Notes from two recent conferences and some thoughts on Singapore's Paris climate targets

I was invited to attend the 5th Asia-International Conference in Seoul (24-25 November 2016), where speakers from nine different countries talked about national responses to climate change. It was a timely event following on the heels of the Paris Agreement and COP 22 in Marrakech, respectively. The focus of the presentations was on technology responses to cut GHG emissions, and the wide range of options discussed reflected the variety of countries represented (South Korea, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore). My own contribution focused on Singapore’s efforts to meet its pledge to reduce CO2e intensity by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030.

My presentation at the 6th International Conference on Sustainable Energy and Environment in Bangkok, three days after speaking in Seoul, put urban climate research in a larger climate change context. Cities and their growing populations are key drivers of global climatic change and in turn are vulnerable to extreme events and climatic variability. My talk focused on capabilities to observe and predict urban atmospheric processes. Such knowledge provides the scientific underpinning for actions which allow cities to contribute to the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change and better adapt to its consequences. This is a particularly pertinent topic for Singapore as a city-state.

Singapore’s position on GHG reduction was mentioned at both meetings, and there are a few issues worth highlighting in this respect:

Paris target

Singapore has adopted a GHG intensity and trajectory target under the Paris Agreement. Emissions intensity shall be reduced by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030 and emissions stabilized with the aim of peaking around 2030. What are the ramifications of this for actual GHG emissions? Emissions intensity is a ratio (kgCO2e/S$GDP), therefore two variables can be changed to reach a certain outcome. In this particular case, as long as the growth rate of the GDP (S$GDP) is larger than that of emissions (kgCO2e), the ratio will decrease. The consequence in reality is, that absolute emissions do not need to be reduced to meet a reduction target. Under the current target, absolute emissions are expected to stabilize at ~65 MTCO2e ((according to Singapore’s INDC), which is significantly higher than ~43 MTCO2e in 2005, and the 2015 emissions of ~49 MTCO2e.

Unfortunately, most people are confused by the word “reduction” in Singapore’s target, not realizing that in fact absolute emissions will keep increasing by a significant amount (20-30% by 2030 compared to today). This oversight even happened to the keynote speaker at the Bangkok meeting. He noted in his comparison of the Paris pledges for selected countries that Singapore will reduce absolute emissions (even though the table he was showing correctly referred to a reduction in intensity….).

A recent analysis presented at a C40 (of which Singapore is an Observer City) meeting concluded: “The world's big cities must collectively cut their carbon footprint nearly in half within a decade if global climate goals are to be met”. Similarly, a report entitled "Deadline 2020" by the same group outlines four urban roadmaps to a low-carbon future, tailored to different levels of wealth and CO2 emissions. For example “Cities with high per capita levels of both (wealth and CO2 emissions) …. will be expected to immediately and sharply cut carbon pollution”. This is why many cities in the developed world have ambitious CO2 mitigation plans. This is consistent with the vast majority of climate scientists who agree that GHG emissions need to be drastically reduced to achieve a global warming ceiling of 1.5 ºC (or even 2 ºC) thought necessary to avoid serious effects of climate change.

Why an intensity target?

Why then is Singapore using an intensity rather than absolute emissions target like most developed (OECD) countries have? Singapore’s position is, that having already switched from carbon-intensive fuel oil to natural gas with a lower carbon content, and with limited access to alternative or renewable energy, cutting emissions is difficult. Hence its Paris pledge is a target which can be met by improving energy efficiency, which, according to its Climate Action Plan, is the key option for reducing emissions.

Historically Singapore also did not have to cut emissions. Under the Kyoto Protocol Singapore relied on Articles 4.8 and 4.10 of the UNFCC which recognize country-specific limitations. These consider the national circumstances of developing countries, especially small island countries, countries with low-lying coastal areas, land-locked and transit countries, and countries disadvantaged in the use of alternative energy sources, amongst others.

Singapore’s position in claiming exemption under these two UNFCCC articles, and now following an emissions intensity target rather than a target that reduces emissions, should be evaluated more critically. There are pathways available going forward which can contribute to the global goal (and need) of reducing GHG emissions. Climate change is a people problem. Singapore’s climate change policy does not discuss, for example, slowing population and/or economic growth as an option to achieve a real reduction in GHG emissions. Growth does not necessarily have to be in terms of quantity (keyword “uneconomic growth” meaning the disutility of growth exceeds the utility), but rather should focus on quality or efficiency. Clearly, the full range of choices and options available need to be explored to achieve a mitigation target which more adequately reflects Singapore’s high economic capability.