Engineering Carbon Neutral Singapore

An article on the occasion of Charles Rudd Distinguished Public Lectures by the Institution of Engineers Singapore, IES (http://worldengineeringday.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/IES_CRL_e-brochure_2021.pdf)

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Despite not endowed with natural resources, and faced with uncertain future at birth as a nation in 1965, Singapore has been transformed from a low-income country to a high-income country.  Singapore is a role model for several nations for successfully implementing seventeen United Nations, UN Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs. The 17 SDGs are a set of goals for development with 169 targets and 247 indicators. Singapore made significant strides in water and sanitation (SDG6), healthcare (SDG3), education(SDG4), family income  (SGD1), gender equality (SDG5), social mobility (SDG10), and sustainable urbanization (SDG11) with nearly 50% green cover.

Yet, Singapore recognizes its vulnerability to extreme weathers and rising sea levels caused by climate change.  Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong attended the Earth Day climate summit hosted by the US President Joe Biden. The summit acknowledged that no country can tackle the climate change alone. They emphasized the critical role of technological innovations and public as well as private finances in realizing carbon neutral and climate-resilient economies.  PM Lee said Singapore is turning to technology to reduce its emissions and mitigate climate change effects.  SG Green Plan 2030 is a whole-of-nation effort for climate action, sustainable development, and decarbonisation of economy. The Institution of Engineers Singapore, IES flagship event Charles Rudd Distinguished Public Lectures is scheduled on May 14 with Sustainability- Impact on Our Future Lives as the theme, and Minister Grace Fu as the Guest of Honor.  More than ten outstanding speakers and panelists will envision engineering solutions and systems approach to transform Singapore into a shining city of sustainability.  

Herein, the role of engineering in realising 17 SDGs are elaborated. SDGs 1, 5 and 10 not directly related to the engineering, while Singapore made notable progress over the past five decades.

Food (SGD2)

Only one percent of Singapore’s 720 square kilometres land is used for agriculture and hence most of its food is imported.  COVID19 disruptions to supply chains underscored the food security.  Singapore embarked on urban farming to meet its 30 percent of nutrition needs by 2030. Technological innovations are essential for sustainable urban farming.  For example, indoor multi-tier farming automation and precision agriculture via sensors and Internet of Things (IOT); hydraulic engineering and 24/7 monitoring for quality, preventive  and on demand maintenance; drone, nanotechnology and AI enabled micronutrients delivery; energy efficiency by implementing green energy conversion and storage technology and infrastructure; water efficiency; nanotechnology advances enabled durable food packaging; recycling of resources; web based apps matching the demand and supply and avoid wastage.  In addition, science-led feed and nutrients customization for higher yields.  Singapore is also facilitating lab grown, plant based meat alternatives or synthetic meat industry.  Such novel food production requires unique science and technology knowledge in cell culturing, culture medium, and colouring, texture, structure and scaled up manufacturing, and safety evaluation.  Sustainable novel foods facilitated by the technological innovations are associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions and agriculture land needs, while improving resources efficiency, antibiotic resistance and mitigating zoonotic diseases.

Health (SDG3)

Singapore life expectancy is among the highest in the world, and high quality healthcare is affordable to all.  Due to aging demographics, going forward, Singapore needs to provide expanded eldercare services.  Cutting edge technologies including robotics, artificial intelligence, IoT, telemedicine, personalized medicine, minimally invasive surgeries, stem cells, regenerative medicine, synthetic biology, nanomedicine, neural interfaces, electro-ceuticals and mind-inspired technologies will need to further developed with Singapore population mix in mind.  More science advances and bioengineering and biomedical technology innovations will prepare Singapore for future epidemics, low fertility rates, mental health issues, life style diseases and other healthcare burdens.

Education (SDG4)

COVID19 has accelerated digitalization of education at all levels.  Going forward, blended learning comprising on-line learning as well as in-person learning will be a mainstream approach.  Rapidly changing employment market as well as lifelong learning attitudes place emphasis on reskilling and acquiring updated knowledge. Further technological innovations are necessary to improve interactions between the lecturers and students, and among the students taking full advantage of intellectual university community experience, capstone projects involving students from different time zones and industry partners, assessment tools and methods, and conducting laboratory based subjects too.  Moreover, sustainability thinking to be infused into the learning of children, adults, business leaders, and policy makers.

Water and Sanitation (SDG6)

Higher energy efficient and cost-effective cutting edge technologies are needed to maximize the yield on every drop of rain that falls on Singapore, desalination of sea water, and circular water or zero wastage of water.  Sanitation is further enhanced via deep tunnel sewerage system, DTSS so as to meet the future demands of wastewater collection, treatment, reclamation and disposal. A network of wireless sensors or smart water grid will function as a real-time platform to monitor water flows and minimize water leaks.  Improved engineering solutions in terms of drainage systems, pumps, and barrages are necessary for managing heavy rain events, storm water floods, and rising sea levels.

Energy (SDG7)

The World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks Singapore 21st globally in its Energy Transition Index (ETI) 2021.  This reflects Singapore progress towards a more inclusive, sustainable, and affordable and secured energy system. Singapore relies heavily on pollutive natural gas to meet its electricity and energy needs. To shift towards greener sources, Singapore is ramping up solar power capacity from 260 MW to 2 GW between now and 2030, amounting to an increase from less than 1% to 4% of electricity demand.  Floating solar PV farms and roof top solar farms are creative solutions but need further engineering innovations to mitigate associated heat island effects and potential leachates. Further engineering advances are needed to cut the price of solar energy in half by 2030. In parallel, Singapore may capture carbon emissions from power plants and industries and store it permanently in subterranean reservoirs such as saline aquifers, depleted oil and gas reservoirs or depleted coal seams.  Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS solutions require engineering innovations in terms of cost efficient capture technologies, transportation and pumping into the reservoirs with long term safety and environmentally robust ways.  

Hydrogen is perceived to be a clean fuel and energy source of the future. ‘Green hydrogen’ is manufactured by using renewable electricity for the electrolysis of water.  Whereas the ‘blue hydrogen’ or industrial hydrogen is produced from either natural gas via methane steam reforming or from coal via coal gasification.  Both processes produce CO2 emissions and aforementioned CCS technology can be used to capture emissions.  The blue hydrogen is fifty percent cheaper than the green hydrogen. Hydrogen economy requires infrastructure and engineering solutions in terms of cost effective production, safe storage, and fuel cells technology. Innovations are needed to lower the cost of clean hydrogen by 80 percent by 2030, so as to be competitive with natural gas.

Economic Growth (SDG 8)

Sustainable tourism is beneficial to economic growth as well as earth friendly progress of Singapore. Recreation and leisure activities can be reimagined with the aid of engineering and design innovations. A sustainable tourism industry involves integration of sustainable hotels with green transportation and waste management in local circular economy. Monitory Authority of Singapore has set up a two billion US dollar green fund to promote environmentally sustainable projects in Singapore and overseas. It will support the development of carbon trading and services, sustainability consultancies and environmental risk management. Self-reporting on Environmental, Social and Governance, ESG is encouraged by the international investors. This means, Environmental - effects of company’s operations on environment such as greenhouse gas emissions, waste and pollution and resource depletion; Social- company’s ability to deal with workforce and society such as working conditions, employee relations and diversity, and ties with local communities; and Governance- corporate governance of a company which includes considerations such as broad diversity and transparency.  ESG sceptics point out issues such as a) lack of common methodology, b) varying metrics, c) data gaps, and d) transparency of information and processes.  There is an opportunity to increase investors as well as public confidence in ESG declarations by the companies and green-themed funds.  Emerging Industry 4.0 technologies and digitalization will make the ESG ratings processes more robust, dynamic and precise. 

Infrastructure (SDG 9)

Over the past five decades, Singapore built world-class airport, marine shipping port, and land transportation systems. Airline industry is poised to transform with advances in industry 4.0 technologies, alternative fuels, additive manufacturing, lightweight materials, smart materials, electrical power, and battery and fuel cell technologies.  Prices of these technologies to half again while reducing the reliance on critical materials. Digitalization of trade and block chaining of documentation are aimed at speeding up the marine commerce. COVID19 pandemic adaptation worldwide accelerated digital transformation facilitated by big data, AI and5G, and created a strong demand for hyperscale data centres.  Green data centres can be envisioned with higher energy efficiency or lower power usage effectiveness (PUE) by leveraging engineering innovations in cooling systems, configurations, and materials substitution suitable for tropics.

Urbanization (SDG11)

Land Transport Authority, LTA is considering integrated infrastructure to be built to allow people to commute across Singapore without the need to use roads.  This includes a mix of 1300km paths conducive for cycling and walking, 500km park connectors, and elevated skyparks for pedestrians by 2030.  Further promoting and incentivizing greener modes of transportation.

Built environment sector has always been leveraging innovative engineering solutions to build residential homes and commercial buildings, and deep tunnel sewerage systems and transport infrastructure.  Singapore is acknowledged for pre-fabrication of building components off-site in a factory environment with best industry standards and transport them to site for final assembly. Concrete and glass are commonly used building materials.  Recently, timber is considered in the construction of buildings.  Mass-engineered timber is a sustainable material or low-carbon material and provides a sense of well-being and warm comfort to the inhabitants.  Moving forward, sustainability thinking and solutions to be incorporated from the project conceptualization and design, through construction, operational maintenance and end-of-life management.  Materials selection needs to be based on low-carbon materials and longer life with durability.  Upcycling of post incineration waste, conversion of captured carbon emissions into concrete, additive manufacturing of building components, and digital technologies for tracking, tracing and monitoring to ensure higher circularity of building materials.  Building information modelling and digital twins enable data-led engineering and sustainability optimized buildings and infrastructure.   Enhanced design and technologies will enable buildings to have net positive impact by operating efficiently, cleanly and friendly to the environment.  Interior designers are using mainly recycled and recyclable materials to lower the embedded carbon footprint of buildings and living spaces.  These are in addition to water conservation and energy efficient appliances for lighting, air-conditioning and refrigeration supported by IoT sensors and data analytics. Further, Singapore aims to moderate its rising urban temperature via potential solutions such as planting million more trees and cool painting on buildings.  

Consumption and Production (SDG 12)

Singapore’s approach to sustainable consumption and production is to become a Zero Waste Nation. 3Rs: Reducing, Reusing and Recycling thinking and cultural change is promoted via policy measures such as extended producer responsibility and state of the art end-of-life management of major waste streams namely e-waste, plastic and packaging waste, and food waste.  Engineering innovations are needed in several areas for example, low carbon processes and materials, automatic labelling, identification using block chain and AI technology, sorting and processing of wastes; and increasing product life and repairability via better designs.

Combating Climate Change and its Impacts (SDG13)

Singapore is the first country in Southeast Asia to introduce carbon tax.  It is also test bedding electric cars, green buildings, sea barrages and decks, carbon tax, carbon credits, carbon offsets, and carbon trading.  

Conserve and Sustainably Use the Oceans, Seas and Marine Resources (SDG 14)

Singapore is cooperating with the International Maritime Organization, IMO which is actively pushing for digitalization and decarbonization, and thus signaling transition from the conventional marine fuels to zero-carbon types such as hydrogen, ammonia and methanol so as to cut the marine transportation industry’s greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2050 and net-zero emissions by 2100.

Terrestrial Ecosystems (SDG 15)

Singapore aims to have 400 kilometers of park connectors, 180 kilometers of Nature Ways and 200 hectares of skyrise greenery by 2030. Reforestation and conservation of natural carbon sinks such as rain forests are popular among the business leaders and public. About 9,165ha of land or 12.6 percent of Singapore’s total land area may be suitable for urban reforestation, which can capture about 0.31 percent of Singapore’s total emissions.  Singapore aims to be a City in a Garden.  As of 2017, there were 100 hectares of skyrise greenery in Singapore, and plans are underway to double it by 2030.

Peace and Security (SDG 16)

Singapore’s law enforcement agencies have been adopting new technologies to further integrate operations and strengthen community partnerships. One example is the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to provide a bird’s-eye view of the ground situation and allow officers to make better informed decisions. Another example is the introduction of automated self-clearance lanes for motorbikes at land borders. Further infusion of technology solutions will enable better management of crisis events and unforeseen incidents.

Partnerships (SDG17)

Singapore is championing ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN). It is a collaborative platform to facilitate cooperation on smart cities development, catalyze bankable projects within the private sector, and secure funding and support from external partners. Singapore has partnered UN-Habitat on a capacity building program in support of the UN’s New Urban Agenda. The emphasis of this program is to demonstrate how local challenges can be overcome through applying sustainable urban system principles and long-term integrated master planning and development.

In summary, the task of decarbonisation and mitigating climate change is the next biggest engineering challenge, in magnitude and urgency. Today’s technologies fall short in enabling Singapore’s transition to carbon neutrality, and further technological innovations, which are just as affordable, are needed.  Moreover, in future there will be need for further engineering innovation in the area of carbon negative technology.  This transformation is both a good reason and opportunity for Singapore to reinvent itself and continue to progress as a resilient economy and society towards the end of this century.

Seeram Ramakrishna, FREng, Everest Chair

Professor & Chair of Circular Economy Taskforce, National University of Singapore

UNESCO Global Expert Group member on the Universities & the 2030 Agenda (https://www.uib.no/en/sdgbergen/141236/members-unesco-expert-group).