Singapore struggles to make itself more resilient to global warming

By Violet Law | 04/10/2015 08:02 AM EDT

SINGAPORE — As a small, low-lying island nation in the tropics, this is among the most vulnerable places in the world to climate change, but Singapore has been working hard at adaptation since 2007.

That was the year the country became alarmed by ominous sea-level rise predictions in the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While it was just another prediction to some nations, the report prodded Singapore to organize itself for a long and perhaps severe set of challenges. It formed a national climate change secretariat and placed it directly under the purview of its prime minister.

Sonny Chioh
Standing in a tree-filled shopping mall atrium he designed without air conditioning, architect Sonny Chionh works to make Singapore’s buildings greener. | Photo by Violet Law.

That led to a blueprint to protect Singapore against climate change over the next 50 to 100 years. For a country of 5.5 million people located on a sandbar, with almost no natural resources and with a history of domination by Britain, that would seem like a daunting challenge, but Singapore is not like most island nations. Its bustling seaport has made it one of the richest nations, per capita, in the world. It has a highly educated population and a government used to getting results.

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It has become a major financial center and an incubator of green technology. Its aim is to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 16 percent below business-as-usual levels by 2020. Interestingly, the money it needs to get there comes partly from fossil fuels.

"Singapore is built on oil money — we can’t dispute it," said Melissa Low, a research associate at the Energy Studies Institute of the National University of Singapore, as she peered at the tangle of oil refineries at the industrial park visible from her office window. "But we aren’t delusional, and we do what we can, given all the constraints."

Singapore currently derives nearly 90 percent of its energy from natural gas, while waste incineration generates 3 percent of electricity. With little wind and no geothermal sources, and much of the coastal areas accounted for by shipping activities, the country finds that its only renewable energy option is solar.

Where to put solar arrays?

Nothing about this option, though, has been easy. Contrary to popular belief, diffuse sunlight in the tropics doesn’t lend itself to optimal power generation. Much of Singapore is a high-rise jungle with few open spaces for solar arrays. It started in 2007 by squeezing one solar complex into its airport.

In 2011, it put a floating array of photovoltaic (PV) panels on one of its reservoirs. Last year, it began putting PV on the rooftops of publicly funded housing, and it has begun leasing private rooftops to provide more space for the effort. As solar power gets cheaper, Singapore hopes to use it to supply 16 percent of its electricity.

Singapore began studying how much carbon dioxide the island’s shade trees absorbed, and in 2013, it established a climate change research center with a university in the United Kingdom to help study how Singapore’s climate was changing and becoming riskier.

It found that in recent years, the country’s rainfall patterns have become more volatile, which could bring more flash floods. As for sea-level rise, it found that only 70 to 80 percent of Singapore’s coastline is protected against flooding by sea walls and stone embankments, with the remainder fringed with beaches and mangroves. In the long term, rising sea levels may become an existential threat. A coastal adaptation study is expected to be completed by 2017.

Promoting energy efficiency and reducing existing greenhouse gas emissions are other parts of Singapore’s planning. In its latest budget unveiled in February, Singapore renewed the tax rebates, first introduced in 2012, on fuel-efficient cars. By the end of 2017, all diesel vehicles are required to adopt the latest emission standards set by the European Union that further reduce nitrogen oxides pollutants and fine particulate matter.

In Singapore, that doesn’t get you very far, because high-rises are bigger energy guzzlers than cars. It has become an Asian leader in devising new green building standards, much like the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards. Singapore’s "Green Mark" system rates buildings based on energy efficiency, water efficiency, environmental protection and indoor environmental quality.

Existing law requires all new buildings with gross floor area of more than 21,500 square feet to achieve a Green Mark certified rating. Currently, just under 25 percent of Singapore’s total building stock is certified. By 2020, all public buildings and older buildings with a minimum gross floor area of 161,000 square feet will be required to meet Green Mark standards. By 2030, the goal is to have at least 80 percent of the country’s buildings certified as green.

Cutting energy for elevators and air conditioning

"Our greatest challenge is to green existing buildings," explained John Keung, CEO of Singapore’s Building Construction Authority. Given that the majority of its commercial buildings were built between the 1970s and the early ’90s using old codes and technologies, that’s not a small task.

But Singapore has come up with some imaginative ways to do it. Energy regeneration elevators are being introduced to existing buildings that can result in 20 to 35 percent in energy savings compared with conventional lifts. Whenever they go up with a lighter load and come down with a heavier load, the elevators convert the excess energy into electricity and feed it into the building’s electrical system.

The biggest challenge for Singapore’s architects will be air conditioning systems. In the tropics, they can absorb as much as 50 to 60 percent of a building’s total energy needs. A more efficient system could provide a payback for building owners as early as three to seven years. Some architects are even looking into doing without air conditioning, a change that seemed unthinkable until recently.

A leading green-building architecture firm, RSP Architects Planners & Engineers, completed Westgate Mall in December 2013 with a naturally ventilated atrium. Enveloped by 4-story-tall green walls and planted with palm trees at the base, the atrium is cooled mostly by cross currents. Only when temperature sensors hit above 92 degrees Fahrenheit do big fans turn on to draw hot air out.

The design has resulted in 30 to 40 percent savings in energy consumption. The project’s lead architect, Sonny Chionh, said the developer, CapitaLand, which is the country’s largest, was skeptical at first, but in the end, computer models made a convincing case that it would work.

"It took some pushing on my part," Chionh said, "but not too much persuasion."

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