways clear.

On the other end of the island, the city is building the world's biggest container terminal at Tuas, where docks will be more than 5m above the current sea level.

To fund the defence against global warming, the government expects individual ministries to pay for smaller-scale projects from their budgets. Bigger, long-term infrastructure like sea walls and land reclamation could mean selling debt or tapping state reserves, a major departure for a nation that has traditionally financed spending from tax revenue.

The idea is to make sure each generation contributes a fair share, without burdening future generations, said a ministry of environment & water resources spokesperson.

Singapore, the world's third-richest nation by GDP per capita, can afford to pay, but poorer countries may not be able to.

Like many rich countries that built their economies on fossil fuels, Singapore's carbon footprint is sizeable. It has 0.0005% of the world's land, but contributes about 0.11% of global emissions, bigger than some countries more than 50 times its size.

Singapore has pledged to reduce emissions intensity — a gauge of carbon output per unit of economic activity — by 36% between 2005 and 2030.

Industry contributes 60% of the emissions and three-quarters of that comes from oil refining and petrochemicals, senior minister of state for trade and industry Koh Poh Koon told parliament in October 2019.

One of the most vulnerable parts of the country is Jurong Island, a flat area of largely reclaimed land just off the southwestern coast. It is one of the world's largest oil refining and petrochemical complexes, with plants owned by Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell.

It's hard to overstate the importance of fossil fuels to Singapore's economy. The city is home to the world's third-largest oil trading hub, behind New York and London, and is among the world's top refining centres. The oil and gas sector is worth an estimated $80bn (R1.2-trillion), and Singapore gets 95% of its electricity from natural gas.

The government also wants solar panels to be able to power about a quarter of households by 2030. Even so, that would only be 4% of total energy demand, up from 1% now.

With very little land for big solar farms, the government plans to install panels on the rooftops of its 10,000 public housing buildings. Power company Sembcorp Solar Singapore also aims to build one of the world's largest floating solar farms — the size of 45 football fields — on a reservoir.

Central to Singapore's hotter future is securing its food supply. Less than 1% of the island is used for agriculture and the nation has to import 90% of its food.

With land prices among the highest in the world, trying to purchase plots from the government for farming is like “asking for the moon”, said Allan Lim, who grows lettuces and basil in a greenhouse on the roof of an industrial building. The Singapore Food Agency is carrying out a study on the effect of climate change on local farms and is targeting 30% locally produced food by 2030.

The real challenge is water. Singapore has a network of reservoirs to catch most of its rainwater and is able to recycle about 40% of its water needs. By the end of this year, it will also have five desalination plants.

The government says new investments make it self-sufficient, yet it still buys imported water from Malaysia for a large part of its supply, especially during drier weather. Demand is expected to double by 2060.

Singapore has been a leader in urban design. In 2005, authorities introduced a voluntary green-building programme for new projects that is transforming the city skyline, with towers and apartment complexes draped in greenery.

As Singapore faces the prospect of having to adapt to a much warmer future, developers are now scrambling to embrace sustainability, said Richard Hassel, one of the co-founders of Singapore architecture firm WOHA. “We like the panic,” he said. “We've been panicking for 25 years.”


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