Friday, June 20, 2014, 10:15
Singapore model sets global standard

Singapore model sets global standard
Singapore’s achievement as one of the world’s greenest cities is the result of careful government planning and the active participation of its people. (AFP)
By most measurements, Singapore is among the cleanest, greenest cities, not only in Asia but in the world.

The city-state has earned this reputation through careful government planning and investment over decades with a population keen to embrace the concept of living in a sustainable environment.

Being a small city-state, Singapore has been in an ideal position to implement its policies.

“Because of its size, it is easy for Singapore to make top-down (decisions for) urban development,” says Steffen Lehmann, professor of sustainable design and behavior with the University of South Australia.

“It makes things a lot easier, while larger countries are in a very different situation,” says Lehmann, who was a consultant with the Singaporean government for 10 years.

He says although the transformation of the city-state into a sustainable green environment was not easy, it is “still a work in progress”.

“Policies are one thing but the big job is changing people’s behavior.”

Today Singapore is a regional and global leader when it comes to sustainability.

The Asian Green City Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit consistently puts Singapore at the head of the region.

In all eight categories featured in the index — energy conservation, land use and buildings, transport, waste management, water, sanitation, air quality and environmental governance — Singapore is above average.

With a GDP per person of over $36,000, Singapore is well placed to afford cutting-edge water recycling plants, waste-to-energy facilities and major investments in its transport system.

Earlier this month, Singapore set a new Guinness World Record for having the world’s largest vertical garden, at 24 stories high.

Covering 2,289 square meters, the vertical garden is a feature of the Tree House condominium and is expected to contribute to savings of more than S$500,000 ($399,900) a year as it helps the building to use less energy and water.

The Tree House developer said the vertical garden reduces the condominium’s carbon footprint by filtering pollutants and carbon dioxide out of the air.

It also reduces the building’s heat absorption to such an extent that residents whose homes are insulated by the green wall could see air conditioning energy savings amount to between 15 and 30 percent.

Sustainable strategies

In a speech last month, Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s minister for the environment and water resources, said: “If you look at the essentials of life — food, water, education, entertainment, jobs and culture — the unit cost of providing all of these is actually cheaper and lower in a dense city than it is in a rural countryside.

“So a well-planned, dense connected city is the most sustainable way of life for human beings.”

Balakrishnan noted that around half of the world’s 7 billion population now lives in cities. In the next 20 years, that proportion will increase to 70 or 80 percent.

“So the future of humanity is actually in the city and if you understand that, then you will understand that in fact Singapore has a tremendous opportunity because we are a city-state,” he said.

“Our agencies are focused on generating solutions for providing water, electricity, services, jobs, education, entertainment and opportunities in a city. If we do it right, that becomes a model which the rest of the world will look at.”

Balakrishnan also noted how Singapore used to be a place with a “strategic vulnerability” because of water.

“We still do have vulnerability,” he added. “But because of that, we took reverse osmosis and in the space of ten years, from zero percent, the public utilities board today can supply slightly more than half of our water supply through reverse osmosis. (By) desalinating water from the sea and recycling used water, we have created the ability to generate a solution to an existential threat.”

Lehmann from the University of South Australia says Singapore’s success has been built on decades of good government leadership and the ordinary people he describes as “champions” who work tirelessly on the green city agenda.

The city-state is already leading the way in water management and district cooling; integrating biodiversity and vertical greenery into the urban context; and in developing affordable public transport systems, he says.

Making public transport the backbone of development has proven to be a good strategy in that it reduces private car use, he adds.

While Singapore has had an enviable recycling program in place for well over a decade, one area it falls down on is the recycling of food waste.

Renee Mison, CEO of food recycling company Eco-Wiz, told the environmental website Eco-Business recently that food waste recycling was not a priority for some food and beverage outlets in Singapore.

“Some operators feel the effort to reduce food waste is not directly related to their performance or productivity. To them, it’s something good, but it’s not something they have to do now,” she said.

“It’s basically our culture,” Daniel Ang, president of the Association of Catering Professionals Singapore, said in the same interview.

“We just dump everything; throw (food away). Nobody collects it for recycling,” he added.

Singapore should be leading the way on biomass (including plant and food waste), through composting programs designed to produce energy and fertilizer, according to Lehmann.

He says more than 40 percent of waste in Singapore is organic.

“Due to cloud cover and a lack of wind, solar and wind power are lacking in cities close to the equator, such as Singapore,” Lehmann says.

“Where there is a relatively high amount of green space and many people concentrated at one point, there is lots of biomass to be collected and used. We cannot look at waste in isolation but must see it as part of integrated urban planning.”

Urban farming is an exciting concept, Lehmann says, as it allows cities to produce their food locally, without the large greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and processing.

Another area Singapore should reconsider is its greenhouse emissions target, he adds.

Although it has set a target of 11 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, “it is too modest”.

“Instead of just aiming to achieve minimum compliance, there must be a more integrated and ambitious approach with a greater sense of urgency,” he says.

Maintaining standards

National Environment Agency (NEA) chief executive Ronnie Tay in an interview with Eco-Business said: “Despite the country creating and maintaining a clean and livable environment, it is still a pressing challenge given the current rapid urbanization.

“This has led us to look at innovative ways to sustainably manage our waste problems at the beginning of our nation building,” he said, noting that Singapore now has “one of the most cost-effective waste collection and disposal systems in the world”.

Last year, 60 percent of Singapore’s waste was recycled, 37 percent was incinerated and 3 percent went to a landfill, according to NEA data.

Amy Leung, Southeast Asian director of urban development and water division at the Asian Development Bank, said in a recent commentary: “While recycling helps to manage solid waste, reducing consumption and minimizing waste should be our ultimate goal.

“By minimizing waste we reduce demand for landfill space, save resources and energy, reduce pollution, and increase the efficiency of production.”

Leung noted that it is a moral imperative for people to be more mindful of waste each time they make purchases.

“Do we really need all those disposable plastic bags, plastic cups, and plastic bottles? Is it absolutely necessary to have fancy product packaging?”

Waste minimization is difficult to achieve, she added, as it requires a change in mindset, or in some cases, changes in culture.

“After all, for any real change to take place there must be a revolution, which really begins with a collective change of perception. The people have to want it. And therein lies the challenge,” Leung concluded.