…by clinging to its official developing country status, Singapore has continued to refuse to accept any obligation to reduce absolute emissions. In fact, its declared emissions target is for a substantial increase in emissions over 1990 levels. This is because its goal of reducing the carbon intensity of the economy–the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per dollar of GDP–by 25 per cent from 1990 to 2012 is consistent with a substantial increase in absolute emissions, given that the economy has grown at far higher rates than the targetted annual average decline in carbon intensity. By 2004 the carbon intensity target had already almost been met, which was consistent with the recorded doubling of absolute emissions between 1990 and 2000, and an increase of per capita emissions by over 50 per cent in the same period (Earthtrends 2005).
There appear to be two major reasons for Singapore’s accession to the Kyoto Protocol: a desire to protect the country’s international image and to benefit from the economic opportunities that the protocol opens up. Singaporean officials and others associated with Singapore’s environmental policy may also be inspired by a sincere wish to address the problem of global climate change, and may see accession as a useful first step in giving the issue a greater national profile. This has certainly occurred, but such concerns have yet to produce a policy shift that would contemplate absolute emissions cuts or non-voluntary measures.
Consistent with… explicit statements that Singapore wants to be seen to be acting responsibly is the effort expended in presenting Singapore’s environmental record as a shining example of environmental responsibility and sustainable development. This involves more than highlighting Singapore’s real accomplishments in areas such as pollution control, the management of vector borne diseases and tree planting. It also involves obscuring or omitting Singapore’s record on issues where its performance is poor by international standards. Climate change is one such area. The selection of improving the carbon intensity of the economy as a target, for example, is a way of presenting Singapore’s policy as an “improvement” when in fact it allows for very substantial increases in emissions, albeit at a slower rate than would have occurred had the intensity not increased. In discussions of climate change and energy policy in official documents and speeches, Singapore’s actual trend of rising emissions is almost always omitted. While Singapore’s emissions as a percentage of the world total (around 0.2 to 0.3 per cent) is often mentioned, speeches and documents such as the Singapore Green Plan 2012 never mention Singapore’s high per capita emissions. At 15.2 metric tonnes per capita in 2000, Singapore’s per capita emissions were well above the developed country average of 11.2 tonnes, making Singapore the sixth highest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide in the world (Earthtrends 2005).
While Singapore’s record in managing pollution and maintaining a green environment is very good for an industrialized city-state, the kind of environmentalism espoused by its policymakers is conditional. The government’s approach to environmental protection is dominated by concerns for human health and a desire to present Singapore as a pleasant destination for tourists and expatriate professionals, who are targetted to play a substantial role in the economy and whose preferences for a superficially green environment are therefore reflected in efforts to maintain the aesthetic appearance of Singapore as a “garden city”. Indeed, the progenitor of the garden city initiative, Lee Kuan Yew, has explained that “clean and green Singapore” was intended as a strategy to distinguish Singapore from its neighbours in the eyes of foreign businesspeople and tourists (Lee 2000, pp. 173-74). As noted in a study of Singapore’s environmental ideology, economic necessity and a desire to develop the tourist market, not ecological principles, were behind initiatives such the “garden city” campaign and the decision to sign the global treaty banning trade in endangered wildlife (Savage 1992, pp. 205-7).
There is strong resistance to allowing the notion of inherent environmental values to infringe on economic goals. Environmental impacts of developments may indeed be “carefully assessed” as claimed in official statements, but this presents a rather misleading picture of the planning process. As noted by a legal scholar, “There is at present no legislation in Singapore making EIAs [Environmental Impact Assessments] compulsory for major developmental projects”. Further, “there have been calls to enact EIA legislation to institutionalize the impact assessment procedure so as not to leave EIA decisions to administrative discretion. It appears that under the current system, EIAs are usually required, if at all, only of industries for pollution control purposes” rather than biodiversity or conservation purposes (Tan 1998, section 5.3). Indeed, as related in another account, Singapore’s main environmental NGO have been frustrated by “the government’s consistent deaf ear to calls for environmental impact assessments of all large-scale developments the institutionalization of which would inconvenience the government in promoting physical development” (Chua 2005, p. 63).