Singapore’s Climate Paradox

This text is taken from the Courrier de la Planète of December 20, 2022. To subscribe, click here.

Singapore is stunning. Wandering the streets of its bold, leafy downtown on the day of our arrival, photographer Valérian Mazataud and I stumble upon Kampong Glam, the city-state’s historic Malay district. Restaurant terraces are overflowing with hungry tourists. A mosque with a golden dome makes the scene worthy of a postcard.

Continuing our stroll, we see from the alley behind the scenes: dozens of air conditioners, fixed to the walls, blowing the heat from the restaurants to the outside. Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Daikin — all manufacturers participate in this cooling tapestry. Discreet work, but oh so essential in this tropical city where financiers wear jackets and ties.

Why Singapore? We went there to try to grasp the lessons of urban density offered by the city-state located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. Social housing, transportation and food production are the subject of public policies and experiments that could help Quebec meet the challenges of the future.

During our 12 days there, we also understood why Singapore is nicknamed the “air conditioning nation”. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding prime minister, has already told the Wall Street Journal that the air conditioner was the most important invention of the last millennium: it allows the inhabitants of tropical countries to exercise « mental concentration », which, in time, will « narrow the gap » between hot and cold countries …

Omnipresent in Singapore, air conditioning eats up a huge part of the energy consumed. A quarter of a household’s electricity goes through it. And since 95% of Singapore’s electricity comes from natural gas-fired power stations, air conditioning — which is becoming increasingly crucial as the global thermometer reddens — contributes heavily to the country’s carbon footprint.

« For us in Singapore, climate change is an existential risk, » said Tan Hang Chong, a 48-year-old naturalist who guides us through Pasir Ris Coastal Park on a rainy Sunday morning. The government agrees with Mr. Tan: climate change poses a challenge to the national security of the country, 30% of whose territory is less than five meters above sea level.

That morning, Mr. Tan passed on his knowledge to a group of young people passionate about the environment. The small delegation, made up largely of university students, advances on an elevated wooden boardwalk in the mangrove, a forest flooded at high tide. It looks as if the trees, which spread long roots out of the muddy ground, stand on stilts. Oysters grow on their roots.

“Oh look, a swimming lizard!” exclaims Shermaine Than, a young woman from the Lepak In SG collective, which is organizing the walk in kind. The Malayan monitor waves its blue tongue and continues swimming. This juvenile individual is one of the largest species of lizard on Earth, after the Komodo dragon.

After the walk, around a meal at the Pasir Ris food fair, the young environmentalists are lucid: they explain to me that the decarbonization of their country will be difficult. There is not enough space to install solar panels. The wind is not blowing strong enough to spin wind turbines. The construction of nuclear power plants could not be done far from the population. And the purchase of hydroelectricity from other countries in Southeast Asia would threaten the territory of the populations living along the major rivers.

The solution to Singapore’s energy impasse will therefore be found through diplomacy, sobriety and ingenuity. Unraveling the crux of the problem will not happen overnight in this country at the bottom of the international climate action rankings. Nevertheless, things are starting to move. In September, the government organized a public consultation on raising its climate objectives, evoking carbon neutrality in 2050.

Until then, the country is trying to protect itself from rising waters. Dykes run along three quarters of its coast. The thin fraction of the coastline that remains in its natural state – in the form of mangroves, in particular – also plays an important role in dampening the storms that will hit increasingly hard due to the rise in sea level.

On some stretches of the coast, it is possible to recreate mangroves to protect the coast, points out Daisuke Taira, a postdoctoral researcher who is studying the potential of this approach along the coast of Southeast Asia. “I prepare a framework for decision-making. For example, where and when to plant a mangrove?” explains this thirty-year-old with a sparse goatee that we meet in the heart of another mangrove, Berlayer Creek, in the south of the country.

Our stay draws to an end. We follow Mr. Taira on the promenade that leads to Keppel Bay, an affluent district of the city-state. Luxurious yachts anchor in the marina. In the distance, the high chimneys of the island of Bukom testify to the presence of the petrochemical industry. Singapore, which plays both the “existential” climate risk card and that of petrodollars, is immersed in the full climate paradox.

To read all our reports in Singapore, click here.

These were funded with support from the Transat International Journalism Fund.The duty.

To see in video


Back to top button