Singapore's 'supertrees' spark green thoughts

Kenneth Er, chief operating officer of Gardens by the Bay and a forest ecologist, explains what the project seeks to achieve

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They look like they belong on another planet with their wiry canopies and greenery where the bark should be, but the man-made "supertrees" that sit against the backdrop of Singapore's central business district mimic the qualities of trees here on earth.

Seven of the 18 structures are fitted with solar panels that convert sunlight into energy.

They are part of an energy-efficient green space called Gardens by the Bay that has cost 1bn Singaporean dollars ($784m; £504m).

"It provides a green lung for the city rather than just having high rises everywhere," says Kenneth Er, chief operating officer on the project and a forest ecologist.

He hopes that people leave the garden with a sense of "how to recreate nature's balance".

Emissions debate

The desire to raise awareness of the environment comes at a time when Singapore's green credentials are very much up for debate.

A 2012 World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) report says Singapore has the biggest per person carbon footprint in the Asia Pacific region.

"If everyone in the world enjoyed the same level of consumption as the average Singaporean, we would need close to 3.5 planets to meet the demands placed on our resources," according to the WWF.

Photovoltaic cells Clean technology is a growing commercial sector for Singapore

It's a view that doesn't sit well with the government because the report attributes emissions to the country where carbon is consumed, instead of where it is produced.

The WWF explains that if a car is made in Japan but exported to Singapore, its carbon emissions are counted under Singapore not Japan.

However, Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan tells the BBC that the measure is unfair because Singapore is a resource-poor nation that must import almost everything the population needs.

"If you look at our utilisation of resources, the way we generate electricity and way we organise our transportation system, we're not perfect yet but we've actually done more than our fair share," he says.

Some 80% of Singapore's power generation comes from natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels, according to the Energy Market Authority.

It says some of its oil refineries and petrochemical companies, which account for 50% of all carbon emissions and are a major industry driving the economy, have also made the switch to natural gas.

"Singapore's total emissions at a global level only accounts for 0.2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, a very small almost insignificant number," Mr Balakrishnan says.

The International Energy Association's latest publication, which also measures by production, puts Singapore behind countries such as Brunei, Korea and Taiwan in terms of per person emissions.

'Disadvantaged'
Royal Dutch Shell refinery in Singapore Oil refineries are a major industry in Singapore, but contribute the most to carbon emissions

Nonetheless, Singapore is committed to reducing its carbon emissions. Authorities are promising a 7-11% cut by 2020.

The goals seem particularly ambitious given that Singapore says a total abandonment of fossil fuels is very difficult for the country because it is "alternative energy disadvantaged".

Hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, tidal and even solar are not viable renewable energy sources for Singapore, according to Melissa Low from the Energy Studies Institute, a government-linked think tank.

"Because of our geographical region and size, we are unable to adopt these types of renewables on a large scale," she says.

Ironically, Singapore's government has helped develop a burgeoning clean technology sector, but given that many of these innovations cannot be used within the country, it is rendered an almost purely commercial venture.

"Singapore is a test bed and the companies use their performance in Singapore as their calling card overseas," says Mr Balakrishnan.

"It is desirable for companies to look at sustainable development and the green economy as a business opportunity."

'Extremely vulnerable'

But the famously forward-planning country knows that it must safeguard itself against the possible effects of climate change.

Being a hot, densely populated, low-lying island state, it is "extremely vulnerable" to sea level rise, coastal erosion and a warming climate.

"When we talk about climate change in the case of Singapore, this is not just a negotiating or debating point," says Mr Balakrishnan.

Gardens by the Bay The Gardens by the Bay project aims to get Singaporeans thinking about cycles in nature

"This is a reality."

He says the government is taking steps to mitigate risks, mandating that all reclaimed land, which much of the central business district is built on, must be 2.25m above the highest recorded tide level.

Drainage systems are also being reviewed to deal with changing weather patterns that could cause flooding.

Alongside those measures is the government's recent initiative to get Singaporeans to change habits and cut consumption.

Last week, the National Climate Change Secretariat released a national climate change action plan that stresses that individuals need to do their part through lifestyle changes such as using fans instead of air conditioners.

That, though, has been met with some cynicism, with one micro blogger, Johnny Wong, commenting on Twitter: "Yeah switch off aircon in parliament."

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