THEGREENGROK

Singapore: Labeled Asia’s Greenest City


by Bill Chameides | March 8th, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment

My stay in Singapore was filled with blue skies, as well as some research into just how green that blue is.

A look underneath the label.

Kind of Feels Like Home

Just got back from a 10-day trip to Singapore. It was my first visit to the city-state, and it came courtesy of the Earth Observatory of Singapore, who had invited me to serve on an international panel reviewing their program. The review ended on a Friday, but I decided to extend my stay over the weekend to do a little sightseeing and then drop in on colleagues at the School of Design and Environment at the National University of Singapore.

As Asian cities go, Singapore is unique. It’s a city that’s also a nation. As a nation, it’s tiny, covering only 270 square miles — a little more than three and a half Washington, D.C.’s laid side by side. And as one of the world’s major cities, it’s also relatively small with a population of only 5.4 million.

For an American, it’s an easy visit: the street signs are in English, virtually everyone speaks English, and the people present themselves as hardworking, friendly, and ready to help.

Blue Skies Smiling at Me

Another pleasant surprise was the apparent state of the environment. Compared to virtually all Asian cities I have visited of late (as well as many U.S. urban centers), Singapore’s air quality is quite good.

Despite the heat and humidity (Singapore lies a mere one degree north of the equator), the skies above the city typically show a good deal of blue. (Check out the view from my hotel room.)

Sunrise from the hotel room
The view from my hotel room just after sunrise reveals a Singapore sky with a decidedly North Carolina blue tinge.

And except for the heat index, it was easy breathing on my long Saturday hike through the city’s streets that took me from my hotel at the Ritz-Carlton to the Botanical Gardens and then to Mount Farber Park. (See orchid photo below and short slide show at end of post.)

Air Quality a Standout?

My hiking experience left me so impressed that on my return I decided to check out the statistics. And come to find out, the city-state’s air-quality data tell an impressive story. According to a February 2012 report [pdf] by the Singapore government, the city meets the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air-quality standards for ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and PM-10 (particulate pollution having sizes less than 10 micrometers). There are loads of American cities that wish they could make that claim.

Orchards rule at the Botanical Gardens
Orchids rule at the Botanical Garden, one stop on my Saturday hike through Singapore.

Turns out the story is not quite as good as Singapore’s Department of Statistics would have you believe.

One air-quality statistic not reported in the 2012 report is the level of fine particles or PM-2.5 (those particles that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller in size). But you can find that stat in Singapore’s 2011 report [pdf], which puts the levels of PM-2.5 in Singapore at just above the U.S. EPA standard, which is not all that bad. (More on Singapore’s PM-2.5 levels here.)

‘Asia’s Greenest’

Impressed by its air quality and its air-quality numbers, I decided to do a little more research and I quickly discovered that Singapore has received accolades for its environmental policies.

Most notably, it was deemed Asia’s Greenest City among 22 assessed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (an independent business of the Economist Group that does analyzing and forecasting), which reported that “Singapore … is the Index leader … the only city to achieve a well above average overall score” and speculated that “with a [gross domestic product] GDP per person of US$36,500” Singapore “can afford cutting-edge water recycling plants, waste-to-energy facilities and major investments in its transport system.” In other words, the report reasons that Singapore’s environmental success can be traced to its economic strength.

However …

When I shared my wonder at Singapore’s green status with my Singaporean hosts, the info was met with a good deal of skepticism, even disdain. It depends upon the metrics, I was told.

And yep, it turns out that Singapore’s green glow fades a good deal upon closer inspection. For example, a look at Singapore’s emissions per capita or per unit of GDP [pdf] shows they’re not all that impressive — those emissions are a good deal larger than those of most western cities as well as some of the developing world’s cities notorious for their poor air quality such as Mexico City and Hong Kong.

So how do you explain Singapore’s great air-quality statistics? It’s true that Singapore has an active program to promote air quality — “among the best in the region,” according to the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities [pdf]. But Singapore also has a powerful assist from the weather. Frequent thunderstorms and winds from the ocean no doubt make a significant difference. Singapore’s government may like to point to its policies to curtail pollution as the reason for its “greenest” status, but the luck of a favorable climate may be the major factor.

(Ironically, while it routinely gives Singapore an air-quality assist, the weather is also the source of the city-state’s worst air-pollution events. When conditions are dry and the winds are out of the southeast, Singapore can get an unhealthy dose of air pollution from the fires raging in Indonesia).

Climate Policy Challenge

And then there’s Singapore’s climate policy. A signatory of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the city-state signed onto the Copenhagen Accord committing itself to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 16 percent below business-as-usual emissions in 2020. That would mean that overall emissions would continue to increase, but just not by as much as without the cuts. And while the government has begun to adopt policies to address climate change, as with China, most of Singapore’s efforts focus on reducing carbon per unit of GDP.

At any rate I suspect these policies will be woefully inadequate without addressing the fundamentals of its carbon-intensive economy. An estimated 54 percent of Singapore’s carbon dioxide emissions come from industry, an industry that is based on shipping and oil refineries.

A colleague from the sustainability center at the National University of Singapore agreed that this is a major issue for Singapore; to address climate change, Singapore will need to reimagine its economic model to one that is not fueled by fossil fuels. As I said — kind of feels like home.

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1 Comment

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  1. Eunice
    Mar 8, 2012

    Hi, awesome article! I was wondering if you could do something similar with Hong Kong? I just read the report you linked by the EIU, in particular the section on HK (I live there) and am questioning all the ‘great’ green initiatives the EIU quotes HK have implemented, such as “no car days”, which I have never heard of… Also, I was really surprised with how they claim HK has done reasonably well with the waste and air pollution aspects, because living in HK, I’m sure although the government says things on paper, when it comes to implementation, it’s a whole different story. Thanks!

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