The Global Climate Crisis: Harnessing Ambition and Commitment towards a Sustainable Future for Singapore

Year: 2021


The global climate emergency represents one of the most pressing challenges facing the world today. Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to adverse climate effects for a more liveable future demand critical action at all organisational and political levels – international, regional, national, local, public and private.

Singapore has charted strategies on sustainable development at the national level and has contributed to the global climate effort through active involvement in international climate change negotiations, yet the question remains if this is enough. This article offers a brief assessment of Singapore’s climate change readiness and proposes four key considerations to help Singapore harness ambition and commitment to realise meaningful results towards a sustainable future.

An Underwhelming Climate Scorecard

Our recently-published FMG Future Governance Index is instructive in facilitating a closer look at both Singapore’s past governance performance and future governance readiness with regard to climate change. Developed using a comprehensive and original methodology, the index assesses governance readiness of countries in the face of five complex global and structural shifts – what we call “megatrends”. Climate Change and Resource Scarcity constitutes one of these five megatrends.

The findings of our index demonstrated that Singapore possesses high governance readiness across all five megatrends, bolstered by robust social capital and economic prowess. However, relative to the city-state’s overall Future Governance ranking of 6th, which was driven by being able to prepare and cope well with tech advancement, demographic change, shocks and crises, and patterns of slowing globalisation, Singapore did not fare as well in the Climate Change megatrend, where it ranked 15th.

When we dig into the data used to inform the Climate Change megatrend rankings, we see that Singapore’s comparatively underwhelming performance was pulled down by several key sustainability dimensions, including energy and water security, air pollution, ecosystem conservation, and commitment to climate change mitigation.

Of course, any assessment of Singapore’s climate effort and commitment must be made with an acute understanding of the nation’s natural resource constraints, which saliently render climate action more difficult. With a low-lying geography, land scarcity, a dense urban landscape, high population density and lack of natural resources, there are unique challenges associated with pursuing climate mitigation, adaptation and sustainable development.

Yet, despite its national circumstances, Singapore has equipped itself with strategies such as the Singapore Green Plan 2030 to better forge ahead on climate action.

Nonetheless, as the world has urgently been reminded of recently by COP26, the rapidly escalating global climate crisis calls for bolder and more effective implementation of net-zero pledges and sustainability choices. As a city endowed with the governance capital, advanced infrastructure and innovative mindset to take on wicked challenges, Singapore is poised to accelerate its climate commitment and push for a climate-conscious society (read COP26 key takeaways for Singapore).

We define four key steps to do so – the EPES model – involving:

Four Key Components for a Sustainable Future (Source: FMG)

Envisioning Transformative Climate Goals

The climate challenge is a grand one, an issue where social, ecological and economic complexities are interlinked across various spatial, governance and temporal scales. At the core of it, climate risks need to be conceptualised and understood for what they are – urgent and complex – and thus placed high on the national agenda.

The urgency for climate action is undisputed, unless immediate transformative change involving rapid and large-scale decarbonisation and adaption efforts can be made globally. Furthermore, the complexity of the climate challenge entails unprecedented uncertainty and non-linearity, where adapting to a changing climate will require responding to shifting goalposts and circumstances.

In order to pursue an impactful sustainability transition and create firm commitment to altering the business-as-usual ways people live, work and play, we must first-and-foremost become more effective at communicating the severity of the issue. For Singapore, this means driving recognition of the importance of the climate change endeavour to help engender whole-of-nation support towards the transformation toward structures, practices and cultures.

Partnering Influential Changemakers

While the government is ultimately at the helm of national climate action plans, a broader co-creation and partnership ecosystem should nonetheless be sustained for various actors across society to collaborate and lead climate solutions.

Borrowing from the concept of urban climate governance, public, private and civil society actors should have a stake in articulating climate goals, exercising relevant influence and implementing solutions to address climate action issues. This idea further reflects the broader trend towards governance as a collective action involving multitude of actors in decision-making and execution.

However, in the context of climate governance, public-private cooperation is commonly highlighted, less so the idea of contributions by the scientific community and citizens themselves. Facilitating partnership with these groups is highly valuable as well, for several reasons as follows.

Owing to the complexity inherent in tackling the climate challenge (e.g. data inaccessibility or shortage), relevant knowledge and resources need to be leveraged upon and applied as best as possible. In particular, researchers, scientists, practitioners and technical experts should be accorded an enhanced role in the policy making and planning process.

Taking urban policy development as an example, researchers and experts in urban science can contribute valuably to the collaborative knowledge development process with urban stakeholders – they capture and translate learning for decision makers in a more systematic way, and can thus facilitate evolutionary co-design and adaptive urban management of a given locality or area.

Thus, to strengthen climate policy development processes, contributions from various disciplines, frameworks, methodologies, and data should be actively sought, with harmonisation of insights from naturally integrating fields (e.g., urban ecology and complex urban systems studies).

To enable more inclusive progression on climate goals, citizen engagement can play a key role in driving policy change and influencing societal behaviour. Literature in this area rightly characterises the conventional climate policy-making process, where top-down policy decisions involving little input from citizens face eventual lack of uptake or resistance at the implementation stage.

Combating this will require more transparent and public-engaged climate politics – for citizens to better understand the science-policy process and participate in issues to articulate their values and concerns. In doing so, the climate problem can be framed as one where citizens are empowered as transformative agents of policy and social change.

With Singapore’s concentrated urban population, opportunity is abundant for multi-stakeholder networks across government, industry, the scientific community and the citizenry to be formed, where knowledge-sharing and co-delivery of plans can be carried out.

Such an environment will also be most conducive for experimentation and innovation on climate strategy and solutions.

Experimenting and Test-bedding Diverse Sustainability Solutions

Distinguished from climate policy or urban planning at the strategic level, climate change experiments are purposive interventions that involve testing new innovative ideas and explicitly seek to accrue new forms of learning.

Notably, such experiments should be affected at two interlinking levels:

  • Where change is made to approaches and processes that govern climate change (e.g., an institutional change allocating greater decision-making authority on sustainable energy transition to the environmental ministry); or
  • Where experimental change occurs in the actual systems and programmes that enable sustainable ways of life (e.g., energy infrastructure).

Regarding the former approach, experimentation and learning processes are catalysts for actors in the climate action ecosystem to devise and adopt new forms of interaction, decision-making practices and policy instruments to govern climate change in novel ways.

This concept of learning should thus defy a focus on the government as the single or most important learning subject. Rather, a social learning process should be pursued, where all vested actors participate in inter-relational learning, idea sharing and knowledge integration – thereby modifying policymaking approaches to better respond to climate risks.

Pertaining to the latter approach, facilitation of pilot projects and test-bedding of novel ideas for climate solutions (e.g., deep tech or artificial intelligence solutions) are vital to determining those that work best. An innovative and experimental approach provides for a relatively low-stakes context for testing and assessing the feasibility of new approaches, before these can be scaled up and out to generate tangible results.

Allowing room for pilot tests to try and fail at a smaller scale and thus refine solutions for broader implementation, reduces uncertainties about eventual performance and avoids the unwanted situation where significant upfront costs are wasted in the event of rushed wide-scale application of a given solution.

As one of the most innovative cities in the world – indeed, Singapore ranked 1st on the Technological Advancement megatrend in the Future Governance Index – Singapore is well-equipped to channel its strengths to the wicked climate challenge. To do so will require an acceleration to develop ever more novel and feasible solutions.

Structuring an enabling environment for sustainability

To sustain long-term and virtuous processes of climate experimentation, network formation and climate adaptation, a resilient and flexible support environment needs to be in place – including conducive institutional and legal structures, policy frameworks and business models.

The concept of lock-in and path dependencies is applicable here. Climate measures are especially vulnerable to inertia built into established institutions, infrastructures, technologies and operational norms. In the face of this challenge, social, political, financial and institutional structures need to be developed which not only address climate risks, but which are also harmonised with other vital national and strategic goals.

Taking development of green building standards as an example, holistic policy choices need to go above the central aim of greening the built environment, and span building and infrastructure standards, controls on risk-reducing land use planning, standards for working conditions, and provision for consumer protection. An example in this respect is the approach taken by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority, alongside other stakeholders in government, private sector and academia, to build greener infrastructure. With this aim, initiatives to improve energy efficiency certification and ratings, control architects’ design standards, and lower barriers for industry manufacturers to access sustainable financing, are demonstrably comprehensive and impactful in cross-cutting aspects.

The environment and intrinsically linked social, economic, cultural and political systems (among others) form sources of various additional ambiguities that affect climate mitigation and adaptation decisions. Hence, the climate issue should not be considered in isolation from broader governance considerations – strategy, capacity-building and policy development across different domains have to coalesce to enable sustainable and resilient environmental choices to be made.

Looking Ahead

Despite Singapore’s small size and resource limitations, potential and opportunity are abundant for the city-state to gear up on its climate action. Among the whole gamut of net-zero and sustainability plans, various key goals should endure:

  • Setting transformative climate ambitions
  • Maintaining a self-sustaining co-creation ecosystem
  • Investing in experimental solution development; and
  • Structuring environmentally conscious processes and frameworks.

Sticking to these key principal actions will help Singapore stay the course on its long-term emissions reduction and sustainability strategy, and allow it to contribute viably to the global climate agenda.

Rachel Phang is an Associate Consultant at Future-Moves Group. A graduate of the National University of Singapore with a degree in Political Science, Rachel contributes towards FMG’s thought leadership content on current and public affairs, as well as environmental and socio-political issues.

Headquartered in Singapore, Future-Moves Group is a premier strategy and management consulting firm, with a focus in public policy. Please contact us to find out how we can help you or your organisation with our suite of consulting, advisory and training services.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of Future-Moves Group.