* Low-lying Singapore preparing for rising sea levels
* Takes climate "insurance" by raising height of new land
* Will make tougher CO2 curbs if global climate pact agreed
By David Fogarty
SINGAPORE, Jan 27 A 15-km (10 mile)
stretch of crisp white beach is one of the key battlegrounds in
Singapore's campaign to defend its hard-won territory against
rising sea levels linked to climate change.
Stone breakwaters are being enlarged on the low-lying island
state's man-made east coast and their heights raised. Barges
carrying imported sand top up the beach, which is regularly
breached by high tides.
Singapore, the world's second most densely populated country
after Monaco, covers 715 square km (276 sq miles). It has
already reclaimed large areas to expand its economy and
population -- boosting its land area by more than 20 percent
But the new land is now the frontline in a long-term battle
against the sea.
Every square metre is precious in Singapore.
One of the world's wealthiest nations in per-capita terms,
it is also among the most vulnerable to climate change that is
heating up the planet, changing weather patterns and causing
seas to rise as the oceans warm and glaciers and icecaps melt.
Late last year, the government decided the height of all new
reclamations must be 2.25 metres (7.5 feet) above the highest
recorded tide level -- a rise of a metre over the previous
mandated minimum height.
The additional buffer was costly but necessary, Environment
Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told Reuters in a recent interview.
"You are buying insurance for the future," he said during a
visit to a large flood control barrier that separates the sea
from a reservoir in the central business area.
The decision underscores the government's renowned long-term
planning and the dilemma the country faces in fighting climate
change while still trying to grow. It also highlights the
problem facing other low-lying island states and coastal cities
and the need to prepare.
A major climate change review for the Chinese government
last week said China's efforts to protect vulnerable coastal
areas with embankments were inadequate. It said in the 30 years
up to 2009, the sea level off Shanghai rose 11.5 centimeters
(4.5 inches); in the next 30 years, it will probably rise
another 10 to 15 centimeters.
Since it was created by the British as a trading port in the
early 19th century, Singapore has turned to the sea to expand
and has become one of the world's fastest-growing countries in
terms of new land area. More land is being regularly reclaimed.
In this pocket powerhouse, there is much to protect.
Singapore's recipe for success is to be a city of superlatives
to keep ahead of competitors. It is a major Asian centre for
finance, shipping, trading, manufacturing, even gambling, with
giant casinos as glitzy as those in Las Vegas or Macau.
Much of the city centre is on reclaimed land, including an
expanding financial district, a new terminal for ocean liners
and a $3.2 billion underground expressway, part of which runs
under the sea.
The industrial west has one of Asia's largest petrochemical
complexes, much of it on reclaimed islands.
The wealth generated from these sectors has created a $255
billion economy. Per-capita GDP stands on a par with the United
States at nearly $50,000, though opposition politicians complain
about growing wealth gaps within the island's society.
The U.N. climate panel says sea levels could rise between 18
and 59 centimetres (7 to 24 inches) this century and more if
parts of Antarctica and Greenland melt faster. Some scientists
say the rise is more likely to be in a range of 1 to 2 metres.
Singapore could cope with a rise of 50 cm to 1 m, coastal
scientist Teh Tiong Sa told Reuters during a tour of the East
Coast Park, the city's main recreation area.
"But a rise of two metres would turn Singapore into an
island fortress," said Teh, a retired teacher from Singapore's
National Institute for Education. That would mean constructing
more and higher walls to protect against the sea.
Indeed, between 70 and 80 percent of Singapore already has
some form of coastal protection, the government says.
The dilemma Singapore faces is mirrored by other coastal
cities, such as Mumbai, Hong Kong, Bangkok and New York, though
not all have Singapore's financial muscle.
The threat underscores the limits on Singapore's physical
growth in terms of further reclamation, costs and managing
long-term growth of its population, which has risen from 3
million in 1990 to nearly 5.2 million in 2011.
Topping up reclamation levels "does not fundamentally change
the way we approach reclamation -- while we reclaim to meet our
development needs, we are cognisant that there is a physical
limit to how much more land we can reclaim," a spokesman for the
National Climate Change Secretariat told Reuters.
To make more efficient use of existing land, a government
agency floated the idea this month of building a science city 30
WINDS OF CHANGE
Climate change presents a host of other challenges.
More intense rainfall has caused embarrassing floods in the
premier Orchard Road shopping area.
And the government says average daily temperature in
tropical Singapore could increase by 2.7 to 4.2 degrees Celsius
(4.9 to 7.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from the current average of 26.8
deg C (80.2 F) by 2100, which could raise energy use for
Here lies another dilemma. The country is already one of the
most energy intensive in Asia to power its industries and
fiercely airconditioned malls and glass office towers -- a
paradox in a country at such risk from climate change.
The government has focused on energy efficiency, such as
strict building codes and appliance labelling to curb the growth
of planet-warming carbon emissions and has steadily switched its
power stations to burn gas instead of fuel oil.
It has also invested heavily in slick subway lines and
promoted investment and research in the clean-tech sector.
But electricity demand is still set to grow. Consumption
doubled between 1995 and 2010, government figures show, and
long-term reliance on fossil fuels for energy is unlikely to
change, given limited space for green energy such as solar.
Balakrishnan said the government is keen to do its part in
any global fight against climate change and that pushing for
greater energy efficiency made sense anyway in a country with
virtually no natural resources.
But there was a limit to how fast it would move, opening the
way for criticism from some countries that Singapore was hiding
behind its developing country status under the United Nations,
which obliges it to take only voluntary steps to curb emissions.
"What we want is a level playing field and unilateral moves
are not feasible, not possible, for a small, tiny island state
that actually is not going to make a real difference at a global
level to greenhouse gases," Balakrishnan said.
Singapore's emissions, though, are forecast to keep growing,
having roughly doubled since 1990. The government is looking at
putting a price on carbon emissions and perhaps setting up an
emissions trading market.
"We're already half way there in the sense we are already
pricing everything according to the market," said Tilak Doshi,
head of energy economics at the Energy Studies Institute in
He pointed to Singapore being the world's largest bunkering
"Bunkering is huge in terms of carbon emissions and
Singapore can play a key role in how to handle global shipping
emissions," he said. "How to handle bunker fuels -- do we tax
it, do we cap-and-trade it, do we get bunkering companies to
start trading emissions certificates?"
The government has a number of levers to adjust energy
policies over time. Against rising sea levels, it is a campaign
in progress to tame the tides.
In some cases, it might be better to let the sea reclaim the
land in a managed retreat, said Teh, the coastal scientist.
"It's like robbing Peter to pay Paul. Some areas you keep,
others you let go." For land-limited Singapore, that could prove
a tough decision to make.
(Editing by Ron Popeski and Sanjeev Miglani)